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The Prisoner’s Dilemma in International Environmental Politics (IEP)

For this blog post, I read an academic study on how the prisoner’s dilemma applies to international environmental politics as well as international environmental agreements, in the form of social dilemmas. Two examples of social dilemmas, or the decisions of collective actions that need to be made, are the Free-Rider problem and Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons. The Free-Rider problem is when the “actors” of the dilemma benefit from making the decision for public good but don’t actually produce anything out of it. Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons is when an individual can enjoy the consumption of a good but in the process hinders others from being able to enjoy it as well. The academic study goes on to explain how problems of collective actions such as these can be modeled in a payoff matrix. An example given of a real cause to which the prisoner’s dilemma applies is climate negotiation between two countries, Country A and Country B. These two countries have to decide between whether to mitigate emissions or not. The outcomes are mapped on a matrix, where the outcomes are ranked from 1 to 4, 1 being the worst and 4 being the best. When both countries decide to reduce pollution, they both benefit with a payoff of (3, 3). When one country decides to mitigate emissions while the other doesn’t, the former has a payoff of 1 while the latter has a payoff of 4. When both countries mutual decide to not reduce emissions, the payoff is (2, 2).

I thought that this study was super interesting because it demonstrated how the prisoner’s dilemma, which we learned in class, applies significant, economical and political issues, especially in our recent efforts to fight climate change and global warming. The Prisoner’s dilemma is the perfect way to analyze the consequences of the actions of different countries, and truly demonstrates how one has the weigh their self-interests in a compromise. While our in-class examples of this theory were very surface-level, the payoffs in the example I gave above are extremely significant. If Country A chooses to tackle and reduce pollution while Country B decided to change nothing, Country A will be at an economic and structural disadvantage, putting country B at an advantage without costs. When both countries decide not to reduce emission, they both will be penalized for not action but both won’t be affected economically in any way. The Nash equilibrium in this case would be when both countries decide to reduce emissions, as they would both equally benefit from the outcome. This applied example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma relates to how this concept symbolizes humanities’ conflict between the common good and self-interest.


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