Lessig on climate change

Posted on November 4th, 2009 by


Lessig on climate change

I recently did a story for Radio National’s Background Briefing on internet piracy, culture and copyright.

The project initially had a much broader scope on IP-related debates – particularly questions of the role of IP law in encouraging development of clean technologies while also ensuring their deployment in the developing world.

Those issues didn’t end up making the cut, but during my interview with Harvard’s Lawrence Lessig, he drew an interesting bow between his until-recently pet issue of copyright and IP policy, and the problem of climate change policy.

Extracted here in full:

We have IP – copyright and patent, to deal with what economists call the problem of positive externalities, meaning I do something which creates a benefit to you, without you and I necessarily having any kind of agreement about that.  So we solve that problem by having monopolies granted by the state to what the economists call ‘internalise’ the positive externalities, so I get all the benefit and I create lots of good.

But as well as positive externalities, there are also negative externalities, so I run a coal-fired power plant, I produce carbon, I produce mercury into the atmosphere, these are all negative harms which I impose on my neighbours without necessarily compensating them for that.  And the government has a role there too in internalising negative externalities.  Global warming is a classic example of a negative externality, and the government has in my view an essential role in making sure that that negative externality is internalised, just like if works so hard to make sure that positive externalities are internalised.

The paradox is positive externalities, or the lack of dealing with positive externalities has never killed anybody or hurt anybody in the world.  And yet negative externalities like mercury in the atmosphere have caused enormous harm to the world.  But the United States government at least spends a significant chunk of its time worrying about internalising positive externalities while ignoring the negative externalities.

In the last 20 years, there have been 15 bills passed to deal with copyright, and internalising the positive externalities.  Not one bill to deal with the problem of global warming.  Now that’s just completely skewed priorities, right.  If anything we should be worried about the negative externalities first, and then get around to the positive ones, but not before we’ve dealt with the most critical negative externalities like global warming.

Image thanks to pawpaw67 on Flickr