Talk globally, act locally

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People are much more likely to cooperate when the common resource is valued individually and locally, not only for its benefits to the abstract global public good, argued Elinor Ostrom. Photo: N. Palmer (CIAT)
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Dec 3, 2013

by

Sonja Vermeulen (Head of Research, CCAFS)

What can we do to solve a climate problem that is too big for any single country to solve alone? Elinor Ostrom argued that we must build policies on what really motivates people to act: tangible benefits to individuals and communities

Optimism feels elusive after the recent climate change talks in Warsaw.  Japan is the latest among the high-income nations to announce a retreat from Kyoto; the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol now covers less than 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions.  The Green Climate Fund, intended to channel a 100 billion dollars a year by 2020, is only capitalized to around 7.5 million.  Agriculture remains sidelined from the negotiations. 

It is imperative to keep fighting for a strong post-Kyoto global agreement.  But the outlook is hardly rosy. We live in an extremely unequal world, one in which the richest 25% of people use 90% of world’s energy.  When both resources and risks are highly skewed, as is true for countries negotiating over climate change, experiments suggest that the likelihood of consensus is tiny.  But without global accord, what can we do to solve a climate problem that is too big for any single country to solve alone?  Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom tackled this looming question in her new paper A polycentric approach for coping with climate change, bringing in both theory and practical experience to signpost a way forward.

Conventional theories of collective action, like the prisoner’s dilemma, argue that individual people, businesses or countries will act according to immediate self-interest at the expense of longer-term benefits to themselves and broader society.  Ostrom noted that there is little empirical support for these theories.  In real life, we don’t make decisions in perfect isolation – we communicate, share information and norms, and respond to societal rewards and sanctions.  We don’t ride for free at every opportunity.

Ostrom’s conclusion is that if “greenhouse gas emissions are the result of an extraordinarily large number of actions taken at multiple scales” then mitigating and adapting should also happen at multiple levels – a polycentric approach.  From decades of scientific research, Ostrom highlighted one key finding: the importance of the “immediate micro-situation” in determining our desire to be social beings instead of selfish ones.  For example, people are much more likely to cooperate when the common resource is valued individually and locally, not only for its benefits to the abstract global public good.   Ostrom’s selection of practical examples show how people are motivated to act on climate change by the tangible benefits they reap.  These are often co-benefits, such as cleaner air or lower fuel bills.

Agriculture is already leading on a polycentric approach to climate change.  The Third Global Conference on Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Security and Climate Change in Johannesburg this week will initiate a Climate-Smart Agriculture Alliance – hopefully polycentric in both goals and format.  Climate-smart agriculture is by design holistic and multi-level, integrating food security, adaptation and mitigation objectives, and doing so at the level of whole landscapes and whole food systems, not just farms and fields.  A polycentric approach may lack the universal justice and elegance of a binding global agreement.  But, as Ostrom asserted, we can’t afford to wait.  We must do all we can now, at every scale.

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