In 1968, the American ecologist Garrett Hardin wrote an article for Science about the ultimate issue for the global environment, a bugbear that he called the ‘tragedy of the commons’. His hypothesis, incredibly simple and lifted from the 19th-century British economist William Foster Lloyd, remains influential today. Starting with the idea that individuals are utility-maximising, he argued that in a shared pasture – one form of a common-pool resource – each herdsman has a strong incentive to add cattle to his or her herd. Each head of cattle provides high utility to the individual, but too many cattle can lead to overgrazing and the collapse of a pasture ecosystem. Ultimately, Hardin argued, individual rationality could lead to collective irrationality, and the degradation of an environment.
Despite criticism – subsequent researchers argued that individuals often aren’t utility-maximising, and that many common-pool resources have been successfully managed around the world – Hardin’s tragedy of the commons thesis is now a starting point for many theories of environmental policy. Hardin himself applied the ‘tragedy of the commons’ idea to population growth, a central anxiety of 1970’s environmentalism, but often in morally suspect ways. (He once suggested, in a 1974 essay for Bioscience, that nations should withhold aid to the victims of the Ethiopian famine, blaming the famine on African overpopulation).
But in an age of potentially catastrophic climate change, his ideas have taken on new relevance. If the atmosphere is indeed a ‘commons’, each individual – and perhaps more importantly, each country – has an economic and financial incentive to emit. Collectively, however, national or individual incentives can compound into a global, slow-motion tragedy. According to Hardin, the only way out of such a tragedy was a form of ‘mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon’, with individuals and nation-states agreeing to limit their own actions – and not act in the most ‘individually rational’ way.
Every year since 1995, a group of suited United Nations negotiators from almost 200 countries have gathered to try to agree on some form of ‘mutual coercion’ to address climate change. Locations have varied: negotiations have taken place in Bonn, Kyoto, and, most notably, in Paris. But the results, barring some logistical successes, have been consistent – and staggeringly unsuccessful. The world has already reached approximately 1ºC of warming since pre-industrial times, and temperatures continue to climb. We are rapidly losing the coral reefs and the low-lying forms of small-island states. This summer, record-breaking heat waves scorched Europeans and huge wildfires devastated the American West. In October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned in a special report that even 1.5ºC of warming – a level we are likely to reach in the 2040s, barring unprecedented action in the next 12 years – would be disastrous.
In December, delegates assembled for the 24th such UN conference in Katowice, Poland. Katowice, a city of 300,000 in the southern region of Silesia, was an ironic choice of location. Poland still receives 80% of its electricity from coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, and Silesia is the center of energy production for a country still haunted by the ghost of Communism. Just a few hundred yards from the conference center, the Silesian Museum sits on the site of a former coal mine. Its gift shop sells coal necklaces, coal earrings, and coal soap. The nearest active mine, Wujek, is just three miles away. On the horizon, smokestacks spewed coal dust and pollutants over the frigid industrial city.
But if the atmosphere outside the conference was bleak, I found the feeling indoors not much better. The summit was set in a UFO-shaped multi-purpose arena called Spodek, which had been expanded by long, temporary hallways stretching out almost to the Silesian Museum. Most of the décor indoors was highly corporate – conference sponsors hyped electric cars and low-emissions technologies, while an installation paid for by Visa, Inc. promised to donate to climate adaptation for each ‘tap’ of a contactless card. Bright lights shone down on suited negotiators in lanyards, talking on cellphones and tracking treaty text on iPads. Interspersed amid the delegates were academics, students and activists, but the groups rarely intermingled. The conference was filled, alternately, with corporate-sponsored hope and the nitty-gritty of international policymaking.
After all, this 24th Conference of the Parties, or COP24, was meant to finalize the ‘rulebook’ for the implementation of the Paris agreement: a task as important as it was painfully logistical. At stake were how countries should self-report their emissions, how carbon markets would function across national borders, and whether each country should uphold a uniform set of rules.
The Paris agreement was signed amid much fanfare in 2015, the first substantive U.N. accomplishment on climate change since the Kyoto Protocol, which failed, miserably, in the wake of the failure of the United States Senate to ratify the treaty. (In keeping with past U.S. obstructionism, President Trump has vowed to pull the United States out of the Paris agreement as well, at the earliest possible opportunity: November 2020).
