Environment
The Climate Deadlock

The climate deadlock © Illustration: Amélie Tourangeau

After years of negotiations, the international community is still failing to implement the Paris Agreement. Between individual and collective interests, what can the prisoner’s dilemma teach us?

Vanessa Allnutt

The United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP25, held in Madrid in December 2019, ended in bitter failure in the eyes of many observers. Once again, the member countries of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change have, among other things, failed to agree on the rules of an international carbon emissions market. After years of negotiations, they are still failing to implement the Paris Agreement. With the decision of the United States to withdraw from the agreement by the end of the year, the prospect of cooperating in a joint effort in the near future seems increasingly unlikely. 

Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons”

Which makes you fear the worst. Scientists are adamant that at the pace things are going, temperatures could climb four to five degrees Celsius by the end of the century if the states refuse to cooperate. The time for discussion is over. 

How do you explain the persistent deadlock? The prisoner’s dilemma, described in 1950 by the American mathematician Albert W. Tucker, comes in handy here. 

Cooperation or treason? 

Imagine the following scenario: two suspects are arrested by the police. As the investigators do not have enough evidence to arrest them, the police interrogate them separately and suggest the same deal. If they both remain silent, due to lack of evidence, they will each receive the reduced sentence of one year in prison. If, on the other hand, they denounce each other, they will each be sentenced to five years of prison. And, the third option, if one betrays the other, but the other remains silent, the informer will be released while his accomplice will be sentenced to the maximum sentence of ten years in prison. 

As a result, the question that arises is whether it is better to cooperate (remain silent), or to betray (denounce). The solution seems obvious: it is better to cooperate, since this scenario is the most beneficial for both sides. Given that both prisoners want to be released and that neither of them can be sure of the other’s decision (this is the core of the dilemma), there is no guarantee, however, that either prisoner will choose this option. It may indeed seem advantageous to betray the other. In the worst case, they will both receive a more severe prison sentence but less than the maximum penalty. In the best case, the denouncer will never see the inside of a prison cell. 

What the prisoner’s dilemma illustrates is that if each party acts out of its own interests, it will do so to the detriment of the collective interest. In other words, individually rational choices can turn out to be collectively irrational. 

“One for all, every man for himself” 

What does this have to do with climate change? 

In the carbon emission negotiations, the individual interest of each country is to ensure its economic growth, which each country can only achieve by continuing to generate carbon emissions. To save the planet, the collective interest requires reducing the dependency on fossil fuels. This is the whole “tragedy of the commons” that Garrett Hardin already addressed in 1968 and that occurs when a resource belonging to all reaches its limit. Even if the carbon-emitting countries are aware of the seriousness of the situation (if they don’t deny climate change altogether), they are caught in an inevitable logic: the exploitation of the resource until its very end in order to ensure their survival, even if that means destroying the resource. 

The ideal scenario for each country of course would be to continue to emit carbon while the others cooperate (this is what is known as the “free-rider problem”). But since no country will want to be the only one to sacrifice part of its growth for the benefit of all, no one will cooperate — and all will continue to emit carbon. 

The prisoner’s dilemma applied to climate change is unique, given that not all countries are equal in the face of this looming disaster: industrialized countries will be the least affected by the climate crisis. Developing countries, whose historic contribution to global warming has been minimal compared to that of the major emitters, will be hit the hardest. The incentives to cooperate are therefore not the same for both groups. This may explain the selfish refusal of some leaders to comprehend the full scope of the emergency. 

But this refusal is nearsighted. The number of climate migrants is expected to increase considerably in the coming years, which will put great pressure on the developed countries. The UN predicts that there will be 250 million climate refugees 30 years from today. Under these conditions, can we really still speak of a prisoner’s dilemma? Is it really to the advantage of certain states not to cooperate? We seem to be heading towards a lose-lose scenario, where everyone will receive the maximum sentence. 

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