July 23, 1988 is the date global warming really came into the limelight. NASA scientist James Hansen gave a landmark speech to the US Congress that day, stating that there was a clear correlation between the greenhouse effect and global warming.

Image of hansen speaking
Source: theguardian.com

That was over three decades ago, and yet global temperatures have continued to rise since then. With each year that we don’t tackle the problem, it gets even worse.

Why are we finding such an urgent and potentially devastating issue as climate change so hard to tackle, and what can we do about it?

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What is common to the greatest number gets the least amount of care

Imagine each shepherd in a village has their own private grazing land. To ensure its continued fertility, each shepherd would limit how much is grazed on their grazing land. This prudence would keep the soil fertile and the herd healthy.

Imagine, on the other hand, that the grazing land is shared by all the shepherds in an entire village. The best thing for the collective would be for each shepherd to limit how much their sheep graze. But, naturally, each shepherd asks himself: What benefit would it give me to allow just one extra sheep to graze?

Let's weigh the positives and negatives.

Positive: Since the shepherd receives all the benefits of allowing an extra sheep to graze, the positive can be given a weighting of 1.

Negative: Allowing one extra animal to graze would deplete the land’s resources even more. However, the negative effects of overgrazing are shared by everyone, therefore the negative can be given a weighting of a fraction of -1.

Weighing the positives and negatives, and realising the net positive effect, the rational thing for the shepherd to do would be to allow one more sheep to graze. And another. And another. Every other shepherd comes to the same decision, resulting in the destruction of the grazing land, and making everyone worse off in the long term than if they had been more prudent.

In the long term: that's the key. Overusing grazing lands certainly might benefit all parties in the short term, but not in the long term.

Replace the common grazing lands with the atmosphere, and the shepherds with individual countries, and we start to see the problem. This is the tragedy of the commons, and it’s why climate change is so hard to fix.

Limiting greenhouse gas emissions often means limiting economic growth, and when some countries limit emissions while others do not, the negatives effects are borne by those countries that limit emissions. This forces all countries to emit as much as they can.

Or so it would, if there wasn't a way to deal with the tragedy of the commons.

Dealing with the tragedy of the commons

There are ways to deal with the tragedy of the commons. The most obvious way is to attach property rights to the resource in question. The world’s oceans are divided into Exclusive Economic Zones, and this has made countries more prudent with the amount they fish each year, preventing overfishing.

Another way is to assign responsibility for the resource to a body that then regulates its use. This is easy to do in a country, where the government assumes this role. It’s a lot harder to regulate several sovereign countries. International regulatory bodies don’t have the same power over sovereign countries as governments do over their citizens.

But there's a third way - collective action. Countries can work together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Countries around the world have adopted multiple global climate agreements - the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, and the Paris Climate Accords in 2015. They are a step in the right direction, but time will tell whether they succeed in reducing global emissions.

One thing that we've got going for us is that we've done it before: the ozone hole, discovered in the 1980s and caused by the emmision of CFCs, finally closed in December 2020, thanks to collective action.

The tragedy of the commons is the main reason why climate change is so hard to fix, but we can overcome it. We've done it before.

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