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Air and Atmosphere


Context within NORA


Relationships to other Resources

The resources of the atmosphere and water constantly interact, both through the hydrological cycle (water evaporates, recondenses to form clouds, falls as precipitation), and through the diffusion of gases and pollutants from one to the other. For example, increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere lead to increased levels of carbonic acid in the oceans.

The ways land and energy resources are used affect the air quality, and can have impacts on the local, regional, and global climate. Conversely, air quality can have an impact on the kinds of land uses that are possible in an area. Moving air (wind) can be used as an energy resource.

The exploitation of mineral resources can cause serious air pollution.

The proper care for living things, especially plants, has a positive impact on air quality in terms of combating an increase in carbon dioxide levels, filtering out some air pollutants, and usually having a positive influence on local climate conditions (as in reducing urban heat island effects). Poor air quality of course has an adverse effect on living things.

Some of the physical assets we build lead to considerable air pollution, e.g., associated with transportation infrastructure and motor vehicles. However, many buildings and other structures are also vulnerable to pollutants such as sulfur dioxide which attacks marble.


Relationships to Needs

These are covered on the page on the need for air to breathe.


Relationships to Organizational forms

Since we all breathe on our own, access to the air occurs through self provisioning and does not require any organization.

However, this does mean that we share in the use of the air and atmosphere, and to protect air quality, we need organizational forms in the natural resource management cluster.

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Understanding current patterns of abundance and scarcity

Natural cycles usually maintain the Earth's atmosphere in a relatively steady state, but are now disrupted by the compound acceleration of changes being brought about by economic growth leading to intensified human use of the earth, altering ecosystems influencing the climate balance, the color of land masses and the composition and pollution of the atmosphere. Aside from those growing human impacts, and fluctuations over long periods, ranging from seasons to millions of years, concentrations of nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide have long remained at around 78%, 20% and 300 parts per million (0.0003%) of the atmosphere, respectively. These gases diffuse evenly throughout the atmosphere, meaning that oxygenated air to breathe is abundant wherever there is exchange of air with the atmosphere. Introductory treatments of the relevant geophysical processes can be found in websites such as these:

Michael Pidwirny, Physical Geography, Chapter 7, Introduction to the Atmosphere

If existing levels of gases in the atmosphere remain unchanged, the Earth's climate will also tend to remain similar as in the recent past. Natural fluctuations in climate, including long-term changes such as the Ice Ages, are only partially explained, however. See also Encyclopedia of the Earth discussions on: Weather, Atmosphere, Meteorology, Ozone and Climate Change.

All humans need to do in order to maintain the natural abundance of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and other gases in the atmosphere is not to mess with them. Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have changed the atmospheric concentration of various gases at increasing rates, however. This has already led to some change in the distribution of climate zones, leading to a reclassification by Peel et al. (2007).

The drivers of change can be classified as either technological and chemical (the industrial processes that emit certain kinds of gases, the rates of emissions, and their distributions in time and place), or social and institutional (the reasons why people choose to engage in those activities that emit harmful gases into the atmosphere). Human-caused changes in the atmosphere can further be classified according to their scale, ranging from the impacts of one factory or industrial zone or one city, to larger regions and ultimately to the entire atmosphere. Initially, impacts tended to be intense and localized, leading to extreme impacts on human health and on local ecosystems. In some of the advanced industrialized regions of the planet, such local impacts have been reduced in response to political pressures by citizens, but they continue almost unabated in other industrial regions where economic pressures to cut costs are overwhelming or the political pressure to clean up is not strong enough. Meanwhile, the much more intractable issue of increasing greenhouse gases has come to the forefront, threatening global, disruptive climate change. So far, efforts to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions are still far too small in scale and have failed to lead to reductions in global emission levels.

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Technological causes of air pollution and increased greenhouse gases

(provide relevant links)

Sulfur dioxide
Nitrous oxides
Carbon dioxide

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Social and institutional causes of air pollution and increased greenhouse gases

Costs of air pollution (e.g., impacts on human health) are not borne by the polluters (costs are externalized)
Competition between producers in the market forces each producer to reduce costs of production; if pollution control costs money and costs of pollution are externalized, competition can force companies to choose more rather than less polluting processes in order to stay in business.
The market hence pushes companies to pollute the air; non-market mechanisms are needed in order to change this. Hence:various types of government approaches to regulation of pollution
Government regulation usually only occurs as a result of citizen pressure. Hence discussion of what kinds of citizen pressure are effective or ineffective under various circumstances

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Approaches to creating greater abundance


Various forms of government regulation, at levels of local, regional/state/provincial, or national governments

  • Emissions limits on industries
  • Cap and trade approaches for local air pollution, e.g., on sulfur dioxide
  • Emissions limits on cars

Intergovernmental approaches, e.g., Montreal Protocol on CFCs (chloro-fluoro-carbons)

Potential for commons-based approaches, e.g., trusts following Peter Barnes


Links and Stories

AEIDL (European Association for Information on Local Development). June 2013. Local Communities Leading the Way to a Low-Carbon Society.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (US)

P2P Foundation:

United States 2014 National Climate Assessment


More to be added; contributions welcome

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I. Allison, N. L. Bindoff, R.A. Bindschadler, P.M. Cox, N. de Noblet, M.H. England, J.E. Francis, N. Gruber, A.M. Haywood, D.J. Karoly, G. Kaser, C. Le Quéré, T.M. Lenton, M.E. Mann, B.I. McNeil, A.J. Pitman, S. Rahmstorf, E. Rignot, H.J. Schellnhuber, S.H. Schneider, S.C. Sherwood, R.C.J. Somerville, K.Steffen, E.J. Steig, M. Visbeck, A.J. Weaver. The Copenhagen Diagnosis, 2009: Updating the world on the Latest Climate Science.  The University of New South Wales Climate Change Research Centre (CCRC), Sydney, Australia, 60pp. Report by an international group of prominent climatologists on climate and the human impact on climate.

Barnes, Peter. Capitalism 3.0: A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons. Proposes how to make polluters pay while providing benefits to all co-owners of the atmosphere (all of us) equally. Does not offer a critique of markets outside of what he considers the commons sector.
Milun, Kathryn. 2011. The Political Uncommons: The Cross-Cultural Logic of the Global Commons. Farnham, Surrey, UK: Ashgate.Offers insight into why Western law and philosophy in the wake of Roman law and its interpreters such as Hugo Grotius find it so difficult to take on responsibility for international commons.

Peel MC, Finlayson BL & McMahon TA (2007), Updated world map of the Köppen-Geiger climate classification, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 11, 1633-1644. Link to the map itself.



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