Climate change as a prisoners’ dilemma

"Rrrat's okay, you guys. We would have done the same to you."

“Rrrat’s okay, you guys. We would have done the same to you.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released its latest report on intergovernmental panels climate change, and our situation does not look good. Contrary to a number of anonymously funded think-tanks who insist that everything is fine, the Yokohama panel warns that “nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change.” The good news, though, is that poor people are going to get touched a lot harder and in more uncomfortable places. The big warning from the panel is food scarcity, which will ironically starve people in undeveloped nations—the same people who contribute least to carbon emissions. Climate change is an ethical issue. The people who are doing it most are mostly doing it to other people, which makes it a kind of prisoner’s dilemma.

For those of you who were not reading this blog in 2009—pretty much everyone except Sebba and Mom—the prisoners’ dilemma is a concept from game theory. It describes a situation in which cooperation leads to the best outcome for everybody, but betrayers get better outcomes than cooperators in the event that cooperation fails.

Imagine that two people—let’s call them John Doe and Ben Fowlkes—get arrested for spray painting an image of Ted Cruz rhythmically licking at the base of the Washington Monument. Capitol police are pretty sure John and Ben did it, but they can only prosecute if one rats out the other. They put John and Ben in separate rooms, and tell each of them that he will get a reduced sentence—let’s say one year—if he implicates his partner. If John maintains his innocence but Ben testifies against him, John gets three years, and vice versa. If neither admits anything, they both go free.

Obviously, John and Ben should stick to the one ethical rule upon which the modern age agrees: stop snitching. But each of them has an incentive to behave badly, because he doesn’t know what his partner is going to do. If Ben thinks John might crack, he should rat out John preemptively and try for the lesser sentence. The dilemma in the prisoners’ dilemma is that everyone is better off cooperating, but the individual can gain advantage by screwing over someone else.

Global warming is a classic prisoner’s dilemma, albeit with some fiendish variations. We’ll all be better off if we drastically reduce carbon emissions. It’s verging on an existential imperative. But if the United States reduces carbon emissions while China and India continue burning coal and pumping tailpipe residue into the sky, we will put ourselves at an economic disadvantage and miss out on the positive outcome at the end. From the standpoint of rational self-interest, we should burn as much carbon as we can—except if everyone does that, we’re hosed.

The problem is complicated by the payout schedule of the benefits. Avoiding a situation where we simultaneously run out of drinking water and drown is a huge payoff, but we don’t get it until a generation or two in the future. Economic advantage over other developed nations, on the other hand, is a benefit we get right now. It’s just that it eventually results in millions of people starving to death.

About those people: they’re probably not us. Global food shortage affects the poorest populations first, and unless some aspect of the international economy changes dramatically, the people who contribute most to global warming are not the world’s poorest. Certainly, Americans will suffer under global warming. Ask anyone who owned a house in the Rockaways. But it’s sub-Saharan Africans who will straight-up starve to death and Malaysians who will be obliterated by typhoons, so the long term/short term benefit problem gets even worse. Cheating confers a material advantage, whereas doing right is largely an act of compassion.

Seen in this light, the problem of global warming constitutes a judgment on our character. The industrialized world has developed to a point where we can catastrophically alter the climate of Earth. But have we developed to a point where we can collectively decide not to do that? Put another way: is our civilization—our politics, our ethics, our decency—as developed as our tools?

Right now, the answer is no. We know global warming is happening; we’re not doing anything about it, and it’s getting worse. If I were a Christian, it would be hard not to see this series of events as the kind of humanity-wide judgment described in Revelation. But I guess if I were that kind of Christian, I would probably be a political conservative, and my route through the prisoners’ dilemma would already be decided.

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  1. Well said. Two tidbits for the lay person:

    The Fifth action report (AR5) is what the IPCC is releasing this year and last year. It updates the 2007 Fourth action (AR4) report. They release it in sections to sustain media attention. This is the second working group report. The first piece is here, down at the bottom. Summary for policymakers ( Two more pieces will be released this year, like 3 months apart, before the report is finished and finalized. This process was confusing to me when I started reading IPCC literature, so I thought I might save someone else a little trouble.

    You say “Malaysians who will be obliterated by typhoons” which refers to increased frequency or intensity of extreme weather events. This is a meme which gets retold by the media and layperson again and again until its true. However, it is not the case. It was a mistake, I believe in AR3, that misinterpreted science available at the time. Costs of extreme weather events are rising, but that is primarily due to more people living in and building resorts in places that always were getting hit by extreme weather events, like Miami beach. There is no evidence that hurricanes (which are just a single type of extreme weather event) are increasingly common (in fact they are decreasingly common) or that they are increasing intensity.

    This is kind of counterintuitive, especially since the mistake is repeated again and again as fact, but the unfortunate case. I point it out not to deny climate change concerns, but to strengthen the scientific basis of those who repeat it. AR5 has reduced certainty about the impact of GHG emissions on extreme weather over AR4. Which is good, it means they’re getting it right, but the beast is off its leash and the nuance of the following statements from AR5 inconvenient.

    “Overall, the most robust global changes in climate extremes are seen in measures of daily temperature, including to some extent, heat waves. Precipitation extremes also appear to be increasing, but there is large spatial variability”

    “There is limited evidence of changes in extremes associated with other climate variables since the mid-20th century”

    “Current datasets indicate no significant observed trends in global tropical cyclone frequency over the past century … No robust trends in annual numbers of tropical storms, hurricanes and major hurricanes counts have been identified over the past 100 years in the North Atlantic basin”

    “In summary, there continues to be a lack of evidence and thus low confidence regarding the sign of trend in the magnitude and/or frequency of floods on a global scale”

    “In summary, there is low confidence in observed trends in small-scale severe weather phenomena such as hail and thunderstorms because of historical data inhomogeneities and inadequacies in monitoring systems”

    “In summary, the current assessment concludes that there is not enough evidence at present to suggest more than low confidence in a global-scale observed trend in drought or dryness (lack of rainfall) since the middle of the 20th century due to lack of direct observations, geographical inconsistencies in the trends, and dependencies of inferred trends on the index choice. Based on updated studies, AR4 conclusions regarding global increasing trends in drought since the 1970s were probably overstated. However, it is likely that the frequency and intensity of drought has increased in the Mediterranean and West Africa and decreased in central North America and north-west Australia since 1950”

    “In summary, confidence in large scale changes in the intensity of extreme extratropical cyclones since 1900 is low”

    The Malaysians will face enormous climate-related challenges, but there’s no reason to think it’ll be cyclones.

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