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Global Tragedy of the Commons at COP 6
by John Hickman & Sarah Bartlett, Berry College
There may never have been a larger collection of national free riders found at any multinational negotiation than at COP 6, the Sixth Session of the Parties to the Climate Control Convention held November 13-24, 2000 in the Dutch city of The Hague. The 160 nations represented at the conference missed the opportunity to make the kind of decisions which might save the people of this planet from serious grief.
Their failure to reach agreement means that the billions who inhabit this planet will have to wait for the kind of concerted action by governments which would moderate and eventually reverse the effects of global warming. Unless action is taken, the world can expect severe flooding of low-lying coastal areas because of increasingly violent storms and rising sea levels, and the disruption of agriculture and ecosystems across continents which will result in famine, migration, and species loss. What makes their collective failure interesting, aside from its incalculable future cost, is that it appears to have been motivated by the rational pursuit of national interests.
At first glance, global warming appears to present a classic "tragedy of the commons." These arise when a collectively owned sustainable resource is wasted through individual over-use. Consumers of an otherwise sustainable resource squander it by failing to limit their consumption. Of course, no single act of consumption contributes much to the problem. But the result of all these individual actions is a collectively inferior outcome in which the commons can no longer sustain consumption.
In the case of global warming, the sustainable resource is an atmosphere actually capable of absorbing the infra-red radiation of the sun without too much warming of the lower atmosphere and oceans. The consumption involves the release of greenhouse gases, especially the release of carbon dioxide through the burning of fossil fuels, and also the destruction of carbon "sinks" (forests, farmland and vegetation that soak up heat-retaining gases). Collective action will require using less fossil fuels—using them more efficiently—as well as maintaining or even expanding the total area of forest cover.
Unless action is taken, the world can expect severe flooding of low-lying coastal areas because of increasingly violent storms and rising sea levels, and the disruption of agriculture and ecosystems across continents which will result in famine, migration, and species loss.
But the problem of global warming is something more complex. First, the "consumers" of this resource are anything but equal. A minority of the 160 nations represented at COP 6 are responsible for releasing more carbon dioxide through burning fossil fuels than the majority of nations. Overlapping that minority of nations is a different minority which maintain large areas of forest cover. The success of any global climate regime depends upon the participation of both the largest carbon dioxide emitting nations including the United States, the European Union, Japan, the Russian Federation, China, India, Canada, as well as the participation of major "carbon sink" nations not included in the first group including Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, and Malaysia. While some of the ideological and military rivalries between major nations in these two groups have diminished with the end of the Cold War, the economic rivalries between them clearly have not. To add to this, the economic disparities between these two groups are enough to strain even the best of intentions in sharing the economic costs of any international endeavor.
Second, the prospect of curbing fossil fuel consumption has already sparked intense policy conflicts within major carbon dioxide emitting nations, especially the United States. The increased fuel conservation and efficiency which would be required for reduction in carbon emissions threaten the profits of oil companies and auto manufacturers, both of which are powerful political lobbies in Washington. The bitter partisan struggle for control of the United States presidency in 2000 may be seen, in part, as a reflection of this policy conflict. Oil companies gave generously to the campaign of George W. Bush, the candidate critical of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol-the agreement that would have US emissions cut 7% from the 1990 levels by the year 2012.
Some nations which emit comparatively small amounts of carbon dioxide and have little scope to expand forest cover are going to be the earliest and hardest hit by the effects of global warming.
Third, the environmental and economic costs of collective inaction cannot and will not be spread evenly. Some nations which emit comparatively small amounts of carbon dioxide and have little scope to expand forest cover are going to be the earliest and hardest hit by the effects of global warming. Prominent among these likely early casualties are Bangladesh and small island nations in the Pacific. While it is conceivable that entire populations of small islands in the Pacific might be relocated, there will be no easy international responses to the human misery in a Bangladesh reduced to even greater poverty by more violent storms, coastal flooding, and poor harvests. The fact that human misery in the poorest nations will ultimately wash up on the shores of wealthier nations is still a lesson lost on most of the elites and masses in those wealthier nations.
Curiously, COP 6 did not fail because the 160 nations in the negotiations refused to acknowledge either the problem or the nature of the required solution. Nor did it fail because of disagreement between wealthy nations and poor nations. Instead, the negotiations failed because of a disagreement between two sets of wealthy nations which emit large amounts of carbon dioxide. The United States, as leader of the nations with comparatively large areas of carbon sink forest cover including Japan and Canada, argued for a formula in which these areas would be counted against assigned carbon dioxide emissions quotas. Leading the European Union nations, which possess comparatively small areas of forest cover, Germany argued against any overly generous carbon sink formula.
The deadlock over carbon sinks that caused the negotiations to end in failure was thus the product of narrowly conceived national interest. The representatives from the United States and Germany, who share responsibility for this failure, only represented the citizens, or at least the governing elites of their nations, rather than the population of the planet as a whole.
...despite their opposition to one another over carbon sinks, the United States and Germany shared a curious community of national interest in undermining COP 6.
Consider the short term pay-off to the United States and Germany for the failure of COP 6. These two nations are the largest emitters of carbon dioxide on the planet. In 1997, the United States and Germany were responsible for, respectively, 24% and 4% of carbon dioxide emitted by fuel combustion. Reducing carbon emissions would be costly to both economies and political elites in both nations and it is known that poor economic performance might cost them their leadership positions. Moreover, the short term costs of delaying effective action will be paid by people in the poorer nations. So despite their opposition to one another over carbon sinks, the United States and Germany shared a curious community of national interest in undermining COP 6.
...the necessity to respond to the shared threat of global warming may be the reason that we devise something more workable than the nation-state.
COP 6 raises the question once again whether the nation-state can be an appropriate unit for organizing the most important kinds of decision making on the planet. Global warming is the most profound challenge to our capacity for global environmental management that we are likely to encounter in the next century, and after COP 6 it seems clear that in the sovereign nation-state we have a remarkably poor political organizational tool with which to respond.
Crises often compel new thinking about political institutions, and the necessity to respond to the shared threat of global warming may be the reason that we devise something more workable than the nation-state. If national leaders insist upon protecting only national economic interests, they will in turn be sacrificing the long term environmental and economic interests of the planet. If a viable solution is not found, this problem of the global "commons" will indeed end in a collectively endured tragedy.
John Hickman is an Associate Professor of Government at Berry College and Sarah Bartlett is an officer of Students Against Violating Earth at Berry College.