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Climate Change Is Victim Of 'Tragedy Of The Commons'

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Climate Change Is Victim Of 'Tragedy Of The Commons'

Climate Change Is Victim Of 'Tragedy Of The Commons'

Climate Change Is Victim Of 'Tragedy Of The Commons'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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One reason it is so hard to slash carbon emissions is that climate change occurs globally. The countries that produce the most greenhouse gas all need to take action to fix the problem. That raises a classic economic dilemma called the tragedy of the commons.


Now, the jockeying between China, the U.S. and other nations underlines a problem in fighting greenhouse emissions. It's a challenge world leaders will face when they meet next month to negotiate over those emissions. Every nation wants to act in its own interest but that may not be the same as the global interest. Economists call this problem the tragedy of the commons.

To explain that phrase, we turn to NPR's David Kestenbaum of our Planet Money team.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: Fishing is a classic example of a tragedy of the commons problem. The fish are a common resource, so it makes sense to catch as many fish as you can. If you don't, someone else will. As a result, we run out of fish. Everyone makes a rational decision but in the end we all lose. The conventional thinking used to be that people couldn't solve tragedy of the commons problems on their own. Some governing body had to step in and set the rules, force everyone to live by them. And when it comes to climate change, there is no global government. It's like the fishermen trying to fix things on their own.

Elinor Ostrom just won the Nobel Prize in economics.

Ms. ELINOR OSTROM (Nobel Laureate): Let's face it. This is much tougher, much, much, much, much, much tougher than many of the inshore fisheries and community action things. But I don't think we want to say it's impossible.

KESTENBAUM: Elinor Ostrom got the Nobel for her work showing that this category of problem could be solved. Unfortunately, most of the success stories happen with smaller groups of people, not the entire planet. When you think about it, the tragedy of the commons problems are strange things. Everyone agrees it's in their collective best interest to do something, but they just can't get there.

Professor SCOTT BARRETT (Columbia University): When I teach this subject, I play games with my students and I especially like playing games with playing cards.

KESTENBAUM: This is Scott Barrett, professor of natural resource economics at Columbia University. In one game, Barrett takes a group of people, gives each person two cards - one is red, one is black, and he tells them they're going to have a choice. They can turn in the red card or the black card and no one will know which they did. Also, there's money at stake. Everyone in the room will get one dollar for every red card that gets turned in. But, he tells them, if they don't do that, if they hold onto their red card, they still get that money, plus an additional $5 for their red card.

So from a kind of global wealth perspective, it makes sense for everyone to turn in their red cards. If you've got 50 people in the room, everyone turns in their cards, everyone gets $50.

Mr. BARRETT: Handing in your red card, that's a metaphor for reducing your greenhouse gas emissions, and it's usually between a third and two-thirds of the people will do it. Now, that makes the problem seem not so serious.

KESTENBAUM: But you really need global cooperation for climate change. So Barrett lets the students negotiate and try again.

Mr. BARRETT: Someone in the room will say, wait a minute, we're all better off if we all hand in our red cards, so let's all hand them in. And then the others will say, yes, that makes sense.

KESTENBAUM: But when they play again and count up the cards, they find some people turned in their black cards instead. In the following round, people are angry and even more turn in black cards.

Mr. BARRETT: And if you play the game long enough, the level of cooperation will start to fall, and this is a hypothetical game. The evidence is pretty strong when you play this with real money, the cooperation is even weaker.

KESTENBAUM: And you've tried this with actual - with climate negotiators?

Mr. BARRETT: I've tried it with diplomats, people who are only economists, I've done it with people who are only from West Africa. I've done it for people who are - I've done it so many different times with so many different groups.

KESTENBAUM: This does not mean a climate change treaty is impossible, but a lot of things make it hard: countries disagree on how to divide up the pain of reducing emissions, there needs to be some way to monitor whether everyone is doing what they promised, and some way to punish them if they don't.

Mr. BARRETT: This problem in particular, climate change, is the hardest the world has ever had to confront.

KESTENBAUM: So if you've ever wondered why the countries of the world can't just sit down and sign a darn climate treaty, this is why.

Richard Smith has negotiated a host of treaties for the U.S. and he said yes, tragedy of the commons problems are tough. That's why we have negotiators.

Mr. RICHARD SMITH (Treaty Negotiator): I find them solvable. I think a lot of the negotiations that I've been involved in could be described as a tragedy of the commons thing.

KESTENBAUM: Smith was giving a talk about a book he just wrote laying out eight success stories: international agreements dealing with ozone, fishing, and acid rain. Another diplomat there who'd worked on climate change praised the book, but he said he could write a book the same size about the failures.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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