Cleantech Market Intelligence
Climate Negotiations and the Prisoner’s Dilemma
The next international Climate Change conference is scheduled to take place from Monday, November 26 to Friday, December 7, 2012 in Doha, Qatar. It follows the widely publicized (and derided) Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in December 2009, which brought together an unprecedented large number of attendees, including about 115 world leaders and more than 40,000 people from all over the world, marking it one of the largest gatherings of world leaders ever outside of New York City. The objective was to consider climate change and list mitigation actions pledged by developed and developing countries, as well as financial and technological assistance to reduce carbon emission.
Most delegates left the conference disappointed, primarily as a result of the weakness of the Copenhagen Accord, which was not even formally adopted. Since then, there have been two more annual climate change conferences – albeit less significant ones – plus a series of meetings to try to hash out an agreement about carbon emission reduction targets in order to curtail a global average temperature increase, causing global warming. None of these negotiations have made much progress. And, according to a study by environmental scientists Scott Barrett and Astrid Dannenberg of the Earth Institute of Columbia University in New York, published in the October 2012 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, any negotiations at the upcoming Qatar conference are doomed to fail again.
One major reason, according to Barrett and Dannenberg, is that scientists are unable to ascertain what the global average temperature limit is that will constitute “dangerous” climate change. There is no scientific agreement about what the risks are if the planet warms up an average of 2°C – as opposed to only 1.9°C or 2.5°C – above its average temperature during the pre-industrial era. There is no absolute certainty that such an increase will lead to catastrophic consequences globally. Likening climate negotiations to the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma (a hypothetical quandary in which two prisoners held in separate cells must decide whether to confess to a crime or remain silent, so that apparent self-interest clashes with a mutually beneficial outcome), Barrett and Dannenberg have concluded that this uncertainty is likely to affect the prospects for international cooperation on climate change. “Our research explains the paradox of why countries would agree to a collective goal, aimed at reducing the risk of catastrophe, but act as if they were blind to this risk. Climate negotiations usually are depicted as a prisoners’ dilemma game; collectively, countries are better off reducing their emissions, but self-interest impels them to keep on emitting … the uncertainty about the location of the threshold turns the game back into a prisoners’ dilemma, causing cooperation to collapse.”
So far, the United Nations (UN) has decided that the relevant threshold is 2°C degrees above the planet’s average temperature during the pre-industrial era. Carbon emission levels must be curtailed to prevent global warming from crossing this 2-degree limit, or potentially catastrophic – albeit uncertain – consequences will ensue.
In this context it’s interesting to note that UN officials issued a warning on October 14 that grain reserves across the world are dangerously low and that continued severe drought in the United States, or any other food-producing nation, could lead to severe food shortages worldwide. They expressed their concern that the planet could face a massive hunger crisis. “Supplies are now very tight across the world and reserves are at a very low level, leaving no room for unexpected events next year,” an economist with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, told The Guardian.
One would hope that the prospect of widespread famine would provide a strong impetus for world leaders to reach an agreement at the Qatar conference. Unfortunately it’s no guarantee. Barrett also suggests that the climate change negotiators themselves should create a system with teeth: one that imposes firm negative consequences for countries if the carbon emissions target is not reached, in order to change the incentives for national governments to take action.