Grant McDermott bio photo

Grant McDermott

Assistant Professor
Dept. of Economics
University of Oregon

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UPDATE: The forest sell-off has been shelved following a massive public outcry.

That's the title of a short article by Michael McCarthy, the environmental editor of The Independent, in which he discusses the apparent flip-flopping of the new UK government on the sale of public forests. In of itself, this is a very interesting issue because it highlights some the practical problems of privatising "public" land. Being of a market persuasion myself, I have nothing much in principal against private ownership of these resources. Indeed, the success of private game parks all over the world gives us an indication of how well that kind of model can work, often in conjunction (and competition) with state-owned parks, to better preserve our natural heritage.

Of course, the UK's forests are perceived quite differently to game parks. They are, I would argue, probably much closer to, say, beaches in the public mindset. For various reasons, public beaches have become institutionalised as places that we like to enjoy in commons. Perhaps people even like the illusion of them being free to everyone regardless of the fact that tax money is what ultimately supports their maintenance. Having said that, there reasons why this system isn't an inherently inefficient; most notably transaction costs and the problems of exclusion. (E.g. It could be much easier for us to make a single payment to one authority that manages these assets on our behalf than to pay a new owner every time you enter a new park or beach. Further, in the absence of unsightly fencing, it is problematic to police who comes in and out, and who has paid for entrance in the first place). At any rate, I think it's fair to say that many public beaches are both well-run and well-policed.

The major point of McCarthy's article that I want to get to, however, is imbedded in his subject line. He gets down to it in the last two paragraphs:
[T]his Government has conflated "the environment" with climate change; the rest is forgotten (at least at the highest level). It was actually in the specific context of global warming policy that Mr Cameron made his "greenest ever" pledge. He saw, rightly, that saving the climate is of overwhelming importance; but he failed to see that there are other green issues, such as the care of the natural world, which are also immensely important and which the public may deem crucial. 

To be fair, being blinded to everything else by climate change is not the fault of this Government only; some of the traditional green pressure groups have followed suit, and Jonathon Porritt, doyen of green activists, pointed out in an angry blog last week how little most of them have done to combat the attack on nature conservation. But the Government will have to wake up to its mistake, or its pledge to be the greenest ever will turn out to be the biggest hostage to fortune of its time in office.
I wholeheartedly agree with this position. As I've written previously:
"I do worry that important non-climate-related research is being sidelined by this overwhelming debate on AGW [Anthropogenic Global Warming]. Clearly, there are some very important scientific and environmental questions unrelated to climate change that deserve research funding as well. Moreover, its really frustrating to see people trying to lump everything under the climate umbrella or ascribe strong climate causation when there isn't any."
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: Climate change is a hugely important issue for anyone concerned about the environment, say nothing of human welfare. But shoehorning any and every environmental problem into a climate change story does nobody favours. It distracts focus from other genuine environmental issues and only serves to undermine the legitimacy of the climate change movement in the process.