A Conversation With Scott Barrett, Professor at the Earth Institute

Barrett-Post.jpg As the Lenfest-Earth Institute Professor of Natural Resource Economics at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and the Earth Institute, Scott Barrett is focused on transnational and global challenges, ranging from infectious disease eradication to climate change. In addition to teaching and research, Barrett has advised a number of international organizations, including the European Commission, the World Bank, and the United Nations. He is the author of Environment and Statecraft: The Strategy of Environmental Treaty-Making and Why Cooperate? The Incentive to Supply Global Public Goods.

Here, Barrett discusses the tragedy of the commons;
why we should ask why political will is lacking for a problem like climate change when it wasn't lacking for a problem like protecting the ozone layer; and why the issue of international cooperation will become more and more important in the coming decades.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I say I work on saving the world. I'm a professor who studies international cooperation -- what works, what doesn't, and why. Much of my work is theoretical -- I use game theory to understand international relations. But I'm also involved in applying these ideas to real problems like climate change, polio eradication, and high seas overfishing. These are problems that can only be addressed by countries acting multilaterally.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on international cooperation?

The idea of global public goods is catching on. An example is protection of the ozone layer. If the ozone layer is protected for one country, every country benefits -- even the countries that played no role in protecting it. You can see the incentive problem here. If I benefit without contributing, why should I contribute? Of course, if no one contributes, the ozone layer would be heavily depleted. So how can we get countries to contribute? That's the essential problem I work on.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

Most people understand the need for international cooperation, but they then throw up their hands and say that it will never happen for lack of political will. We need to think more positively. We should ask why political will is lacking for a problem like climate change when it wasn't lacking for a problem like protecting the ozone layer. We also need to ask how political will can be created. The world has achieved great things in the past (the eradication of smallpox, the defeat of the axis powers, the end of the slave trade). Many of these achievements seemed impossible before they occurred. One thing we know is that, if we believe something can't happen, it won't happen.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the prospects for international cooperation?

Not long ago, there were two superpowers. For a brief period, there was one. In the future, there will be many powers capable of having global impact. The U.S. still leads militarily, but for many issues this is of little consequence. There are emerging technologies that, if developed and deployed by just one country, would affect everyone. Who gets to decide? These problems of governance will become more and more important in the coming decades.

What's a global cooperation trend that you wish would go away?

Presented by

Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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