The agreement was hailed as a new era in climate action, marking the hope that, with each country setting its own targets (‘nationally-determined contributions’, as they are called), the global community might just get its act together and reduce emissions sharply. So far, that hasn’t happened. Just a few days after COP24 began, a new report warned that 2018 might have the highest emissions ever. While some countries are meeting their commitments, all the major emitters worldwide are far from the trajectory needed to actually prevent climate crisis.
The problem is that the Paris agreement, as many critics have pointed out, is mostly toothless. Countries choose their own goals and targets, and meet them when and if they please. Thanks to resistance from nations like the United States, the agreement is nonbinding – any country not meeting its goals will be ‘named and shamed’, but no more. It is a form of ‘mutual coercion’, but one more akin to peer pressure than legal requirement.
And at COP24, all the old wounds were open. Small-island states called for stricter commitments by highly-industrialized countries, and were largely ignored. The United States joined with petro-states Russia, Saudia Arabia, and Kuwait to block language about a UN scientific report on future climate risks. The Polish President Andrzej Duda told journalists at a press conference that Poland had no plans to completely abandon coal, the ash of which had choked attendees as they entered Spodek. ‘We have coal deposits that will last 200 years,’ he said. ‘It would be hard to expect us to give up on it completely.’
But even beyond the international squabbles, there was a sense at this COP that the urgency of climate action may have outgrown the playpen of UN plenaries and negotiations. Sitting in a gigantic plenary room in the conference center, listening to delegates bicker over minute details of agreement language, I found it hard to believe that these bureaucrats were going to save us from devastating climate change. Their form of mutual coercion was weak, and their mandate to act was even weaker. Democratic nation-states have found it difficult to address the issue of climate change – both elected representatives and broad swaths of the public continue to place it low on lists of policy priorities.
When Hardin envisioned ‘mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon’, he may have hoped for some sort of master international agreement, one that would curb population through a carefully-crafted set of incentives and penalties. To date, the goal of COP-esque climate policy has been similar – place the big actors in one room and hope for an accord. But the movement towards supranationalism has lately stalled. The European Union faces unprecedented trials in the face of March 29’s Brexit, and America under Trump has turned away from its international commitments. We are on the edge of a new political reality, but exactly what form that new politics will take is uncertain.
But if climate change policy is always a fight between apathy and action, it is also a see-saw between top-down, supranational politics and bottom-up, local activism. As nation-states struggle to address climate through traditional legislative (or high-level international) means, communities and activist groups have taken matters into their own hands. Some of them were present in Katowice. Inside the conference center, young activists from Brazil, the US, the UK, and other countries around the world staged interventions in the halls of Spodek, chanting, singing and critiquing gridlock in the negotiations. One particularly solemn-faced 15-year-old from Sweden, Greta Thunberg, prowled the halls of the conference center in a black zip-up hoodie and pigtails. ‘For 25 years countless people have come to the UN climate conferences begging our world leaders to stop emission and clearly that has not worked as emissions are continuing to rise,’ she said in one speech. ‘Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.’
On my last day in Katowice, I walked with some 3,600 protestors through the Polish coal town for a marsz dla klimatu, or climate march. The streets were full of Poles wearing face masks to protest the air pollution and carrying signs reading smog zabija, or ‘smog kills’. They were joined by activists from all over Europe, some who had ridden in on buses overnight to make it to the march. The morning was fresh and cold, but the energy among the marchers was high. A man rode a recumbent bike covered in solar panels. Another walked on stilts, wearing a papier-mâché head of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s newly elected (and climate change-denying) far-right president. The protestors beat on drums and struck cowbells, singing and waving signs that read ‘Politicians talk. Leaders act.’
Are these people the future of a planet without the tragedy of the commons – motivated not by utility-maximising and a quest for national growth, but by an ineffable sense of global responsibility? It’s hard to say. The writer and activist Naomi Klein has argued that a new form of climate politics is emerging around the globe, one that she calls ‘Blockadia’: an international agglomeration of on-the-ground activists, fighting against fossil fuel industries everywhere. Blockadia has been on display during the Keystone XL pipeline protests in the United States, and in a large anti-coal mine youth protest that has spread throughout Australia. COP24 may be the most high-profile example of climate action, but it is hardly the only one – or necessarily the most useful.
Meanwhile, inside the conference center, the petro-states went on arguing with small-island nations. COP24 was due to end in a week but the nations were far from an agreement. It felt like two worlds colliding: the old and the new, the bureaucratic and the radical. It remains to be seen which will dominate the next decade – and whether either can stop catastrophic climate change.