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The Tragedy of the Commons: Nationalism and the COP26

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle postulated that “what is common to many is taken least care of, for all men have greater regard for what is their own than for what they possess in common with others.” The outcomes of the COP26 were coloured by disagreements and compromise. No state has jurisdiction over the environment as a global common and finding a collaborative approach across nation-states remains a challenge. In The Tragedy of the Commons (1968) Hardin argued that in circumstances where many individuals must share a limited resource, individuals position short-term self-interest above the common good. When it comes to the global challenge of climate change, we cannot afford to get distracted by individual impulses and instead need to cooperate and coordinate on an equal, sustainable, and communal form of governance.

by Carmen van Arragon

The universality of the environment creates a distance, a form of “otherness”, redirecting the gaze of many Governments towards the meeting of domestic demands, hindering implementations of long-term national policy objectives to protect this global common. Perhaps the greatest challenge is the way the international legal system, established to maintain peaceful relations between states, fails to protect the environment as a global common. The COP26 was an opportunity for nation-states and international actors to come together and work collaboratively on climate action. Even though to some extent it succeeded in doing so, the COP26 also revealed ongoing great power competition and fuelled tension between nation-states (Tsafos, 2021). The first step in potentially decreasing tension and competition between nations is by including non-state actors in the decision-making processes. Diplomatic negotiations between nations are coloured by their shared history, nevertheless, environmental degradation is a global issue and lingering on historical wrongdoings between nations may impede future collaborative action. Even though reconciliation processes and retribution are central for climate justice, in times of crisis it becomes necessary to look beyond historical disputes and prioritize the achievement of common goals. Inclusive multilateral negotiations are central to orchestrating collaborative action and providing diverse perspectives.

Despite the tragedy of the commons, humanity has proven that they can hold each other accountable.

Furthermore, despite environmental degradation being a global common, not everyone is equally affected by the consequences of climate change. Efforts need to be made to diversify multilateral negotiations, for instance by amplifying voices that often go under the radar in decision-making processes, including those of Indigenous communities, persons of colour, women, youth, and peoples directly affected. This is of particular importance considering the long history of suppression and marginalization by many Western nations. To collaboratively work on this global issue, individuals from different regions of the world and with different areas of expertise and experience need to bundle their strengths so that every member of society, including young people, politicians, engineers, teachers, scientists, the elderly and so on, can actively participate in climate action plans.

Despite the tragedy of the commons, humanity has proven that they can hold each other accountable. From social contracts to communal agreements and the passing of laws, established to be able to depend on each other for the achievement of common goals. To strengthen our collective response to the global threat of climate change there is a need for binding agreements between international actors and direct-action plans that complement global and local conditions and demands. In addition to increased transparency regarding climate undertakings, establishing clear action plans and collaboratively managed monitoring systems will provide an overview of who is acting upon which established agreements and accelerate efficient coordination and synchronization across borders. Climate justice can only be achieved through the recognition and respect of diversity, in addition to active and equal inclusion in the climate movement.

Carmen van Arragon grew up in the Netherlands and Norway and is presently studying Sociology, Political Science and Law at University College Roosevelt in Middelburg. She is the winner of the Young Diplomat Review Short Essay competition on the COP26.


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