Climate Change Is Victim Of 'Tragedy Of The Commons' 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.
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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'

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

DAVID KESTENBAUM: Elinor Ostrom just won the Nobel Prize in economics.

KESTENBAUM: 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.

INSKEEP: When I teach this subject, I play games with my students and I especially like playing games with playing cards.

KESTENBAUM: 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.

KESTENBAUM: 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.

KESTENBAUM: 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.

KESTENBAUM: 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?

KESTENBAUM: 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.

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

KESTENBAUM: 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.

KESTENBAUM: 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: David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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