1.4 Elinor Ostrom’s perspective

Elinor Ostrom’s ideas on polycentricity in climate change governance has inspired the textbook on polycentric climate governance that forms the core of this course. First, you will watch an interview with Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012) to see how she perceived polycentric climate governance. Secondly, you reflect on your own position towards climate change as tragedy of the commons.

Instruction (30 minutes time indication)

Step 1: Watch the video of Elinor Ostrom
Watch the interview with Elinor Ostrom. Use the following questions to guide you: Which idea does Elinor Ostrom criticize? How does she explain polycentricity? What is her expectation of local actors?

Here you can find a transcript of the interview.


In this interview Elinor Ostrom criticizes the theory of the Tragedy of the Commons, which implies that a shared resource is overexploited because the short term interest of individual users to maximize their use of the common resource is not controlled. Two standard reactions to overcome this tragedy are to either privatize the resource so it is in the best interest of the owner to take account of long-term effects, or to have top-down government rules that limit resource use. In contrast, Elinor Ostrom makes the point that local communities themselves can agree on rules to prevent the tragedy of the commons occurring.


Step 2: Reflect on the tragedy of the commons
Based on your own insights and the video of Elinor Ostrom, now reflect on the following statement: “Climate Change is not a tragedy of the commons problem”.
Do you agree or disagree with Elinor Ostrom that Climate Change is not a tragedy of the commons problem?
To further develop your thoughts on this topic, think of arguments that would support or critique the position to perceive climate change as a tragedy of the commons problem. Click on the question to see suggestions for arguments.

  • Which arguments support the position climate change is a tragedy of the commons problem?
    Feedback: There are several arguments that you can give to support the statement that “Climate Change is a tragedy of the commons problem”. For example, as the atmosphere is shared by the world population, you can see the atmosphere as a commons that we share and is currently overused by the emissions of greenhouse gases. Furthermore you can use the tragedy of the commons approach as argument for market based instruments to put a price on greenhouse gases in order to govern climate change.
  • Which arguments support the position that climate change is not a tragedy of the commons problem?
    Feedback: There are several arguments that you can give to support the statement that “Climate Change is not a tragedy of the commons problem”. For example, you can give examples of local and regional actions that are reactions on the climate change challenge, indicating it is not a tragedy that can only be solved by making the atmosphere a private good (as is indicating as appropriate solution to deal with a tragedy of the commons problem and that is critiqued by Elinor Ostrom). Furthermore, you can provide arguments indicating that climate change is much more complex and includes self-governing mechanisms by the people that use the atmosphere that can be perceived as common good.

 

Additional information:
If you want to know more about Elinor Ostrom’s perspective, here are some more suggestions.
(This material is outside of the study load of this course)

  • Ostrom, E. (2009). A Polycentric Approach for Coping with Climate Change. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper Series, 5095. (open access).
  • Ostrom, E. (2010a). Polycentric systems for coping with collective action and global environmental change. Global Environmental Change, 20(4), 550–557. (not open access, but available through most university libraries)
  • Video of Elinor Ostrom – her Nobel Prize in Economics Lecture:

 

 

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