An adaptive agreement for a complex dilemma

Over more than 20 years we have been trying to put in place a meaningful climate change agreement. Extraordinarily, in Paris 196 countries just managed this. Or did they?

The scale of what has been achieved is immense.  For example, the Climate Institute’s CEO, John Connor says this agreement “signals to communities, investors and companies around the world that the shift to clean energy is now unstoppable”.

By the numbers, the world and Australia made a significant step with more than 100 countries banding together as the “High Ambition Coalition” to call on limiting warming to 1.5 degrees in addition to the 2 degree target.

There is, however, plenty of realism. George Monbiot points out “with 2C of warming, large parts of the world’s surface will become less habitable… wilder extremes: worse droughts in some places, worse floods in others, greater storms… Islands and coastal districts in many parts of the world are in danger of disappearing beneath the waves.”

James Hansen is more direct: “It’s a fraud really, a fake,” he says, rubbing his head. “It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’

So is it a fraud? This agreement features pledges for action? There may be 3 very well validated principles at play.

Climate change is a dilemma – the sort of problem where there can be a tragedy of the commons in which high emitting countries damage the world’s ability to provide resources and life support services for us all. However, Nobel prize-winning research, led by Elinor Ostrom and many others, discovered this tragedy is only valid in very limited special circumstances. Three conditions are necessary, but not sufficient, for effective answers. Firstly, the resource must be important and prominent enough for the users to create new managing institutions. Secondly, the users must not be constrained  from creating and setting their own rules. Thirdly, at least some of the users must be able to communicate with each other and bargain.

These conditions appear to be some of what the Paris agreement enables – multiple different centres of action pledging reductions, reviewing and communicating about implementation and holding ourselves to account.

We have an adaptive agreement – one in which action can change (and will need to) as knowledge about the impacts increases. A 2C target, for example, does not provide certainty. Rather, it is a level at which a range of dangerous outcomes are less likely to occur. Encouragingly, the agreement seems to mirror human experience backed by decades of research. Our societies can and have answered very similar, albeit smaller issues, under the right conditions.

Pic: Climate Insititute. For background and references on commons dilemmas see Common pool resources, A climate for change: An exploration towards Integral Action Loops to apply our knowledge for sustainability success. Chapter 5, The University of Adelaide.

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