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Researchers: 'Man-made Crises Outrunning Ability to Deal with Them'

September 11, 2009

Existing governments and institutions are increasingly powerless to cope with an international series of crises driven by human activity, warns a group of eminent environmental scientists and economists, including a University of Wyoming professor.

In the latest issue of the leading international journal, "Science," UW's Jason Shogren and his fellow researchers say that nations alone are unable to resolve the sorts of planet-wide challenges now arising. Shogren is the UW Stroock professor of natural resource management and conservation in the department of economics and finance.

According to the authors' research, high seas fisheries and antibiotic drug resistance as examples, they call for a new order of cooperative international institutions capable of dealing with issues such as climate change and enforcing compliance where necessary.

"Energy, food and water crises, climate disruption, declining fisheries, ocean acidification, emerging diseases and increasing antibiotic resistance are examples of serious, intertwined global-scale challenges spawned by the accelerating scale of human activity," say the researchers, who are from Australia, Greece, India, Sweden, The Netherlands and United States.

"These issues are outpacing the development of institutions to deal with them and their many interactive effects. The core of the problem is inducing cooperation in situations where individuals and nations will collectively gain if all cooperate, but each faces the temptation to free-ride on the cooperation of others."

The "Science" article notes the world needs additional institutional structures to achieve the global cooperation on the scales essential to avoid serious consequences. While signs of emerging global action on issues such as climate change have developed, there is widespread inaction on others, such as the destruction of the world's forests to grow biofuels or the emergence of pandemic flu through lack of appropriate animal husbandry protocols where people, pigs and birds co-mingle.

The scientists stress that knowing what to do is a good start, but is not enough.
"Institutional reforms are needed to increase local appreciation of shared global concerns and to address the failures of collective action that cause global-scale problems," they say. "No one is advocating that countries give up their sovereignty."

Rather, they propose a stronger focus on regional and worldwide cooperation, helped by better-designed multi-national institutions. The scientists acknowledge that the main challenge is getting countries to agree to take part in global institutions designed to prevent destructive human practices.

"Plainly, agreements must be designed such that countries are better off participating than not participating," they say. "This would involve all countries in drawing up standards designed to protect the earth's resources and systems, to which they would then feel obligated to adhere."

The researchers conclude that, "To address common threats and harness common opportunities, we need greater interaction amongst existing institutions, and new institutions, to help construct and maintain a global-scale social contract."

For more information about the "Science" article, e-mail Shogren at


Posted on Friday, September 11, 2009

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