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The Global Warming Tragedy and the Dangerous Illusion of the Kyoto Protocol

  • Stephen M. Gardiner


In 2001, 178 of the world's nations reached agreement on a treaty to combat global climate change brought on by anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases. Despite the notable omission of the United States, representatives of the participants, and many newspapers around the world, expressed elation. Margot Wallström, the environment commissioner of the European Union, went so far as to declare, “Now we can go home and look our children in the eye and be proud of what we have done.”

In this article, I argue for two theses. First, the rhetoric and euphoria surrounding the 2001 deal is misplaced. This is not, as is often said, because the Kyoto agreement is too demanding but rather because it is much too weak. In particular, the Kyoto agreement does little to protect future generations. On the contrary, (at best) it seems to be a prudent wait-and-see policy for the present generation, narrowly defined. Hence, even those countries who have endorsed the Kyoto agreement should be wary of looking their children in the eye, and none should relish facing their children's children.

Second, the failure of the Kyoto agreement can be explained in terms of the underlying structure of the problem. Climate change involves the intersection of a complex set of intergenerational and intragenerational collective action problems. This structure, and in particular its intergenerational aspect, has not been adequately appreciated. Yet until it is, we are doomed to an ineffectual environmental policy.



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1 Quoted in Brown, Paul, “World Deal on Climate Isolates US,” Guardian, July 24, 2001, p. 1.

2 Paterson, Matthew, “Principles of Justice in the Context of Global Climate Change,” in Luterbacher, Urs and Sprinz, Detlef F., eds., International Relations and Global Climate Change (Cambridge: MIT Press , 2001), p. 122.

3 Quoted in Brown, “World Deal on Climate Isolates US.”

4 Ibid.

5 Revkin, Andrew, “Deals Break Impasse on Global Warming Treaty,” New York Times, November 11, 2001, p. A8. Others were more circumspect, but still positive. Olivier Deleuze, Belgium's energy and sustainability minister, said that he would rather have “an imperfect agreement that is living than a perfect agreement that doesn't exist.” Quoted in Andrew Revkin, “178 Nations Reach a Climate Accord; U.S. Only Looks On,”New York Times, July 24, 2001, p. A1.

6 Quoted in Brown, “World Deal on Climate Isolates US.”

7 At this point, ratification by Russia is not a foregone conclusion. President Putin promised in 2002 to have the process under way by the beginning of 2003, but by October 2003 this had still not occurred. Many commentators had initially assumed that Russia would be eager to ratify, since the economic collapse following the end of Communism had reduced its own emissions and therefore appeared to give it a large surplus of permits to sell once the Kyoto targets were in place. More recently, however, some have expressed doubts about this scenario. For example, in October 2003, Andrei Illarionov, an advisor to President Putin on economic policy, was widely reported to oppose Russian participation, saying that it would “doom Russia to poverty, weakness and backwardness.” See Tim Hirsch, “Climate Talks End Without Result,” BBC News, October 3,2003; available at; and Paul Brown, “EU Presses Moscow to Save Kyoto,”Guardian, February 26, 2003, p. 13.

8 In game theory, such a situation can be described as a many-person Battle-of-the-Sexes game. Global warming is described in these terms in Jeremy Waldron, “Who Is to Stop Polluting? Different Kinds of Free-Rider Problem” (Cornell University, 1990, unpublished). See also Mabey, Nick, Hall, Stephen, Smith, Claire, and Gupta, Sujata, Argument in the Greenhouse: The International Economics of Controlling Global Warming (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 356–59, 409–10; and Barrett, , “Political Economy of the Kyoto Protocol,” Oxford Review of Economic Policy 14 (1998), PP. 3637.

