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CLIMATE CHANGE: A Game With Too Many Free Riders

Stephen Leahy*

BROOKLIN, Canada, Apr 4 2008 (IPS) - The evidence is piling up that climate change threatens to bring a chaotic future unlike anything ever known. Taking collective action in time to avert the worst means rewarding climate-safe behaviour, punishing climate transgressors and publicly praising those who are trying to protect the environment, a new study suggests.

The nations of the world will come together to set a target and timeframe for reducing emissions from burning fossil fuels at the end of 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark. Scientists have repeatedly stated the 2020 target must be 25 to 40 percent emission reductions from the 1990 emission baseline. Can the global community reach this collective target through individual efforts when everyone suffers individually if the target is missed?

The short answer: No.

At least that&#39s the result of an elegant experiment to examine people&#39s ability to deal with this kind of situation. "People do not act rationally, even to protect their own interest," observed Manfred Milinski of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Plon, Germany.

Milinski&#39s experiment is actually a simple game. Six players each receive 40 euros in their private accounts. In each round, players anonymously transfer 0, 2, or 4 euros into a collective "climate account". After 10 rounds the game ends and the climate account must contain at least 120 euros. If the goal has been reached or exceeded, the climate has been saved and each player can keep whatever is left in his or her private account. If a group fails to deposit a total of 120 euros, then there is a 90 percent chance that the climate is lost and all players lose all of their money.

Ten groups played the game, and only five groups reached the goal. And those five barely made it, a shocking result given the fact that all groups were told about the serious risks climate change posed. If everyone contributed 2 euros in each round, the goal would be achieved, saving the climate and as a reward everyone would go home with 20 euros in their pocket. Simple. Everyone wins.

"All groups should have made it," Milinski told IPS. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) Feb. 19.

So what happened? Free riders. At first people made their 2 or even 4 euro contributions, but then some stopped, hoping the others would make up the difference, so they&#39d get to keep more money in their private account. Seeing one person&#39s "greed in action" apparently triggered others to stop making contributions as well. However, as the game progressed and it looked like the group might miss its 120 euro goal and everyone would lose, contributions shot up again. For half the groups, it was too late and they fell short by a few miserable euros.

"This was the most frustrating experiment I&#39ve ever done," Milinski said.

The results made him worry that humanity is in deep trouble. These were small groups of university students with knowledge of the problem, a clear-cut goal and who were given simple rules to follow to save the climate. Still, only half could manage to put short-term self-interest aside to achieve it.

"As groups get larger, cooperation goes down," Milinski noted. "And many people do not know the full extent of the climate problem. It&#39s also much more complicated in the big game of climate change negotiations."

In the big game, it is obvious that the U.S. and Canada are "free riders" while Britain is "playing fair", and countries like Sweden are "altruists", contributing more than their share to reduce emissions.

Cooperation improves with learning, suggests Anna Dreber, a researcher in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Procedures at Harvard University and a co-author of a PNAS commentary on Milinski&#39s paper.

"If the groups who failed played the game again, they could learn and get better at reaching the goal," Dreber told IPS.

Dreber draws hope from another version of Milinski&#39s game where there was little chance of saving the climate but some people invested their money anyway. That was likely a result of being briefed beforehand about the danger of climate change. "These observations also suggest that people are willing to gamble for the climate," she wrote.

However, if people are misled into thinking the risk is small, then they will not cooperate. People must be well-informed about the high risk of climate change, and then they might cooperate, concluded Milinski.

Acknowledging and praising individuals, organisations and countries like Sweden that are struggling to protect the environment is also very important, said Dreber. These are valuable members of the global community and others are much more likely to cooperate with them and follow their example. Free riders aren&#39t so welcome, and are less likely to receive help from others.

Media has an important role, not only to inform people of the serious risks of climate change but to enhance the public reputations of those who are tackling the problem, she said.

Unfortunately, Deber added, "We are still lacking leadership on climate from the big philanthropic, business and media interests."

Climate-unfriendly behaviour also needs to be named as such and publicised. In her article, Dreber suggests that certain vehicles could be tagged with mandatory warning stickers stating: "This car is highly inefficient; its emissions contribute to lung cancer and hazardous climate change."

It is unrealistic to expect the world&#39s political leadership to solve the climate problem next year at the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen, says Milinski.

People have to realise that the river of CO2 is rising fast and is putting them and their children in grave danger. We all have to change our way of living to reduce fossil fuel use, he said.

*This is the final segment of a four-part examination the psychological and behavioural changes needed to dial down the temperature on our global greenhouse. The first three parts appeared on Apr. 1, 2 and 3, 2008.

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