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.