Global Warming: "Tragedy Of
The Commons" Revisited
14 February, 2005
Agence France Presse
PARIS - Way back in 1968, US ecologist Garrett Hardin sketched
the dilemma that today besets the Kyoto Protocol, the UN's global warming
pact which takes effect on Wednesday.
In a landmark essay,
"The Tragedy of the Commons,"
Hardin evoked the case of common land where everyone has the right to
graze their cattle.
Even if the land
becomes overgrazed, people will continue to put their animals on the
damaged fields and even add to their herd, said Hardin.
The reasoning: Individuals
see no point in making a sacrifice if others continue to use a common
asset. Even if everyone is aware of the risk of abuse, the mix of selfishness,
competitiveness and unregulated exploitation eventually makes the land
unusable for all.
Swap the common
land for Earth's atmosphere and overgrazing for greenhouse gases and
you have the greatest environmental challenge of the early 21st century:
how to tackle climate change.
The evidence for
man-made global warming is now doubted only by a small minority of scientists.
view: Carbon emissions from burning oil, gas and coal are trapping the
Sun's heat rather than let it radiate out to space -- a "greenhouse"
effect with potentially far-reaching consequences for the delicate climate
The world's average
temperature rose by 0.6 C (1.08 F) from 1900-1990 alone, and could increase
by another 5.8 C (10.4 F) by 2100, depending on how much carbon dioxide
(CO2) is in the air, according to the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change (IPCC).
After the Nineties
-- the hottest decade on record -- 2004 was the fourth warmest year,
with the highest temperature rises recorded in Alaska, the Caspian Sea
and the Antarctic peninsula, NASA scientists reported last week.
Experts admit there
are some big knowledge gaps.
No one can say for
sure exactly how bad the climate damage will be, if there are triggers
that could worsen it (or alternatively, ease it) and what is a "safe"
level of emissions.
But a conference
staged in Exeter, England, this month by more than 100 climate scientists
branded the danger as big and worsening, even if key details are lacking
or open to debate.
The biggest expert
gathering since the 2001 IPCC report said climate change was already
affecting ecosystems and rainfall patterns and damaging polar ice and
"In many cases,
the risks are more serious than previously thought... (and) a number
of new impacts were identified that are potentially disturbing,"
Among them, the
risk of acidification of the sea, caused by the absorption of too much
atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2); the potential shutdown of the Gulf
Stream, which provides western Europe with balmy weather; and early
warnings of ice loss in Antarctica.
So much for the
threat today and worries about what could lie down the road.
What about the solution?
Well, the Kyoto Protocol is Hardin's dilemma personified.
Only a small number
of countries are being asked to make real sacrifices for the global
good. The other countries, in effect, get a free ride.
The pact commits
industrialized countries to make targeted curbs in emissions of six
greenhouse gases by 2008-2012. This carries a cost because their economies
will have to improve fuel efficiency and convert to cleaner energy.
True, rich nations,
which used carbon fuels to power the Industrial Revolution that generated
their prosperity, are historically to blame for global warming.
But the deal does
not include fast-growing populous countries like China, already the
world's second biggest CO2 polluter, and India.
Nor does it include
the United States, which is responsible for a third of all global CO2
emissions and says meeting its Kyoto targets would cost too much.
Even if Kyoto is
enacted in full, industrialized signatories will at best reduce their
emissions by a couple of percent over 1990: not even a dent on global
Energy Agency (IEA) estimates CO2 levels have already risen by 15 percent
since 1990 and are set to rise by another 60 percent by 2030.
In contrast, the
Exeter conference said that if the world wants to peg the temperature
increase over pre-industrial times to 2.0 C (3.6 F) by 2100, pollution
will have to peak in 2020 and then fall swiftly. Today's annual emissions
of six gigatons would have to be roughly halved by 2095.
gloomy that this will ever happen, sensing only short-termism and a
national focus for addressing a long-term, global problem.
Some hope for some
technology breakthrough to wean the planet off fossil fuels or a climate
shock that will focus minds. That way, the post-2012 Kyoto, for which
negotiations begin late this year, could be inclusive, simple and enforce
tough and universal emissions controls.
"I would be
very surprised if the current growth rate of CO2 is not maintained for
at least another two decades, no matter what policies are implemented,"
said Stephen Schneider, a professor at Stanford University in California.
"I'll be very
pleased, looking back, wherever I am looking back from, if in 100 years
we are able to keep it to under a doubling of CO2. That will be an effort."
© 2005 AFP