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The Tragedy of the Climate Commons

By now, the danger from climate change and other forms of environmental degradation is so evident that it seems crazy to ignore it. But our collective failure to take effective action in the face of such threats is not the result of having leaders who are insane or irrational.

PORTSMOUTH – By now, the danger from climate change and other forms of environmental degradation is so evident that it seems crazy to ignore it. And yet the world has failed thus far to devise an adequate response to the problem. Our first stab at a solution, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, set only modest goals and failed to include the world’s biggest polluters. The effort in Copenhagen in 2009 to craft a more potent global agreement ended in a breakdown of negotiations.

Our collective failure to take action is not the result of having chosen leaders who are insane or irrational. The reason we seem incapable of coming together to protect the climate is known as the “tragedy of the commons”: a shared resource tends to be rapidly depleted because no single actor – whether a country or a person – considers how their actions affect other users. In other words, because you reap all of the benefits, but suffer only part of the costs, you are tempted to over-exploit the resource. And, so far, there is little reason to believe that we are on track to find a way to ensure a happier ending.

The soon-to-be-endangered Atlantic bluefin tuna is one example. We have a shared interest in preventing the species from being fished to extinction. And yet individual fishermen have little reason not to catch as many tuna as possible, as any animal that escapes their net will likely end up in another’s. A similar logic applies to countries considering fishing quotas; as a result, bluefin stocks are running low.

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