Climate Change Games

Climate change games are being played for very high stakes. With Arctic ice shrinking, sea levels rising, weather patterns changing leading to greater storm activity in some places and prolonged droughts in others, the threshold for serious change appears close.

The price to cut back on pollution is high and our politicians are representing our interests if I may put that politely. Clearly with my thin wallet, my interests aren’t as exciting as some with much thicker wallets, but when push comes to shove, we would all like our wallets to grow plumper rather than slimmer. Slimming is for our belly in the gym so we can fit into our fat cat suits more easily.

Nevertheless we recognize that the issue is important and many of us thought that in 1997 when the Kyoto Protocol was announced that we had had serious negotiations leading to a serious action plan. But the game goes on.

 In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Barrett and Dannenberg have had a look at the business of climate negotiations from a Games Theory perspective and an uncomfortable perspective it is (1). It is a serious multiplayer game in which a dangerous change threshold could be reached if the players don’t cooperate.

Games theory is a fun activity of many psychologists who set up lab experiments around cooperative games. The ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ game is a classic (2).  Recall that cooperation means a light sentence (cost) for both players while betrayal means that the betrayer goes free (rewarded) and the betrayed gets a heavy sentence (pays a big cost). Mathematical analysis shows that on repeat plays with a group, the player who betrays does best. (Psychologist don’t send anyone to jail, they pay out cash in various amounts.)

When there is a big gain by cooperating (see the stag hunting game of Rousseau or just the Battle of the Sexes Game (2)) that is the stable equilibrium setting. That is, the best thing is cooperation and everybody wins.

 Climate change should fit that cooperation scenario as there is a big gain and a serious loss at that dangerous threshold. The problem comes into these climate change games as the threshold for disaster become less well defined. Barrett and Dannenberg crunched numbers and found that when the dangerous threshold of the games was uncertain, the game switched from a cooperative win type of game to a Prisoner’s Dilemma result where betrayal (self-interest) is the winning strategy.

A disappointing result, but a rationalization for why so many politicians say one thing and do another over this issue.


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