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Copenhagen as a monumental tragedy of the Commons

By Sarah Bartlett and John Hickman - posted Thursday, 17 December 2009

We feel reasonably safe in making a precise prediction: the 45,000 people gathered at COP 15, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Copenhagen will fail to come up with a genuinely workable solution to the crisis of global warming. Rather than a solution, we predict cheap posturing and an agreement that consists of little more than a license for further negotiations, all as means to evade responsibility for devising a means of effective planetary governance.

Granted, this time around the US delegation might be attending the meeting as more than observers, Nicolas Sarkozy might be threatening to impose a carbon tax on an generally unwilling French public, and delegates from Tuvalu might be eliciting more than normal levels of guilt from some people living at higher elevations. But none of that will be enough for Copenhagen to save us all from ourselves.

Global warming is an unmistakable tragedy of the commons, a collective action problem whose dimensions we outlined in an article about a previous failed meeting on global warming in 1999: Global Tragedy of the Commons at COP 6.


In the classic Tragedy of the Commons, a collectively owned natural resource is being wasted through individual over-use. With global warming the "individuals" in the equation are nations and the commonly owned natural resource is the ability of the atmosphere to absorb the infrared radiation of the sun without excessive warming of the lower atmosphere and oceans. The collective action problem here is the refusal to limit carbon emissions.

But what made COP 6 interesting was that its failure was not due simply to every nation wanting to overuse the common resource, but that they were neither equal in power nor in consumption of the common resource. Powerful nations determined to use more of the common resource gave precedence to their own near term national interests, and the outcome was anything but fair and effective.

So we again find ourselves, this time at COP 15, looking for a solution to the collective action problem. From political economy we can identify four characteristics associated with successful solutions.

First, distributional conflicts are minimal because rivals share at least a limited sense of common identity.

Second, clear boundaries defining the natural resource actually narrow the range of disputes.

Third, enforcement costs are small.


Finally, aggregate benefits are large and collective.

Unfortunately, that last characteristic is the only one that describes the global warming problem - the aggregate benefits from a solution are enormous and available to all.

Distributional conflicts surrounding global warming are anything but minimal. Most of the delegations at Copenhagen appear far more interested in avoiding shouldering their share of the burden than in seeing the job done. Consider the flat refusals to consider sacrificing economic growth to limit carbon emissions by the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India or China) and equally flat US dismissal of proposals for large scale economic aid to assist poor societies in reducing their carbon emissions.

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About the Authors

Sarah Bartlett is the Research and Communications Director for Esoko ( in Accra, Ghana. She can be reached at

John Hickman is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Berry College, USA. He may be reached at

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Sarah Bartlett
All articles by John Hickman

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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