Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Climate change is just a game

Climate change is a huge environmental problem. After over a decade of being continuously reminded of it, a statement like that becomes a platitude. But what we don’t often hear is that climate change and the solution to it is a social dilemma that requires people and countries that think individualistically – which got them into this mess in the first place – to trust and cooperate with each other. This can be a tall order. With the help of a branch of science called game theory, we can get a better grasp of these behind the scenes climate change issues.

Game theory was originally developed during the Cold War as a way of developing strategies in situations where the outcome is based on both you and your opponent’s decisions. Because it’s not always possible to know what an opponent is going to do, the first game theorists developed scenarios they called games and asked themselves what the most rational way to proceed would be if they were in their opponent’s shoes.

A modern day example of this is the battle for consumers between Coke and Pepsi. If they both companies set the same high price, they split the number of consumers and collect sizeable profits. If Coke one day decided it could make more money by setting its price lower than Pepsi’s, thus attracting Pepsi drinkers, Pepsi would quickly lower its prices also and both companies would find themselves making less money than before. Game theorists study, in this instance, what pricing strategies each company should take to help maximize profits. Though a large number of these games exists, two are especially important when discussing climate change.

The origin of the climate change problem can be explained by a game called the tragedy of the commons. Proposed by Garrett Hardin in 1968, it explores the harmful dynamic that can develop when individuals benefit from a public good while spreading the costs to all other users. The quintessential example, used by Hardin himself, is that of a public pasture.

Imagine you are a shepherd grazing your flock on the public pastures surrounding your village along with a number of other shepherds. One day you have an epiphany: If you bought one more sheep, you would get the full benefit of owning that additional sheep and the cost of raising it, the grass it would eat, would be split between you and all other shepherds in the village because grass eaten by your new sheep cannot be eaten by another. Having realized this, you decide to get another sheep. Then another. And another. After a while, the other shepherds catch on to your logic and start adding their own sheep until there are too many sheep for the pasture and it becomes unproductive equally devastating all shepherds. Getting more sheep made so much sense, what happened?

The problem, like climate change, is not the decision or the motives of the individual, it is the collection of decisions made by all individuals. From the point of view of each shepherd, getting more sheep always makes more sense because the benefit outweighs the cost. The problem is that all shepherds are bound to think this way and the pasture cannot support and unlimited number of sheep

Driving your car, in this instance, is similar to buying more sheep. Every time someone drives from point A to point B they get obtain the full benefit of that trip while the cost, greenhouse gas emissions, is released into the atmosphere and shared by everyone in the form of climate change. That’s why it’s easy to think, “I’m just one person,” because your benefit seems so much larger than your cost. We need to remind ourselves that if millions of people are also thinking the same thing, as with the shepherds, the costs quickly get out of hand.

Why, then, is it so hard to fight climate change? Can we not all realize our collective predicament and work together? Cooperation is not as easy as it may seem. It can lead to the second climate change game, the snowdrift game.

Imagine – this shouldn’t be too hard for Canadians – that you are driving in a snowstorm until you arrive at a snowdrift across the road. You inspect the snowdrift and find no way around it while also noticing that there is someone else stuck on the other side of the snowdrift driving in the opposite direction. Each of you can choose to shovel or not creating three possible scenarios. In the first, both people shovel sharing the cost. In the second, one person shovels, accruing the entire cost while the other person benefits from the other’s work. The last scenario, where no one shovels, leaves both people trapped on their side of the snowdrift.

To see how this applies to climate change, imagine a much simplified world with two countries: A and B. In the first scenario, both countries reduce emissions and avoid or minimize climate change. In the second, one country reduces emissions, lessening the impact of climate, and both countries benefit. The last scenario where both countries are unwilling to reduce emissions finds both facing intense climate change.

Most countries would like to be in the first scenario but are simultaneously afraid to find they are the duped party in the second. This leaves countries in the third scenario because they can’t find a way to trust that the other will share the costs of reducing emissions.

This is where a third party has to step in to instill that trust. In the real world case, this came in the form of the Kyoto Protocol. It guaranteed a certain amount of trust between countries because it only came into effect when enough countries to represent 55% of global emissions ratified it. This was meant to eliminate, as much as possible, countries ‘sitting in their cars’ and waiting for other countries to ‘dig out the snowdrift’. Of course, the United States infamously did so, refusing to ratify the Protocol because other developing countries, most notably China, India and Brazil, were also ‘sitting in their cars’. Regardless of its overall efficacy, the Kyoto Protocol managed to instill a little bit of trust between countries…for a little while anyway.

While climate change continues to be a highly politicized and polarizing issue, it is important to realize that ideological differences aren’t the only problem. There are also real social dilemmas underlying both the cause and the resolution of climate change. Cooperation is going to be the only way out of this snowdrift.

Seen in the September 17, 2008 issue of the Brome County News

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