9 Sometimes this is based on analysis. See, e.g., Mendelsohn, Robert O., ed., Global Warming and the American Economy (London: Edward Elgar, 2001),which argues that the economic benefits of global warming will marginally outweigh the costs in the United States. Sometimes, however, it seems simply to be inferred from the U.S. stance in negotiations. See, e.g., Mabey, et al. , Argument in the Greenhouse, p. 408; and Nitze, W. A., “A Failure of Presidential Leadership,” in Mintzer, Irving and Leonard, J. Amber, Negotiating Climate Change: The Inside Story of the Rio Convention (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 189–90. In both cases, there is a serious problem in coming up with realistic assessments of possible costs. For a much more complex analysis, see National Assessment Synthesis Team, Climate Change Impacts on the United States: The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); available at

10 In the immediate aftermath of the United States's withdrawal from the Kyoto agreement, the U.S. president and Japanese prime minister agreed to high-level bilateral talks on areas of common ground and for common action on climate change. Shortly after Japan started to express reservations about ratification in January 2002, the second round of talks took place in Tokyo. Japan ratified later that year.

11 Barrett, Scott, Environment and Statecraft: The Strategy of Environmental Treaty-Making (Oxford: Oxford University Press , 2003), pp. 371 –72.

12 Figures from the World Resources Institute, as cited by the UNEP Climate Change Information Kit,

13 Among the other possibilities are that the countries ratifying the Kyoto Protocol have misidentified the problem, or that they see it as a necessary first step toward a full compliance solution. The first seems unlikely; the second raises the question of why there is not greater urgency.

14 See Soroos, Marvin S., The Endangered Atmosphere: Preserving a Global Commons (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1997), pp. 260–61; Danielson, Peter, “Personal Responsibility,” in Coward, Harold and Hurka, Thomas, eds., Ethics and Climate Change: The Greenhouse Effect (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Lau-rier Press, 1993), pp. 9596; and Barrett, , Environment and Statecraft, p. 368.

15 See Brown, Donald, American Heat: Ethical Problems with the United States’ Response to Global Warming (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002); and Singer, Peter, “One Atmosphere,” in One World: The Ethics of Globalization (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).

16 See Ward, Hugh, “Game Theory and the Politics of Global Warming: The State of Play and Beyond,” Political Studies 44, no. 5 (1996), pp. 850–71.

17 I am setting aside the possibility of abrupt threshold effects. There has been significant work on such effects recently, and they pose a real ethical challenge. Since climate change in the next few decades will be caused largely by past emissions, even the possibility of abrupt change in the next couple of decades does not undermine my general argument about the incentives in play for current emissions by the present generation. See U.S. National Research Council, Committee on Abrupt Climate Change, Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2002), p. 1.

18 Of course, some rewards are passed on in the form of technological advances and increases in the capital stock. This raises the prospect that future generations might be compensated for the damage they inherit through having better resources with which to deal with it. However, in general, the point is limited because much of the benefit of emissions is not passed on but simply consumed; technology and capital are far from perfect substitutes for environmental quality; and the precise physical effects of global warming are unpredictable but likely to be severe, and possibly catastrophic, so that effective deployment of the inherited benefits to mitigate them would be extremely difficult.

19 de-Shalit, Avner, Why Posterity Matters: Environmental Policies and Future Generations ( London: Routledge , 1995), p. 138.

20 Although there might be certain goods of respect, or continuation of traditions and projects that might matter to earlier generations and are within the power of future people, I doubt that these would be sufficient to deter current people from overpollution where that is perceived to be strongly in their interest on other grounds, at least so long as the relevance of the pollution-based goods is couched solely or primarily in terms of their contribution to the well-being of the current generation. See also O'Neill, John, “Future Generations: Present Harms,” Philosophy 68, no. 263 (1993), pp. 3551.

21 Concise Oxford Dictionary.

22 Revkin, Andrew C., “Despite Opposition in Party, Bush to Seek Emissions Cuts ,” New York Times , March 10, 2001 , p. Ai; and Jehl, Douglas with Revkin, Andrew C., “Bush, in Reversal, Won't Seek Cut in Emissions of Carbon Dioxide,” New York Times, March 14, 2001, p. A1.

23 Estimates of the value of these side effects vary enormously. For the EU, estimates range from 2 to 80 percent. See Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 1995: Economic and Social Dimensions of Climate Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 397439; cited in Barrett, Environmental Statecraft, p. 383 n. 22.

