Climate Change & Our Common Resources
Climate change is a reality for everyone around the world, from the disappearing Maldives (a result of rising seas in the South Pacific) to Greenland’s Southern Coast (where, for the first time, it is warm enough to grow vegetables), to Lancaster, Texas, where the increasingly early tornado season has wreaked serious damage. Climate change is having a profound impact on the availability of the natural resources from which all human beings benefit.
Extreme weather systems, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, land desertification and ocean acidification are all part of a rapidly changing climate impacting communities and ecosystems around the world. Coupled with a global economic crisis, the challenges of climate change are making it harder for communities to adapt and thrive.
Preventing the Commodification of Our Common Resources
As natural resources become scarcer, the corporate sector, multinational institutions, industry-funded non-profits, and policymakers have advanced market-based solutions for climate change. This positions the private sector to profit from the increased need for shared natural resources. Such solutions have been advanced in UN circles under a banner of the so-called “Green Economy.” While this term sounds innocuous, it has come to represent the commodification and financialization of natural resources—when private interests put a price on those resources.
Through financialization, corporate interests seek to use derivative-based financial instruments to speculate on shared resources, create futures markets, and eventually profit from their control. Examples of this commodification include cap- and-trade schemes, payment for environmental services, Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), and the creation of water markets and banks.
It’s clear that these interests are not promoting a truly green economy, as much as they are promoting a greenwashed economy, which will do nothing to help mitigate climate change, water shortages or other pending environmental disasters.
The following issues are critical for policymakers to address in the context of climate:
“I expect to see a globally integrated market for fresh water within 25 to 30 years. Once the spot markets for water are integrated, futures markets and other derivative water-based financial instruments — puts, calls, swaps — both exchange-traded and OTC will follow. There will be different grades and types of fresh water, just the way we have light sweet and heavy sour crude oil today. Water as an asset class will, in my view, become eventually the single most important physical-commodity based asset class, dwarfing oil, copper, agricultural commodities and precious metals.”
-William Buiter, Citi chief economist
There are two basic viewpoints about water in this context. There are those who believe that water is a human right—a natural resource that sustains life and should be controlled, managed and distributed as part of the Global Commons by the people, for the people. Then, there are multinational corporations, financial institutions and national leaders who treat water as an open market commodity through which they can profit. It is through this intense debate that we will determine how our most precious natural resource is protected, managed and shared throughout the world—whether it is privatized for financial benefit of the few or preserved in the public trust for all. We are currently witnessing this debate in many forms, whether it’s grassroots efforts to stop Nestlé from taking over local water sources or communities working with their local municipality to take a stand against privatizing their water utility during a budget crisis. Water conservation and preservation is everyone’s issue.
Our industrial model of food production takes its toll on the environment as well. Our food system requires tremendous amounts of energy for processing and transport. Globally, the food & drink sector use about 23 percent of energy resources. This energy can be saved if local, sustainable food solutions based on family farms are promoted. Large-scale animal operations or factory farms release vast amounts of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases, and studies estimate that feedlot cattle require twice as much fossil fuel energy to raise as grass-fed cows. Producing one pound of beef in a factory farm results in eight pounds of carbon dioxide in addition to other greenhouse gases. But, one of our food system’s biggest downfalls is that it uses a tremendous amount of water. Locally rooted food production, respectful of biodiversity, animal welfare and fair income for farmers can cool down the earth and use less water.
The United States uses more energy than any other nation on earth, especially when it comes to the fossil fuels we use to drive our cars and control the temperature in our homes. In recent years, our energy debate has focused on a new type of energy extraction called hydraulic fracturing or fracking, which industry promises will deliver new jobs and cheaper domestic fuel. Unfortunately, their messaging is one big greenwashing effort. Fracking is a dangerous process that potentially contaminates drinking water and endangers public health. The oil and gas industry has been aggressive in their expansion of shale gas drilling, as well as in their public relations campaign. They’ve promised jobs and energy independence to many communities, but they’ve exaggerated the number of jobs shale gas drilling creates and they plan to export most of it as liquid natural gas (LNG) to other nations. But, the energy story that is most overlooked—even when it’s blatantly polarizing—is that big companies are profiting while the health and wellbeing of rural and oftentimes lower-income communities are being marginalized. Fracking poses too great a risk to the world’s water supplies, and should be banned.
Just as we have an industrial model of food production on land, so do we at sea. Along with the challenge of providing enough food for the world, we simultaneously face the challenge of doing so sustainably and responsibly in a world already facing food security threats and ocean acidification from climate change. While our nation’s fisheries have been providing us protein from the sea for generations, they are currently facing misguided regulation from federal agencies that seek to privatize the ocean’s supply of fish by establishing an unfair system of allotment that benefits larger corporations while threatening the livelihoods of smaller, local fishermen and the fishing communities they support. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the agency that regulates fishing, has promoted catch shares or quotas as a way to refresh fish stocks and promote equal opportunity to all fisheries. But, the reality is that catch shares have not been proven helpful in rejuvenating fish stocks and they are putting our fishermen out of business by favoring larger companies that overfish.
Our oceans also face a new kind of pollution, one that comes from aquaculture or factory fish farms. Several multinational corporations are attempting to acquire permits to raise fish by the thousands in open ocean cages. This type of fish production promotes disease, which spreads to wild species of fish nearby. It also requires more food to feed the factory-farmed fish. Recently, the aquaculture industry has switched from using smaller species of fish to soy. But fish don’t naturally eat soy and the process of producing and transporting soy for fish feed is energy intensive. Our oceans are part of the Global Commons, so it’s critical that we approach the idea of feeding the world through sustainable stewardship of this shared resource.