It’s now clear that the U.S. Senate will not take up meaningful climate change legislation before November’s elections. Although global climate change is arguably the most important crisis facing the world today, meaningful legislation in the United States was defeated by a coalition of Republicans, who argue that any legislation would undermine the “American way of life,” and Democrats from coal and oil-producing states, who fear the electoral impact of cap-and-trade. According to John Collins Rudolf, we may still see an energy bill that encourages an expansion in production of renewable energies, and sub-national groups like the Western Climate Initiative may continue to move forward with regional efforts to limit carbon dioxide emissions. But real climate change legislation at the national level in the United States is dead, trapped, according to Jeffrey Sachs, in a political quagmire.
Dealing with global climate change was bound to be difficult. The very nature of the problem—a global common good—makes cooperation difficult. Global common goods are defined by the fact that everyone benefits from the provision of the good, even if they have not paid for the good itself, a characteristic referred to as non-excludability. Normally, such goods are provided by the state, because there is little incentive for private businesses to produce such goods.
When we look at global common goods, the challenges are even more immense. If a country can benefit from efforts to resolve or reduce climate change without changing their own behavior, essentially free-riding on the efforts of other countries, why would they opt to enact potentially expensive measures to mitigate the problem. In a narrowly defined understanding of self-interest, the rational course of action is for them to do nothing, waiting for others to make changes, from which they will then benefit. The challenge, of course, is that if every state behaves in this way, the final outcome will be the one that everyone desires least. In international relations, this is referred to as the prisoner’s dilemma.
The dilemma surrounding the provision of global common goods can be transcended. The European Union, for example, is making real efforts to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions under their Emissions Trading Scheme, and binding targets under the Kyoto Protocol provide some guidelines for reduction. The challenge is convincing national governments to take action when it is far easier—less expensive and more politically expedient—to do nothing.