climate change

Global Warming – Tragedy of the Commons?

The aim of this essay was to discuss how global warming is a tragedy of the commons, and discuss how it could be addressed. I had a word limit of 1000 words to discuss how the biggest and most complex threat to mankind can be resolved. Keep that it mind when reading, I could have mentioned many other things.

Subject: Environment, Sustainability & Environment.
Year: 2015

As global greenhouse gas concentrations increase and temperatures continue to rise as a result of human activity, urgent action needs to be taken to implement a more sustainable future. In 1968 an American ecologist by the name of Garrett Hardin published an article in Science journal titled “The Tragedy of the Commons”, discussing the impact of increasing human populations on the earth’s finite natural resources (Sustainable Environment, n.d.). The term ‘tragedy of the commons’ is now commonly used when referring to global warming (Pollitt, 2014). This essay will describe Hardin’s tragedy of the commons, confirm global warming as a complex example, and outline that overpopulation, politics, and economics are major factors contributing to the problem of climate change. It will argue that although addressing global warming seems an insurmountable task, public education can promote social, political and economic reform resulting in successful environmental governance of common natural resources.

The ‘commons’ is a word used by Garrett Hardin to describe shared natural resources such as land for producing food; fisheries; forests; energy resources (particularly fossil fuels); and clean water, air and soil (Sustainable Environment, n.d.). Hardin described in his thesis “The Tragedy of the Commons” that as populations increase, finite resources will eventually be overexploited, resulting in “tragedy for all” (Hardin, 1968). Hardin uses the hypothetical scenario of multiple herdsmen on a shared common (pasture). Each herdsmen attempts to produce as many sheep as possible to maximise individual gain at the expense of the commons, resulting in overgrazing of the pasture (Hardin, 1968). Hardin summarises this with the statement “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all” (Hardin, 1968). Global warming caused by human activity is an example of the tragedy of the commons (Pollitt, 2014). As humans continue to emit more CO2 into the atmosphere, we are in a sense “fouling in our own nest”, inevitably leading to disastrous environmental consequences (Hardin, 1968).

Franz Josef Glacier, NZ - is climate change is causing the retreat of glaciers?
Franz Josef Glacier, NZ – Climate Change is causing the retreat of glaciers

Fisheries are an example of the tragedy of the commons in action (Benjamin, 2001). Fish in the oceans are a finite resource being overexploited by unsustainable fishing practices (Benjamin, 2001). However a recent example of successful sustainable regulation has transformed the Pacific Halibut Fishery in Canada, by partly privatising the commons (Benjamin, 2001). The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans worked with the fishers to implement regulations and quotas restricting the amounts of fish caught, and gave vessel owners secure property rights to quotas of fish (Benjamin, 2001). The result was longer seasons; 20% less labour costs; safer more sustainable processes; higher quality fish; increased profits; and less impact on fish stocks (Benjamin, 2001). The lessons learnt from the halibut fishery could be applied to other fisheries. It suggests that localised management of the commons using laws developed in cooperation with the users of the resource could be applied to the management of other natural resources (Benjamin, 2001).

Another factor contributing to global warming is overpopulation, with projections estimating that the global population could “grow to between 8 and 10.5 billion people” by 2050 (Washington & Cook, 2011). The effects are further compounded by the rise of developing nations and their increased use of fossil fuels (Pollitt, 2014). Overpopulation will eventually reach nature’s limits, and although restricting populations is considered a taboo subject, it will need to be addressed (Washington & Cook, 2011).

Economics and consumerism are also major factors encouraging unsustainable practices and increased emissions (Washington & Cook, 2011). Current economic practices promote a limitless “growth economy”, placing strain on limited natural resources and relying on the use of fossil fuels (Washington & Cook, 2011). Shifting current economic systems to alternative systems based on “ecological economics” need to be considered if emissions are to be reduced (Washington & Cook, 2011). It has been reported that it would cost approximately 3% of GDP per year for Australia to become completely powered by renewable energy within 10 years (Washington & Cook, 2011). These figures suggest it would be cheaper to address global warmer now rather than in the future (Washington & Cook, 2011).

Governments at different levels have been responsible for fostering unsustainable economic practices (Pollitt, 2014). Oil, gas and coal industries are provided with large subsidies and tax incentives, encouraging pollution (Washington & Cook, 2011). If CO2 emissions are to reduce, allowances for polluters need to be removed (Washington & Cook, 2011). Emissions can be financially discouraged by putting a price on carbon using methods such as carbon taxes or emissions trading schemes (Washington & Cook, 2011). Unfortunately many stakeholders make large profits from the current economic system, with a vested interest in maintaining that system (Washington & Cook, 2011). Governments will continue to favour big polluters unless pressure is exerted by a society demanding reform and a sustainable future (Washington & Cook, 2011).

Various tools and methods can be considered when assessing how society responds to global warming, and perhaps the most effective tool is education (Pollitt, 2014). Public education and effective communication about global warming is essential in making people feel responsible for climate change, and motivating them to change their behaviours and influence governments (Pollitt, 2014). The term “knowledge is power” is pertinent, and history provides examples of public awareness prompting societal change (Pollitt, 2014). Scientific evidence needs to be communicated by the media in an effective and understandable manner, thus providing individuals with the motivation and foundation to implement social change (Pollitt, 2014).

Whilst education is an important factor in empowering society to implement social change, there needs to be alternative methods in which society governs its common resources (Felice & Vatiero, 2012). Elinor Ostrom received the Nobel Prize in 2009 for her research into the governance of the commons (Felice & Vatiero, 2012). Ostrom showed that governance of shared resources by communities can be successful and sustainable, provided that certain conditions are met (Felice & Vatiero, 2012). Economically efficient rules need to be created and enforced by people using the resource and tailored to local conditions with support from outside authorities and governments (Felice & Vatiero, 2012). The rules need to be created in the absence of public planning and market intervention (Felice & Vatiero, 2012). Ostrom used examples where this has been successful, including the village of Torbel Switzerland, Japanese villages, and Spanish and Filipino irrigation systems (Felice & Vatiero, 2012). Ostrom’s work outlines alternative methods in which society can sustainably manage shared resources (Felice & Vatiero, 2012).

In summary, global warming is a complex example of Hardin’s “the tragedy of the commons” (Pollitt, 2014). Factors such as overpopulation, unsustainable economics, and ineffective political policy all contribute to a problem that needs to be addressed urgently (Washington & Cook, 2011). Global warming should not be viewed as a problem but as a “possibility to build a sustainable future” (Washington & Cook, 2011). Every individual on earth is responsible for sustainably managing our commons, the world. Society needs to be well informed on global warming for it to influence governments, implement change, and adapt more sustainable practices (Pollitt, 2014; Washington & Cook, 2011)


Benjamin, D. K. (2001). Fisheries are Classic Example of the “Tragedy of the Commons”. Retrieved from

Felice, F., & Vatiero, M. (2012). Elinor Ostrom and the solution to the tragedy of the commons. Retrieved from

Hardin, G. (1968). The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162(3859), 1243-1448. doi:10.1126/science.162.3859.1243

Pollitt, K. (2014, September 10). Climate Change Is the Tragedy of the Global Commons. Retrieved from The Nation:

Sustainable Environment. (n.d.). Tragedy of the Commons. Retrieved August 28, 2015, from

Washington, H., & Cook, J. (2011). Climate Change Denial Heads in the Sand. Abingdon, Oxfordshire, UK: Earthscan.


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