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Can Game Theory Save the U.N. Climate Talks?

In several weeks, the UN global climate talks will resume in Panama to discuss what can be done to curtail the global warming that threatens to destroy the environment and ozone layer that has protected us for hundreds of centuries. If nations continue to turn a blind eye to the consequences of global warming, there will be a worldwide temperature increase that will have a massive impact on our planet’s atmospheric conditions. As of yet, the nations who have gathered for the UN climate talks have reached an impasse because no nation seems to want to put plans into motion if it is not a unanimous decision.

John Vidal makes an eye opening statement about the severity of the deadlock that poses new challenges that must be resolved before anyone will do anything to stop global warming. He states, “America will never sign up, but the EU will if China does, which is unlikely if Africa doesn’t…the poor want the rich to absorb all the costs but the rich will only agree to sign if the poor do more.” So can there be a solution when nations are refusing to be the first to take a preventative measure against global warming?

Jobst Heitzig, the lead author of a study to be published in the National Academy of Sciences, proposes a system where nations would be penalized if they “missed emissions reduction targets.” He attributes the standoff in the climate talks to the “free riding nations [that are] undermining other countries that want to act on behalf of humanity.”

This system is based on game theory, where the outcome of your success depends on the choices made by others. In a game theoretic matrix, the players make a simultaneous decision without the knowledge of the other’s choice. In this situation, the best outcome occurs when all nations involved collaborate and unanimously decide to all reduce their CO2 emission. However, if one side defects and does not “[fulfill their] climate protection obligations” then it leaves the other side with billions of dollars spent trying to honor their international cooperation. Heitzig argues that game theory can be used to ensure that the “free riders” cannot count on others to fulfill their agreed obligations. He states that there is a delicate balance that is preserved only when everyone stands by his/her promises. However, if one nation defects then there is nothing forcing the others to keep with their promises. Thus, there enlies the incentive for all countries to “make their own contribution.”

This use of game theory in a real life situation is quite inspiring as a student taking a course on how people cooperate and interact. It puts into focus what incentives force us to act in certain ways and how we act if given free rein, like the free riding nations who rely on other countries to act in good faith for the entire world. Now, the chances of Heitzig’s proposal working remains unknown but despite Vidal’s suspicions, I retain hope that we will find a way to distribute the efforts to reduce global warming. Even if nations do not have the same degree of desire to stop global warming, it is a problem that is upon us all and one that needs to be solved because if not, all of our futures are in jeopardy.


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