Monday, May 21, 2012

Climate Change: the ultimate Ultimatum Game?


One has to wonder why despite its solid foundation in reason and physics—more heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, things warm up—there appears to be little movement on the Climate Change issue. Few, except the most die-hard deniers, really believe our atmosphere is not warming up. Without long-term, comprehensive data, understanding and predicting specific climate scenarios for specific regions is very difficult and prone to naysayer’s doubts. The devils are in the details, but even these devils are resolving themselves as we learn more about this phenomenon.

Many organizations, including the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, Friends of the Earth, Inside Climate, and Climate Change | Climate Central are helping to educate the public on Climate Change so the public can connect the dots. Also, most of the studies I’ve read on Climate Change include at least one section on how critical it is to educate the public on Climate Change, though in the most recent federal government study, The National Global Change Research Plan: 2012-2021, the United States Global Change Research Program reports that they proportionally spend the least amount of money (1%) on educating our country about the inevitable.

Even then, this study that encapsulates the views of thirteen government departments focuses on many materials for educators on Climate Change. You can learn about the Climate Change coming to the Northeast and get educational materials from the Toolkit Home, which includes a great 12-minute video for kids on Climate Change called Wildlife and Wildlands as well as a section on our Great Lakes.

Also, the Union of Concerned Scientists has just launched the Center for Science and Democracy in an attempt to unravel the threats of science from our crazy politics for more clarity on this issue:

"In today's hyper-partisan political environment, the public and decision makers often ignore independent science and technical analysis in favor of assertions from ideologues and thinly veiled spokespeople for powerful vested interests. This trend toward deliberate misinformation and neglect of science not only threatens the principles of transparency and accountability on which our democracy is based, but it often puts the health and safety of Americans at risk. To help meet this grave challenge, the Union of Concerned Scientists is launching the Center for Science and Democracy to strengthen the American democracy by restoring the essential role of science, evidence-based decision making, and constructive debate as a means to improve the health, security, and prosperity of all Americans. UCS will launch the new Center for Science and Democracy

You can even take a course online from the University of Chicago, Open Climate Science 101, and really drill into the physics of Climate Change. I took this course myself and learned in detail what I had hitherto only glimpsed from the experts. There are books, like Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet by Mark Lynas, and real-time climate data from NOAA, so there’s no real lack of information on Climate Change and really no excuse why our media is not connecting the dots between Climate Change and extreme weather; no excuse why our politics cannot separate science from ideology.

But what if our inability to address Climate Change is not due to a lack of knowledge, but rather a problem of fairness?

Game theory and one game in particular, might shed some light on why, despite all the information out there on warming, we are not acting on something so obvious and dire. Take the ultimatum game:

“The ultimatum game is a game often played in economic experiments in which two players interact to decide how to divide a sum of money that is given to them. The first player proposes how to divide the sum between the two players, and the second player can either accept or reject this proposal. If the second player rejects, neither player receives anything. If the second player accepts, the money is split according to the proposal. The game is played only once so that reciprocation is not an issue.”Ultimatum game - Wikipedia

In short, you and a friend are walking down the street and you both spot a ten dollar bill. Your friend runs and stoops to pick it up, but out jumps an experimenter and says, “You can only have the money if you and your friend agreed to your friend’s proposal on how to divide it up. If you reject the proposal, no one gets the money.” Sounds pretty simple. As we are all pretty reasonable folks, the rational answer is for your friend to offer you at least a penny and for you to accept it. If you don’t accept the penny, no one gets anything.

According to a wonderfully enlightening program I listen to regularly, In our Time, when this experiment is tested around the world, invariably unless a quarter of the prize (in this case $2.50) is offered, the proposal is rejected and neither party gets anything—regardless of the amount of money involved. A sum offered below a quarter of the amount is considered to be such an insult as to be worth no one getting anything. (Listen to this broadcast, you’ll love the description of game theories and why our experts use them: BBC - Radio 4 and 4 Extra Blog: In Our Time - Game Theory)

Does the Ultimatum game say more about us, how we operate, than about our ability to reason? This may be something to think about as we confront Climate Change. If so, it’s a chilling thought to think we ‘developed’ nations would rather have our children cook on this planet than let a lot of ‘undeveloped’ countries gain by working with them to adapt to a condition we caused.

The Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to bring down greenhouse gases, failed because many developed countries, like the United States and Canada, dropped out because China and other developed nations were not perceived as acting fairly. Undeveloped countries were not asked to curtail their use of fossil fuels. The Kyoto Protocol was an insult to the developed nation’s sense of fair play. They don’t want to offer anything; they want it all.

Both developed countries and undeveloped countries have found a vast sum in front of them: a world full of resources and a chance for them and their children to thrive. But in order for any of us to thrive, each of us is going to have to work out a solution to Climate Change, or else we are all going to cook. We, the countries that have done so well, are going to have to make an offer to those who have not done so well —and (if the ultimatum game holds true) a penny won’t do. We are going to have to offer the countries that did not cause Climate Change, but are going to experience some of the worst consequences of it, something substantial.

If the past is any indication, where cap-and-trade emissions programs aren’t liked, a carbon tax is scoffed at, and the last Climate Change talks accomplished no reductions in GHG’s, it looks like nothing but a totally free-market solution, where the fossil fuel industries can extract every last drop of oil, will be acceptable to the developed nations.

And that will be game over.

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