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The international climate regime, primarily designed to limit the emissions of pollutants causing global warming, has failed. Why has international cooperation to combat global warming been so difficult, and what factors must change to improve the situation—assuming it is even possible? Using Mancur Olson’s classical theory of collective action, this essay endeavors to explain the failure of the climate regime. Other international environmental agreements and the associated regimes, such as the Mediterranean Action Plan and the Montreal Protocol on ozone depletion, demonstrate that collective action to address international environmental problems is possible. Both agreements contain the ingredients that classical theory—that collective action in larger groups is very difficult or unlikely—can also apply to international agreements and action on climate change. Despite over two decades to create an effective climate regime, it is by no means apparent that the elements for success will exist for the foreseeable future. We should expect a continued muddling along that may, at best, reduce slightly—but not reverse—global warming at some point in the relatively distant future. Climate change is with us to stay.


CPPS Working Paper Series No.169

Recommended Citation

Harris, P. G. (2006). Facing reality: Pernicious obstacles to collective action on climate change (CPPS Working Papers Series no.169). Retrieved from Lingnan University website: