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Climate Talks and Game Theory: A better Approach

climate change

Pretty much this…

Climate change talks, it’s like yelling at a wall and hoping it becomes a window. For over two decades, members of the United Nations have tried to forge an agreement to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Thankfully a new paper published offers a different approach to the problem using game theoretical modeling. That is, there are commitments that the countries participating in the negotiations could agree to, that would accomplish the targeted global emissions reductions.

“So, if these solu­tions are there, the ques­tion is why nego­ti­a­tions have not yet reached them – why don’t we have an agree­ment,” said RonSan­dler, a pro­fessor of phi­los­ophy at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity who focuses on envi­ron­mental ethics.

We thought the problem might be not be with the poten­tial solu­tions that might or might not exist, but rather reaching them from where we are now,” added Rory Smead, an assis­tant pro­fessor of Phi­los­ophy at North­eastern and an expert in game theory.

In the paper, the team put forth a new modeling approach that examines this problem. The results suggest that side agreements, like bilateral commitments between the US and China for example or those made in venues like the G8 or G20 summits may be even more important than previously suspected.

Most negotiation modeling studies have used social dilemma games, like the prisoner’s dilemma, but really all the countries [at least in a sense] want to solve the problem– what they disagree on is how to actually solve it.

[Loony hint: If you didn’t read the link, which I don’t blame you, the prisoner’s dilemma is an example of a game that shows why two individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so.]

So instead of using the social dilemma model, the team used a bargaining negotiation model. Multiple players must coordinate an agreement with the ultimate goal being reducing greenhouse gas emissions by a certain amount.

While each player wants to keep his or her own reductions as low as possible [or stay at the current greenhouse emission amount], they would rather increase the proposed cuts if it means that the group as a whole would be more likely to reach a consensus. In other words, “If push comes to shove, they’d prefer to do more,” Smead said.

A few key points, the study showed the group was more likely to reach a consensus if there were fewer “players” than if there were many, if the group con­sisted of a variety of small and large emit­ters, and if the per­ceived indi­vidual threat of not reaching an agree­ment was high.

“The results bear on a number of polit­ical ques­tions,” San­dler said. “For instance, while we ulti­mately need an agree­ment that includes reduc­tions from almost everyone, side agree­ments among smaller num­bers of par­tic­i­pants don’t undermine—but may actu­ally promote—the U.N. process.”

The resulting idea is that countries should get together in small groups to reach a consensus before bringing a single proposal to the larger group. This conclusion supports the work being done by the Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is considered the most important climate bargaining forum.

It turns out that having fewer options on the table makes reaching an agreement easier, which might just explain why it takes so long to order at a drive through, just a thought though.

Love the idea of actually doing something to improve climate talks? Me too, so you might be interested in the full study, you can find that one — here!


Smead, R., Sandler, R., Forber, P., & Basl, J. (2014). A bargaining game analysis of international climate negotiations Nature Climate Change DOI: 10.1038/nclimate2229

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