Saturday, May 5, 2007

In the April 28 edition of Sierra Club Radio, the weekly podcast put out by the Sierra Club, Orli Cotel interviewed Orri Vigfusson, a 2007 winner of the prestigious Goldman Prize (essentially the Nobel Prize for environmentalism). Vigfusson is an Icelandic businessman and angler who came up with a plan to prevent the loss of Atlantic salmon stocks. In a scheme similar to the soil conservation push of the U.S.'s Dust Bowl era (albeit privately organized instead of governmentally), Vigfusson's organization pays fishermen cash or give them new jobs in exchange for their not fishing -- essentially buying the right to fish.

Something that stuck out at me in the interview was Vigfusson's response to Cotel's question about working with legislators to effect change (at first a flat "Uh, no," which definitely caught my attention). Vigfusson believes that "the fisheries should actually be governed by commercial conservation agreements whereby we do deals among the stakeholders." This system, he says, encourages companies and individuals to abide by the set rules -- if they don't, they receive economic sanctions. With legislation, especially international agreements, Vigfusson points out that countries and companies are less inclined to obey the spirit of the law.

Since climate change is always sort of in the back of my mind nowadays, my mind wandered in that direction. Vigfusson's philosophy about commercial agreements being the most effective solutions to the fisheries problem does not work as well when applied to carbon emissions.

First, his organization compensates fishing companies for their forbearance. It would be next to impossible to compensate companies for their shifts to lower-carbon technologies. This isn't really related to the idea of commercial agreements, but it's an important point nonetheless.

Second, fishing companies have a stake in keeping the fisheries healthy. If the industry overfishes fish stocks, that means less profit in years to come and maybe even the collapse of the fishery. If a company emits thousands of tons of carbon dioxide, there is not only no immediate impact, but there is no tangible impact for the company in the future in the way that the loss of a fishery would have for a fishing company.

Third, it's easy to monitor the amount of fish a company takes in. They have to sell it at some point, right? Commercial outfits already have a stake in knowing how much their competitors sell, so this self-policing makes a lot of sense. Well, monitoring carbon emissions is a little bit more difficult.

I thought these were interesting distinctions. Feel free to discuss in the comments.

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