MathBench > Environmental Science

Tragedy of the Commons

Climate and Commons

I said earlier that most, if not quite all, environmental problems can be seen as commons problems. That’s because the environment provides us with services (“ecosystem services”) such as water purification, nutrient provision, energy, pollination, building materials, etc etc, which historically at least have been viewed as commons. Think about it: when you breathe clean air, you don’t think about the “cost” to the environment of purifying that air for you, and when a company belches toxins into the air, it doesn’t pay to clean up either.

What about greenhouse gases? These gases, as you may know, exist naturally in the environment and in fact provide an ecosystem service by keeping the planet at the right temperature for humans and the rest of the ecosystem. This makes sense, as we’ve all evolved in temperatures determined by the historic levels of greenhouse gases.

However, if the level of greenhouse gases goes above its historical level, then the planet heats up beyond its normal temperature regime. It's like adding more blankets to a bed at night – a few blankets make life comfortable, more blankets make it unbearable.

coal burning plantWhere do these extra greenhouse gases come from? Primarily they come from organic material that was buried a long time ago (like in the age of the dinosaurs) and is only now being unearthed and put back in the atmosphere. That’s great news if you’re a dinosaur, but not so good if you evolved after dinosaurs went extinct.

Greenhouse gases get into the atmosphere when buried (“fossil”) fuels are burned, including coal, oil, and natural gas. The fuels themselves are not free – we pay Exxon, or Iran, or the Texas oilmen, to get them to us. What is free is the disposal of their waste-product, carbon dioxide. So, like in the commercial…


  • Gallon of gas … $2.29
  • Winter’s heating oil for a family of four … $1800
  • Coal to burn in one power plant in one day … $700,000
  • Being able to get rid of all that carbon dioxide … priceless