Game Theory Offers Lessons Collective Action and Climate Change

Contributor(s): 
January 23, 2014

Solving the world’s climate crisis requires collective action. Ideally, all nations would invest equally in new technologies and reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. In reality, some willingly commit resources to abate climate change while others take a free ride. Research published in Nature Climate Change attempts to understand how scientific uncertainty of impending climate tipping points affects the likelihood that countries will act collectively to avert disaster.

The authors used a game theory approach and 500 student volunteers to simulate how nations might react to impending climate tipping points (eg. the collapse of the West Antarctica ice sheet) given different levels of uncertainty. In their game, students assumed the role of nations who could collectively invest in global greenhouse gas emission reduction technologies. Or they could elect to enjoy a free ride by not contributing, If they collectively fail to raise sufficient funds, however, everyone loses.

The authors found that when uncertainty over a climate tipping point is large, societies tend to enjoy a free ride, polluting at will and making it virtually certain that the tipping point will be crossed. When the uncertainty is small, however, societies are much more likely to coordinate efforts and avoid the tipping point. Most importantly, the switch from effective to ineffective coordination happens abruptly once uncertainty increases above a certain threshold.

Two recent news reports underline the importance of this study: Earlier this month, Nature published research by Sherwood, et al., that makes a case for reducing the uncertainty in climate sensitivity estimates by half, suggesting that global temperatures may rise by 3 to 4.5 degrees Kelvin by the century’s end.  Most experts equate that with catastrophe.   And perhaps because they shared no perception of such catastrophes„the European Union announced this week that they would end their binding national targets for renewable energy production after 2020. 

The recent studies of human nature are a timely reflection of current events, and underline the scientific community’s challenge to clearly identify thresholds and likelihoods of different catastrophic events in order for collective action to be possible.   

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Lenton, T. M. (2013). Game theory: Tipping climate cooperation. Nature Climate Change.

Barrett, S., & Dannenberg, A. (2013). Sensitivity of collective action to uncertainty about climate tipping points. Nature Climate Change.