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Maebh O'Gorman

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Climate Change; Decentralisation; Regulation; Social Norms; Tragedy of the Commons


This paper scrutinises two of the leading models for dealing with so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’ issues as to their suitability to tackle the problem of global warming, the polycentric model favoured by Ostrom, and the Leviathan approach as advocated by Ophuls. The paper then sets out a hybrid approach which it argues is the only viable solution to the current crisis of global warming. It proposes that, while agreement setting out goals for reductions in GHG emissions must be reached on the international arena, such an agreement should confer on each individual nation the choice of the manner of implementation, and that each nation, and also each region or locality, should devise their own strategy for achieving their required reduction. Such decentralised implementation would not only reduce the costs of both formulation and enforcement of solutions, but also permit more broad-based input by the local community, thereby resulting in an enhanced solution. Furthermore, local solutions would enable the development of a more responsive framework of rules and also facilitate regulatory competition. While legal rules will necessarily constitute a large proportion of the governmental response, this paper also addresses the role that non-legal rules such as social norms may play. Such norms can be altered through the use of taxation, which can effect “carefully biased options,” as well as education as to the consequences of certain everyday actions. As Charny noted, systems of non-legal sanctions for the violation of the rules of conduct specified by the norm system help to explain, “in terms of ‘rationality’” why individuals often act in ways that ostensibly depart from rational self-interest. Such departure from rational self-interest is exactly what is required to counteract the rational actions which result in ‘the tragedy of the commons.’ That efficient norms may evolve among members of a close-knit community is yet another argument in favour of decentralisation of the implementation of centrally agreed goals.