INTERNATIONAL cooperation is vital if we are to agree a new deal on climate change at the Copenhagen talks in December. But will non-cooperation be the dominant strategy adopted by world leaders?
The problem with the atmosphere is that is a free resource with no ownership. As a consequence it has been overused as a dumping ground for polluting gases which have contributed to levels of atmospheric pollution and climate change. China is now the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions followed by the United States.
International agreements have established an institutional structure for the global communal management of the atmosphere. The United Nation’s Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol attempts to do this with regard to taking actions to reduce greenhouse gases and the effects of global climate change.
In the 1960s Garrett Hardin developed the notion of the ‘Freedom of the Tragedy of the Commons’ where he used the analogy of a common grazing land to illustrate that sharing common resources leads to overuse. Each herdsman as a rational individual seeks to maximise his gain. By adding one more animal to the common land he will gain, however, the overgrazing caused by the additional one will be shared by all herdsmen.
The rational herdsman concludes that he would benefit from adding another animal to the common land. However, this is the conclusion of all the herdsmen which ultimately leads to the ‘tragedy’ as each herdsmen is locked into a system which compels him to increase his herd without limit.
Hardin uses the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ to explain the problem of pollution, which results in emitting polluting emissions into the natural environment. The polluter as a ‘rational man’ will come to the same conclusion as the herdsmen, that the cost of polluting can be less than the treatment or abatement of polluting emissions.
Hardin concludes that “Freedom on the commons brings ruin to all” and that “… we are locked into a system of “fouling our own nest” so long as we behave as independent rational, free-enterprises”. His solution was “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon”.
Hardin’s analogy has been criticised as being a false analogy because it ignores the powerful sense of community obligation which could exist and act as a deterrent for abuse of such a common grazing land.
Communal management can be effective if there is an agreement to cooperate to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the case of climate change. However, there is a risk that one nation will ‘free ride’ and not fulfil its commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
International negotiations can be viewed as a game which results in a “Prisoner’s Dilemma”.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma
Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies (defects from the other) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent (cooperates with the other), the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?
In the case of climate change the developed and developing nations are the prisoners. If each co-operate then we would be spared from runaway climate change and global temperatures exceeding 2 degrees centigrade. However, non-cooperation gives one nation a greater payoff.
For non-cooperation would result in one of the nations saving investing billion of dollars in technology to reduce emissions. In this case the nation that does not cooperate would be a free-rider and enjoy any benefits from the other nations which reduce GHGs without having to bear the cost. The dominant strategy for each nation would be one of non-cooperation.
Unlike the Prisoners Dilemma, the climate crisis will means that in the long-term there will be no winners. Europe Is attempting to reassert its international leadership by offering to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by up to 95% by 2050 and by 30% by 2020 if a climate change pact is agreed in Copenhagen. However, US, China, and India have yet to unveil targets or specific figures for a new deal on climate change.
We are already perilously close to the brink of climate catastrophe and developing nations have little room to grow out of poverty. If we fail to produce a new deal climate deal then it will truly be a tragedy of the commons.