THE BLOG

Copenhagen and the Commons

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Reviews of this month's Copenhagen conference on climate change have ranged from nonplussed to fatalistic. Copenhagen has been called a "crime scene" and an "abject failure." A prominent undertone in this reaction is that such conferences will never work, because they are tragic in the old sense of the word: displaying the inevitable power of human selfishness. The fear is that in all cases, world leaders will enthusiastically agree that something needs to be done to reduce carbon emissions, and in all cases, the same leaders will pipe down when asked to make concrete sacrifices themselves.

This type of bind is known in the behavioral sciences as a Tragedy of the Commons. It's a simple concept that explains the tendency of groups to deplete common resources. To understand it, imagine you are a cattle farmer. You share open pasture with 100 other farmers, and are trying to decide whether to add another animal to your herd. Like any rational person, you weigh the costs and benefits of this decision. You stand to gain all the resources an extra animal can provide, while the cost (overgrazing of the pasture) is spread across the entire group, such that each person will hardly notice the change. So you decide to get another animal (or 2, or more). Problematically, the 100 other farmers have used the same calculations and have made the same choice, leading the group unstoppably towards sharing a barren patch of land.

Commons problems are everywhere, ranging from the inconsequential--subway door holding--to the frightening--the depletion of natural fisheries. Somewhat similar situations can also be set up in the lab, through so-called "public goods games." In an example game, I pair you with 3 other people, and give you each $100. I then tell you that everyone has the option of contributing as much of their money as they please to a common pot. This pot will then be doubled and split evenly among all 4 players. For the group, the best outcome follows if every individual contributes all of their money, summing to $400. This is then doubled to $800, and each happy person leaves with twice as much as they had at the beginning. On the other hand, each individual stands to make the most (up to $350) if they free ride--contributing nothing while others chip in. Perhaps unsurprisingly, after a few rounds of public goods games, individuals' contributions end up holding steady at zilch.

While public goods games are about gains and commons problems are about losses, they share a fundamental tenet: individuals trying to maximize their own gains will lead to group destruction. This is beyond pessimistic; it suggests the futility of even trying to band together to protect common resources.

On this view, climate change is merely the largest commons at the eye of the largest tragedy we have at hand, and efforts like Copenhagen are doomed from the outset. However, mountains of evidence have demonstrated that there is no need to be so fatalistic. Real-life commons, including pastures and fisheries, are often used responsibly and sustainably, and small changes in the way public goods games are set up can also lead to steady cooperation over time. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: human nature likely propels us to protect both our individual goals and those of the groups we depend on.

A more realistic view of the commons and public goods problems is that people will sacrifice for a common good, but only if certain conditions are met (Elinor Ostrom recently won the Nobel Prize in economics for specifying just what these conditions are). Listing some of these conditions can shed new light on why Copenhagen failed:

1) Common participation: individuals are much more likely to sacrifice some of their gains for a common interest if they feel a sense of participation in deciding the rules that will govern those commons. If, instead, these rules seem like prescriptions from above, people will more likely find ways around them. This idea was clearly ignored by the 6 nations that drafted the "Copenhagen Accord." This arguably well-intentioned shot at a climate agreement detonated as many representatives of the remaining 186 countries involved in the Copenhagen talks reacted angrily at being left out when it was drafted.

2) Mutual sacrifice: A sure-fire way to reduce individual contributions to a common good is to make them suspect others will free ride from their generosity. Like two people agreeing to put their guns down, being the first one to comply is difficult when there is no evidence that others will follow suit. Individuals in public goods games behave similarly, displaying what is known as "conditional cooperation." Most people report that they will contribute some amount to public goods, but this amount is highly dependent on how much they believe others will pitch in. Australia and Russia demonstrated conditional cooperation when they made clear their goals for emissions reduction were contingent on other countries joining them. Such an approach is toxic when one or more countries fail to comply. This dilemma is worsened when--as with developing vs. developed nations--the standard for defining appropriate sacrifices is hard to agree on.

3) Inducing compliance: Public goods games demonstrate that altruistic contributions are most stable when enforced by both carrots (rewards) and sticks (punishments). Punishment through sanctions and poor reputation motivate individuals to recognize their interdependence with a group, and to avoid free riding. In fact, such punishments may be absolutely critical to the maintenance of altruistic societies, which otherwise would be vulnerable to cheaters. In not forming a legally binding contract, leaders at Copenhagen failed to give their agreement the teeth it would need to induce real changes in behavior.

Both research and intuition suggest that conferences like Copenhagen are not doomed to fail. Informed, committed nations working together should be able to tap into people's common goal to stave off the effects of climate change. Leaders at Copenhagen simply neglected some simple rules for creating such cooperation.