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Mancur Olson and Global Warming

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By David Howard Davis
November 24, 2015

eiffel-tower-975004_640The Paris meeting on global warming, starting Nov. 30, engenders both hope and despair. Presidents Obama, Hollande, Putin, Xi, Modi and 100 other presidents and prime ministers plan to attend. Optimists point to serious negotiations on a treaty with enforceable limits for emissions of greenhouse gases because the leaders now understand the danger. The Kyoto Protocol quotas were not binding. Pessimists fear not enough has changed. Eighteen years after the conference in Kyoto, the danger may be more obvious but we still cannot agree to enforceable limits.

Mancur Olson’s Logic of Collective Action, published in 1965, suggests a solution. The book argues that collective action often fails because each party wants the benefits but will not contribute its share without coercion. His chief examples are labor unions. If workers are able to enjoy higher wages but not pay dues, they will opt out. This is why unions demand a closed shop, or at least a union shop. Olson calls this the free rider problem.

Olson notes that some organizations can overcome the free rider problem by offering side benefits. Environmental groups like the Sierra Club or the Audubon Society publish slick magazines with beautiful photographs. Other side benefits are discounted trips and local meetings. While the American Society for Public Administration advances our profession in general, it also publishes PAR and PA TIMES, which provide individual benefits.

Less noted is Olson’s discussion of how small group behavior can result in collective action. If a group consists of only five or six members, they will be able to recognize their common goals and cooperate. If there are additional small members, the core group may be willing to carry them along, even when they are free riders. Olson’s example is NATO. In 1949 the United States, Britain and France recognized the necessity for defense against the Soviet Union. They were willing to support the alliance even when little countries like the Netherlands and Belgium did not contribute their fair share. Indeed, it wasn’t even necessary for them to be members.

This suggests a climate change treaty could be effective if five or six of the biggest emitters joined together. The top six are China, the United States, the European Union, India, Russia and Japan. Together, they emit 63 percent of the world total. This may be enough to accomplish the goal.

The problem is that at present three of the biggest emitters are not willing to participate. The biggest, China, has not limited its greenhouse gases. That may change. China has promised it will limit emissions as of 2025. On the other hand, the PRC is not always forthright and has sometimes reneged on diplomatic statements. Data released Nov. 3, 2015, showed it was burning 17 percent more coal than previously reported. India has made promises but has not kept them. Russia ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2004 but did not meet the goals to which it agreed.

Even the United States has shortcomings. We never actually ratified the Protocol. Congressional opponents objected to the fact that China and India made no commitment. The protocol gave them a free pass under the logic that they were not (historically) industrialized countries. This fiction will have to be removed if a new treaty is to be achieved.

A new treaty will not be agreed upon until China and India become sufficiently frightened of warming that they will participate. In turn this will remove the objections within the United States. Russia will also need to be frightened into participating. Under Olson’s logic, the collective action of the six biggest emitters will be sufficient. It is not necessary that every small country participate. They can be free riders.


Author: David Davis teaches environmental policy at the University of Toledo. In 2009, he was a Fulbright Professor at Nanjing University. In 2013, he published Comparing Environmental Policy in 16 Countries. Email [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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