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Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Environment

The general public’s concern and awareness for environmental issues have been issues of concern in recent years; the issues of climate change and sustainability are often on the forefront of current news. For the most part, people are increasingly acknowledging the importance of protecting the environment, and that society would be better off as a whole if everybody were more environmentally conscious (even if only to go so far as to not litter on the streets).  Yet many people continue to pollute and not recycle, harming the planet despite the knowledge that Earth’s resources won’t last forever.

The classic example of prisoner’s dilemma can be applied to many environmental issues, with the following payoff matrix.

Player 2

Player 1


Don’t Cooperate


-1, -1

-5, 0

Don’t Cooperate

0, -5

-3, -3

Using the example of pollution, the options of cooperate and not cooperate would become to not pollute and pollute, respectively. The optimal outcome would be for both players to cooperate and not pollute, resulting in a cleaner planet that benefits everybody. However, that option is not in equilibrium because one would be better off by not cooperating and letting other people “clean the world” for you. This is a result of the common attitude/idea that one person’s actions don’t make any difference, and is the reason that the final equilibrium is always the sub-optimal option (both players end up polluting).

The prisoner’s dilemma can also be applied to climate change talks, as discussed in the Scientific American article. According to mathematician Peter Wood, an inherent prisoner’s dilemma arises when addressing greenhouse gas emissions, because “every country wants global emission reductions, but would prefer that someone else take on the burden.” If all nations involved in climate change negotiations worked together and committed to the end goal of reduction of emissions, they would always be better off in terms of long-term benefits. However, most negotiations either fall through or are not kept up because there are more short-term economic benefits for a country to simply allow other countries take on the work while not burdening themselves with the changes and regulations necessary to achieve the emissions reductions.




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September 2012