Woodpigeon wrote an entry about Al Gore’s film An inconvenient truth, mentioning that there is a problem at the heart of the Kyoto protocol related to the prisoner’s dilemma. The protocol only really works if everyone is on board, but if everyone else is cooperating there is a huge incentive to defect (i.e. for you to be the polluter whilst everyone else is cutting down). Zhou Fang made a similar point on his (her?) blog.
However, after thinking about it I wonder if this is really the problem. If it were, you would expect every country to be defecting, whereas in practice a lot of countries are cooperating, and it is only a few (notably the US) that are defecting. There is a positive model of cooperation, which is the rule of law in democratic countries. As an individual, it is never in your interests for there to be any law that stops you from doing something. However, as an individual you benefit if the law exists because everyone else must also obey it. However, there is an additional problem which is enforcement of the law, and in the case of Kyoto the two issues (of agreement and enforcement) are sort of connected.
The only way long-term co-operation seems to work is when it is imposed from a higher authority. The higher authority says “this is how you must behave”, and if you defect, the higher authority imposes strict penalties against you. To meet the challenge of global change in this context, it seems to me you would need a single world government, and a pretty dictatorial one at that. I’m not sure if too many people would be very happy with this. I certainly wouldn’t be.
If you think about it though, there is no higher authority in a single state, enforcement of the law is conducted by individuals who are part of that state and are also subject to those laws (police, lawyers, judges, prison officers, etc.). What we have is a system of cooperative enforcement. That is, if you defect (break the law), the other members of society agree to collectively punish you. As it happens, this procedure is now very rigid and highly organised, and so it sort of looks like it’s being enforced by a higher authority. In practice, this is probably the most accurate way of looking at it, but it could equally well be seen as a sort of social contract with enforcement carried out by a particular, cooperative mechanism (the system of police, courts, etc.).
The question then is could this same sort of mechanism work in the case of Kyoto? You would need an agreement where defectors were collectively punished by their peers, perhaps by economic sanctions (thus raising the costs of defection to the point where it was rational to cooperate). The problem is that it is not a society of peers. What makes the rule of law in a single nation work is that every individual is roughly equal in power. No one person can stand up against the whole of the rest of the society, and neither can any small group (again, in practice this might not be quite true, but bear with me). This condition for the correct functioning of this sort of peer enforcement contract is missing in the case of the Kyoto treaty. No nation can afford to sanction the US because its economy is so dominating. In order to be able to make an agreement like the Kyoto protocol work, you would need to have a world order without any single dominant economic power. Perhaps the rise of Europe as an alternative economic power might work here?