On DotEarth, Andy Revkin again wrestles with a dilemma he returns to frequently: how do we overcome human nature? He quotes the work of David Ropeik, who’s done considerable work on communicating risk, and who is not sanguine about our ability to communicate the risk of climate change. The problem, Revkin and Ropeik agree, is that climate change doesn’t activate our primal survival instincts. No matter how much evidence is presented, how many reasoned arguments are advanced, we don’t see (or perhaps feel) how it threatens us directly, so we don’t get fired up to do what’s necessary to solve it.

This kind of discussion takes as its premise the notion that climate change is a classic tragedy of the commons: While we all benefit from the vitality of a public resource, each individual has incentive to overconsume.

And yeah, those problems are a bitch, especially on this scale.

Except I don’t think that’s the right way of viewing the problem of climate change.

The crucial thing to note here is that unlike, say, claiming pasture land or pulling fish out of the ocean, polluting the atmosphere with GHGs is not a benefit. GHGs are not like other pollutants; they rise and fall in direct proportion to the amount of fossil fuels burnt, and burning fossil fuels costs money. The fact that there’s no price on carbon means that it costs less than it should, but it still costs.

Energy costs being costs, insofar as people can get the same value by burning less fossil fuel everyone has an incentive to reduce their overconsumption of our shared atmospheric resource. After all, everyone has incentive to reduce their costs.

This isn’t an academic distinction. The Revkin/Ropeik discussion is predicated on the notion that reducing GHGs is painful. But in at least half the cases (and I’d wager far more), reducing GHGs is profitable. Instead of approaching climate change thinking about how we can talk people into accepting tangible pain for intangible future benefits, we should approach it thinking about how we can make the many tangible benefits of GHG reduction more manifest and easier to capture.

We’re doing people a favor here, not trying to persuade them to swallow castor oil. And human nature is perfectly compatible with accepting favors.