The "tragedy of the commons" occurs when something - a pasture, a lake, a fish stock, the atmosphere - becomes degraded by the actions of all.
No single action by a person, property owner or government causes the degradation, and no single action will materially reverse the negative trend. So nothing gets done, fingers get pointed and the "commons" degradation continues.
The world faces its greatest tragedy of the commons with the warming of the planet's atmosphere that is overwhelmingly caused by human activities, especially emissions of carbon dioxide and methane. Crank scientists and their dwindling band of supporters contest this warming, but the overwhelming majority of scientists have declared it to be a fact. Indeed, the latest scientific evidence suggests an acceleration of warming trends.
Although some are far more than others, no one industry or country is responsible. So, for example, in Canada, which produces roughly 2 per cent of the world's emissions, it is easy for those who want little or nothing done at home to point fingers at others.
Creating 2 per cent of the world's emissions is actually a terrible record for a country with a population of just 33 million. On a per capita basis, Canada is one of the worst emitters on the planet.
Canada's emissions record is the worst in the industrialized world, because since a previous government signed the Kyoto accord, the country's emissions have grown by 27 per cent, instead of declining the promised 6 per cent. The latest government report has shown Canada's emissions rising again after a slight decline in the previous two years.
You might think that for a country bathing in its own moral superiority, believing "the world needs more Canada," this record would be a source of national shame, such that citizens would demand the government take a leading role in reversing the domestic record while urging the world to do much more to reverse the ominous trends.
If so, you would be wrong.
The Liberals' record on this file while in office was appalling. Never forget this. But the Liberals' dreadful record of empty rhetoric, failed plans and false targets does not excuse the Conservatives' lame efforts since arriving in office.
Global warming simply is not an issue on which Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants to expend one ounce of political capital. Earlier this week, while other world leaders took the podium for a special United Nations session on climate change, he preferred a meeting and photo opportunity with the mayor of New York. He did attend a private leaders' dinner, but then rushed back to Canada for another of his patented economic "announcements" at a Tim Hortons facility.
Mr. Harper sent Environment Minister Jim Prentice to the UN, where he criticized the Chinese and Americans for not presenting carbon reduction targets, despite the fact that every expert in Canada (and many overseas) knows that Mr. Harper's own government's target - a 20-per-cent reduction by 2020 - cannot possibly be met under current policies.
Not for Mr. Harper the kind of carbon tax being imposed in France by President Nicolas Sarkozy. Not for him the urgency with which Britain's Gordon Brown, Germany's Angela Merkel and Australia's Kevin Rudd approach climate change. Not for him the moral imperative that infuses President Barack Obama's speeches on the subject, although congressional politics will ultimately dilute his actions.
No, climate change is something Mr. Harper has been forced to tackle with the greatest reluctance. He was long a skeptic about the science, and he has always feared the economic fallout of serious action.
Politically, he has calculated that action on climate change doesn't have any upside for his party, since few voters associate the Conservatives with environmentalism. He certainly does not want to upset anyone in the fossil-fuel-producing provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, which are the core of his party's political base. He wants his own reputation to be associated with economic management and lower taxes, not climate change.
After all, those Tim Hortons voters are quite literally the bull's eye of Conservative political ambitions, and they don't seem terribly worried about climate change. So Mr. Harper isn't going to spend an ounce of political capital being associated with the issue, or providing serious leadership at home and abroad.