24 See, e.g., McKibben, Bill, “Some Like it Hot,” New York Review of Books, July 5, 2001, p. 38, where former U.S. vice president Al Gore is quoted as saying, early in his term, “The minimum that is scientifically necessary [to combat global warming] far exceeds the maximum that is politically feasible.” For a different view, see

25 The United Kingdom is an exception here. In early 2003, it released a white paper promising deep reductions in emissions by 2050. Yet, even at this early stage, the House of Commons's Science and Technology Committee was reported as concluding that the white paper “contained few practical policy proposals that gave any confidence that its targets and aspirations could be met,” and that, of the specific targets of 10 percent renewable power generation by 2010 and 20 percent by 2020, the former was said to have “no prospect,” and the latter to be doubtful. Staff and Agencies, ‘“No Chance’ of UK Meeting Greenhouse Targets,”Guardian, April 3, 2003; available at,9061,929046,00.html.

26 Grubb, Michael,Vrolijk, Christiaan, andBrack, Duncan, The Kyoto Protocol: A Guide and Assessment ( London: Earthscan , 1999), p. 155.

27 Ibid. , pp. 161–62.

28 Some claim that the Canadian ratification has more to do with the current prime minister's wish to pose a difficult problem for his successor, a political rival, than any policy conviction. See Mcllroy, Anne, “Gas-guzzling Canada Divided over Rush to Kyoto,” Guardian Weekly, November 7, 2002; available at,3939,835242,00.html.

29 See Grubb, , Vrolijk, , and Brack, , The Kyoto Protocol, p. 156. A recent UN report anticipates that developed-country emissions will increase by 8 percent from 2000 to 2010. See U.S. Department of State, “U.N. Report Calls for Stronger Policies to Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” June 3, 2003; available at

30 Mustapha, Babiker H.,Jacoby, Henry D.,Reilly, John M., andReiner, David M., “The Evolution of a Climate Regime: Kyoto to Marrakesh and Beyond ,” Environmental Science & Policy 5 ( 2002), pp . 195206.

31 Ibid., p. 202. They also claim that most of any reductions that might occur will be in non-carbon dioxide gases.

32 Soroos, , The Endangered Atmosphere , p. 226.

33 Ibid.

34 See Marrakesh Accords (Advance unedited version), Accord L, Sec. XV, 5; available at

35 See Bohringer, C., “Climate Politics from Kyoto to Bonn: From Little to Nothing?Energy Journal 23, no. 2 (April 2001), pp. 5171; and Babiker, et al. , “The Evolution of a Climate Regime,” p. 197.

36 See Barrett, , Environment and Statecraft, p. 384.

37 For a more detailed discussion, see Stephen M. Gardiner, “Ethics and Global Climate Change” (forthcoming).

38 See, e.g., Lomborg, Bjßrn, The Skeptical Environmentalist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 259; and Brown, American Heat, ch. 6.

39 Many skeptics are most concerned with the economic costs and benefits of climate change and its mitigation. Typically, they argue that the resources that would need to be employed combating climate change would be better spent on other things—such as global poverty relief. They do not deny that there is a problem, just that it is not the most serious problem we face. But clearly, this is an argument against wasting resources on a sham agreement.

40 See Brown, , American Heat.

* This article extends and applies to the Kyoto Protocol a general analysis initially introduced in my article “The Real Tragedy of the Commons,”Philosophy & Public Affairs 30, no. 4 (2001), pp. 387–416. I am particularly grateful to audiences at the Universities of Auckland, Canterbury, Melbourne, and Utah, and, in particular, to Tony Coady, Rosalind Hursthouse, Karen Jones, Graham Macdonald, and David Rodin. I would also like to thank Tim Bayne, Roger Crisp, David Frame, Robert Goodin, Dale Jamieson, and three anonymous referees for this journal for helpful written comments and lively discussion. I am also very grateful to the University of Melbourne Division of the ARC Special Research Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE) and to the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, for research support.

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The Global Warming Tragedy and the Dangerous Illusion of the Kyoto Protocol

  • Stephen M. Gardiner


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