Scholars and policymakers typically see climate change and other global commons problems as a “tragedy of the commons.” Everyone would be better off if we solve the problem, but no one wants to act unless everyone else acts as well. Because it is easier to free-ride than to contribute, no one works to solve the problem and everyone is worse off. Without some kind of credible commitment to act, such as a treaty that monitors compliance and sanctions defection, the common good will be neglected.

This paper challenges this conventional wisdom. It reconceptualises the international politics of climate change as a “catalytic” collective action problem. In this framework, collective action can be created over time if a critical mass of first-movers is able to progressively change the costs and benefits of cooperation. Here the difficulty is not creating credible commitments or containing free-riders, but initiating action in the first place and expanding it over time. 

The paper introduces the idea of “catalytic” institutions. When collective action problems are catalytic in nature, such institutions can promote cooperation not by enhancing the credibility of commitments but by shifting actors’ preferences over time. The 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change puts this logic at its core, suggesting a new way to address climate change and other global commons issues.

About the author

Thomas Hale is Associate Professor in Public Policy (Global Public Policy) at the Blavatnik School of Government.