Our commons and Greta’s call to action

A girl looks on as people take part in a "youth strike for climate change" demonstration in London, Britain February 15, 2019. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

We still have time to change our approach towards shared commons and address the looming crisis of climate change

Our common reckoning

Fifteen-year-old Greta Thunberg declared at last December’s U.N. climate meeting in Poland: “You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake.” Carbon-based energy systems, unsustainable exploitation of non-renewable natural resources, and poor governance have brought us to a precipice. 

We hold our atmosphere, oceans and fresh water and a habitable earth, in common, not owned privately. Those global commons have gained heightened importance in our rapidly transforming world.

The disappearance of coral reefs, tropical forests, wildlife and even insects points towards an ecological catastrophe ahead. The scientific studies keep shortening the time frame towards devastating, irreversible climate change impacts - the latest estimate down to just 12 years.

We still have time and several promising developments at our disposal to address the looming crisis.

These include improving information availability and technologies along with impressive gains in solar energy and wind power. Renewed attention on strengthening property rights and managing the world’s commons presents another compelling avenue to pursue that can improve governance and help ameliorate the adverse impacts of climate change.

Our crowded planet

For Native Americans and most Indigenous Peoples, land, water, animals and other natural resources hold a central place in society and property systems.  Developed over millennia, a mosaic of traditional rules and customary practices have provided Indigenous Peoples with balanced agro-ecological systems to manage landscapes and provide benefits for local communities.

But the commons stand under assault today.

The "free rider" problem prevails in most commons i.e. those who benefit often do not pay their fair share for common resources. Compounding the issue is sharing natural resources across an increasingly crowded planet, which presents a huge challenge. Over 160 million people live in Bangladesh, for example, more than the entire U.S. population in 1950. The size of Virginia, Bangladesh’s vulnerable land mass declines every day from erosion and sea rise. Meanwhile, mounting demographic pressures and a diminishing natural resource base, plays out every year.

From urban slums to rural regions, land tenure and property rights tend to be skewed in favour of the wealthy, who have the means and the time to consolidate property to reap profits. In Nigeria, for example, the wealthy elite is rapidly rising as the number of millionaires more than doubled in the last decade, while extreme poverty and inequality expands.

Corruption and natural resources management

Corruption brings a powerful corrosive effect on society, undermining good governance, management of the commons and efforts to combat climate change.

International actors including timber, oil, gas, mining and palm oil conglomerates continue to play a major role in land use and ownership. Corporate actors, like any others, vary greatly in their positive or negative impact on their host countries and our global commons. Some oil and gas concessions in Asia, for instance, have at least temporarily protected local forest and coastal ecosystems from the over-exploitation of neighbouring areas. Often, the opposite has also proven true.

The civil society organization, Transparency International, helps lead the fight against corruption worldwide by ranking countries and drawing attention to corrupt states. No surprise that those countries with weak governance have inordinately suffered environmental stress and harm.

Corruption thrives when given an opening.

Fraud, scamming and illicit gains from misused authority remain prevalent from villages to international agencies and corporations. The age of instant global communications, artificial intelligence and other new technologies has only heightened the cat and mouse tension between transparency and corruption, including in granting timber and mining concessions, land adjudication and zoning.

A flower grows close to a thermal power plant on the outskirts of Nagpur December 9, 2009. REUTERS/Arko Datta


When many of us look out our windows, the coming climate change threat on the horizon does not appear immediate. For others, however, the arriving crisis jumps out before their eyes: the recent horrific forest fires in Greece and California, the devastating cyclones in Mozambique, relentless sea level rise that threaten to submerge Pacific Island states and massive mangrove destruction in the Florida Keys and elsewhere. 

Yet we have time to act, as Greta starkly reminds us. We can still make a huge difference in terms of 2, 3, 4 or more degrees warming of the planet. We can change paths towards renewable energies, restoring balance in capitalism and building sustainable economies.  A key ingredient of a resilient economy and good governance revolves around strengthening property rights and management of our commons.   

Hopeful signs: Good governance and the commons

Indigenous Peoples have long established a balanced relationship between property rights and the natural environment.  Managing the commons including rivers, seas, forests and wildlife, as a class of asset, has been a critical element of that balance.

Balancing property rights and responsibilities in the spectrum of ownership and use of assets, both private and commons, including land, can only be achieved through transparency and accountability.

Clarifying and securing land and resource tenure rights and responsibilities through legal and policy reform can help shift authoritarian, state control towards partnerships with local communities, including vulnerable Indigenous Peoples.

An encouraging trend in international investment offers some promise for improved stewardship of the commons.

There is a growing recognition of a fiduciary duty towards the commons, a responsibility that gains increasing traction.  Harvard Business School’s George Serafeim, for instance, explores how large institutional investors can mitigate the free rider dilemma through 'value enhancing' company action and collaboration.

Recognizing, delineating and enforcing property rights often depend on communities producing written documents. Transparency, improving earth mapping and imaging technologies and expanding investors' sense of responsibility, can help identify the common or public property and strengthen fiduciary duties of all stakeholders in those commons.

These include surveys, participatory maps, and deeds, contracts, bills of sale or other written evidence to back up public or community claims. These efforts to “bring state to custom” have demonstrated limited but significant results in Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Managing risks related to property relations stands as a major challenge in the mining, forestry and oil and gas industries. The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) helps to provide a solid institutional setting in this direction by accumulating member experience and resources.

Environmental justice

Greta has helped reset the stage. In Paris, thousands marched in yellow vests against President Macron and his plan to put a dent in climate change by taxing diesel fuel. These protests reflect a worldwide frustration with corporations and the wealthy few who reap profits, while often not paying their fair share of the costs.

Environmental injustice plays out every day in the U.S. and around the world against the poor and marginalized. More than 10 million Burmese, for example, many from ethnic groups in mountainous border regions, remain landless agricultural or mining laborers.  As international development, religious and conservation organizations race into Burma and elsewhere, they must not lose sight of the need for inclusiveness in the benefits of resource exploitation, ecotourism and growth. 

A way forward

An understanding and appreciation of the commons as a shared asset class that benefits all of humanity offers a vital piece in a larger equation needed to pivot away from corruption and the climate crisis. 

Changes must be made, sooner rather than later, in our laws and financial regulations to strengthen standards and measurements for government and corporate accountability. Increased collaboration between companies and investors can combine with smaller activist funds and individual asset managers to improve engagement and common property stewardship.

Perhaps now we stand ready to pay attention to and respect the world’s Indigenous Peoples, who have long warned us of the peril of monetizing land and resources and rendering nature profane.

Strengthening governance and management of the commons in concert with new technologies, investment strategies and balancing social movements, can enhance our chances for turning the corner from the climate precipice.

Human society has proven resilient in the past; we thrive by learning and changing. Greta’s stark perspective and her call for transparency and change can help lead the way – while we still have time.

Peter Rabley is a venture partner at the Omidyar Network where he invests in international property rights and Kirk Talbott is a visiting scholar at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington D.C.

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