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How to Succeed at Climate Change Negotiations July 13, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, ethics of care, Political Philosophy.
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President Obama arrived at the G-8 summit in Italy last week intending to make progress on an international agreement to limit climate change. But that didn’t quite work out. Via the LA Times:

But by the end of the day, when the Group of 8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, wrapped up its deliberations on climate, Obama found himself stymied by many of the same roadblocks that plagued previous efforts to tackle global warming.

Leaders of the most developed nations again declined to commit themselves to any specific actions now or in the immediate future to curb the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming — actions that would require increasing energy prices, raising taxes or imposing other unpopular economic measures on their people.

Instead, they embraced the high-sounding goal of reducing their own emissions by 80% and worldwide emissions by 50% by 2050 — without pledging to take any specific steps to get there. China, India and other major developing countries, which pressed for action in the next decade by the G-8 countries, reacted by rejecting the package.

Why did the developing nations reject the package?

During the climate talks, Obama aides said, some developing nations asked why they should sacrifice when other countries have caused more of the damage. Analysts said Obama would have more leverage in dealing with such objections from other countries if the Senate approved a climate bill.

It is obvious that there is a real lack of trust between developed nations and developing nations.

The United States has built an economy capable of generating fantastic wealth, in part, by exploiting and degrading resources held by the rest of the world. What reasons do developing nations have for thinking the U.S. has changed its ways? Why should they believe we will take steps to reduce CO2 emissions when we failed to ratify the Kyoto agreement and half our population refuses to believe global warming is a problem?

On the other hand, China and India have enormous, restive, poor populations who are demanding the kind of wealth Americans enjoy. Why should the U.S. believe that the Chinese and Indian governments have the legitimacy and competence to quell their population’s quest for fossil-fueled growth? After all, the environmental records of China and India are horrendous.

There is ample reason for mistrust on both sides.

Thus, these negotiations are shaping up to resemble what social scientists call a prisoner’s dilemma. A prisoner’s dilemma is a device in game theory that illustrates the fact that in competition over scarce resources, if everyone tries to maximize their self-interest, no one gets what they want.

The developed nations (the U.S., Japan, Western Europe, Australia, etc.) and the developing world (especially China and India) all want the same thing—reduction in greenhouse gas emissions sufficient to avoid the consequences of climate change. But each side wants to achieve this at the least cost to themselves.

If the developed nations and the developing nations refuse to cooperate on limiting CO2 emissions, we all avoid the cost of developing clean energy but run the risk of burning up the planet. Everybody loses. If the developed world cooperates (unilaterally reduces emissions) and the developing world does not, then we bear the entire cost of solving the problem. But because the developing world continues to spew greenhouse gasses, we incur that cost without actually solving the problem. In that case, we are all still burning up but we, in the developed world, are suckers as well—we trusted the developing world and got burned.

But the same logic holds for the developing world. If they limit their growth in order to reduce CO2 emissions, and we do not, no one gets what they want but now its the developing countries who are the suckers. They bought a pig in a poke. Although both countries would benefit from cooperation, both sides want to avoid being suckers. Hence the impasse.

But it should be obvious that this is an entirely irrational way of thinking about the problem. Why should anyone care about being a sucker if the condition of not being a sucker is a crispy-fried planet. If we burn up the planet, the satisfaction of not being taken in by those deceptive Chinese will be a hollow victory. It’s a bit like the atheist who will have the “satisfaction” of “discovering” she was right all along when she can no longer enjoy satisfactions of any sort.

So what to do? Solutions to prisoner’s dilemma problems require willingness on the part of one participant to take a risk and trust that the other side will respond in kind. The only solution to the problem of climate change is a real commitment from both China and the U.S. to solve it. And we have more influence over China if we unilaterally make the commitment.

Moral authority matters even among self-interested actors because there are real consequences to being perceived as a international scoundrel.

If we make that commitment and China (or India) does not respond, we get less CO2 reduction than we need, although some is better than none. But China loses too—their pollution problem is enormous and is a direct threat to their prosperity. It would be completely irrational on their part to ignore the problem—and I doubt that China’s leaders are irrational. There is little reason to think they will not follow our lead, especially if we supply them with much-needed technological innovations, and allow them the growth rates that will satisfy their population.

If we don’t make the commitment, then saving the cost of CO2 reduction will matter little because the consequences of doing nothing will be catastrophic. The changes we must make now might be difficult but they pale in comparison to the changes we will have to make in 20 years if we don’t act.

The only rational policy for the United States is to bargain with the Chinese to get the best deal we can, but in the end commit to significant CO2 reduction regardless of what China or India does, and use our moral authority to persuade them to do more.

It is likely that we will bear a greater burden than the developing world for limiting climate change. But that is the price for getting the job done.

And bearing necessary burdens is part of what it means to have moral authority.


book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com



1. Moriae - July 14, 2009

The depiction of the “prisoner’s dilemma” is misleadingly stated here. The lesson of the dilemma is that the only rational strategy to pursue in such a gambit is to cheat [defect]. That’s what kept game theorists so busy for decades: they were unwilling to accept the grim evidence for this fact. It’s also precisely what will undermine in our day every attempt to combat global warming. Anyone who earnestly pursues unilateral remedies for this global phenomena will be played for chumps by all the others, in this case, at least China and India. Why? Because it is the only rational option. One doesn’t even have to be human to see the pernicious truth at work. As written by Matt Ridley:

“Tropical rain forests, bizarrely, are the products of the ‘prisoner’s dilemma.’ The trees that grow in them spend the great majority of their energy growing upwards toward the sky, rather than reproducing. If they could come to a pact with their competitors to outlaw all tree trunks and respect a maximum tree height of ten feet, every tree would be better off. But they cannot.

To reduce the complexity of life to a silly game is the kind of thing that gets economists a bad name. But the point is not to squeeze every real life problem into a box called ‘prisoner’s dilemma,’ but to create an idealized version of what happens when collective and individual interests are in conflict. You can then experiment with the ideal until you discover something surprising and then return to the real world to see if it sheds light on what really happens.

Exactly this has occurred with the prisoner’s dilemma game (although some theorists have to be dragged kicking and screaming back to the real world). In the 1960’s, mathematicians embarked on an almost manic search for an escape from the bleak lesson of the prisoner’s dilemma— that defection [cheating] is the only rational approach.” The Origins of Virtue, page 36.

2. Dwight Furrow - July 15, 2009


It is simply not true that defecting is a rational strategy. Defecting produces a suboptimal outcome–the players are worse off than if they had cooperated. That is why it is called a dilemma.

This is especially true when the game is an iterated prisoner’s dilemma whereby in subsequent iterations non-cooperators can be punished and the number of iterations is indefinate, which conforms to real world scenarios.

In recent attempts to model iterated games using computer simulations the winning strategy requires that players not defect before an opponent, and forgive some defections by opponents, although they must be willing to punish repeated non-cooperators.

See Axelrod for an account.

The prisoner’s dilemma is not a silly game; it helps explain the evolution of altruistic behavior.

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