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Climate thoughts from a Nobel Laureate

by Rebecca Nesbit 

Last night I went to a thought-provoking lecture by Nobel Laureate Professor Elinor Ostrom. She described climate change as a ‘global bad’ and expressed concerns about the chances of reaching a global solution in time. The solutions, she suggested, have to operate on lots of different scales, and she was persuasive in her arguments. In her discussions of how we can encourage people to alter their behaviour to tackle climate change she drew on examples ranging from Police services to fishermen.

The EU fisheries are in a pretty poor state, with widespread fish declines, and trying to make the same rules for the Mediterranean and the Baltic may not by possible. In Maine, however, management by the fishing community in each separate cove has been very successful. The government is supportive of this small-scale management as well as having its own rules.

The large scale is still important; there’s no point in tough regulations in one area if all that happens is that fishermen move elsewhere. It’s not just regulation that we’re talking about: large-scale organisations can share knowledge and resources, for example to help address climate change.

Something else she touched on is finding ways to regulate each other, so that people are deterred from acting selfishly not just by risk of punishment by the authorities but by shaming each other. My last blog post discussed American forests, and Professor Ostrom explained there’s no evidence that large government-protected forests are in better condition. Forests where users monitor each other, however, are doing very well.

She gave an example again from the fishermen in Maine. When they catch a pregnant lobster they throw it back (delicately so the eggs don’t fall off). But first they cut a notch off her tail. Anyone landing a lobster with a notch in their tail can be easily identified as having broken the rules where others have upheld them. This matches the results from social experiments she had performed in the lab: in cooperative games people were much more likely to act for the public good if they could communicate with each other.

She also shared a great tip: when you have a shower you turn the cold tap on because the hot water is too hot. So turn down the water temperature! Having no idea about anything domestic or practical I haven’t a clue how easy this is, but it sounds logical…

The lecture was organised by AAAS, publishers of Science, and took place in the Royal Society which has regular interesting events. Let me know if you fancy going to any and maybe we can catch up.

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