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Global Warming: More Common Than Tragic

  • Elizabeth R. DeSombre


Global warming is indeed a difficult international environmental problem to address: it has tragedy of the commons characteristics, and problems of time horizons and uncertainty. But previous efforts at international cooperation on other environmental issues such as ozone depletion suggest that international cooperation should be possible–though difficult–on climate change. Cooperation on issues that involve long time horizons suggests that the present generation is not calculating utility quite so narrowly as game theorists posit. Experience also suggests that successful cooperation on climate change will start with measures so small as to seem inconsequential, but will set in place an institutional and scientific process that will ultimately result in much more significant cooperative efforts. Rather than representing a tragedy, the Kyoto Protocol (or something much like it) could represent the beginnings of a process in which current generations take the first steps at collective action that dramatically improve the lives of future generations. Those who are concerned about the weakness of the Kyoto Protocol should first focus on persuading the United States to join-since this is the best way to let the process work and avoid a tragedy of the commons.



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1 Robert Axelrod has modeled this with computers, and Elinor Ostrom has observed it in communities addressing real-world common pool resource issues. Axelrod, Robert, The Evolution of Cooperation (New York: Basic Books, 1984); and Ostrom, Elinor, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

2 As opposed to, for instance, directional transboundary problems where some polluters can in theory pollute without bearing any of the harm from their own actions.

3 Interestingly, uncertainty may even perpetuate this incentive structure; the degree of uncertainty about effects is such that no state can be certain that it will not be harmed.

4 Parson, Edward A., Protecting the Ozone Layer: Science and Strategy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

5 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability,”Summary for Policymakers (IPCC, 2001), p. 3.

6 Christian Plumb,” WHO Says Climate Change Killing 150,000 a Year,” Reuters News Service, December 15, 2003; available at

7 Lomborg, Bjørn, The Skeptical Environmentalist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 289.

8 Makhijani, Arjun and Gurney, Kevin R., Mending the Ozone Hole: Science, Technology, and Policy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), pp. 51114.

9 Parson, , Protecting the Ozone Layer, pp. 240 – 41.

10 DeSombre, Elizabeth R., The Experience of the Montreal Protocol: Particularly Remarkable and Remarkably Particular”, UCLA Journal of Environmental Law and Policy 19, no. 1 (2001). pp. 49, 81.

11 Parson, , Protecting the Ozone Layer , p. 235.

12 Brown, Donald, American Heat: Ethical Problems with the United States’ Response to Global Warming (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), pp. 151 – 62.

13 Change Secretariat, Climate, “Caring for Climate: A Guide to the Climate Change Convention and the Kyoto Protocol ” ( Bonn: UNFCCC, 2003), p. 17.

14 Discussions at the meetings that concluded in December in Milan included consideration of “post first commitment” plans. See Pamela Chasek, ed., “UNFCCC COP-9 Final Summary,” Earth Negotiations Bulletin 12, no. 213, December 15, 2003.

15 Breen, Tim, “Climate Change II: Voluntary Greenhouse Gas Reductions Significant—UNEP ,” Green-wire, July 2, 2001.

16 See, respectively, New England Governors/Eastern Canadian Premiers, “Climate Change Action Plan 2001”; available at; and

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Global Warming: More Common Than Tragic

  • Elizabeth R. DeSombre


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