Citizen Action Monitor

Why is it so hard to get governments to cooperate to protect the environment?

New study by mathematicians suggests an approach that promises to be a game changer. But is it?

No 2331 Posted by fw, July 10, 2018

According to new research published in Nature, humanity will witness marked sea level rises and frequent killer heatwaves before governments take decisive action against climate change. And to predict the future, mathematicians have turned to game theory. … Although we know that glaciers are shrinking, sea levels are rising, and extreme weather events — from hurricanes to heatwaves — are becoming more intense, these effects are often complex and occur over longer timescales, so establishing a clear link between them and climate change is less straightforward. This, according to [Harvard co-author] Nowak, might explain why it has been more difficult to come up with effective international cooperation to curb climate change driven by greenhouse gases. … ‘When human activity leads to drastic environmental deterioration, through global warming, cooperation becomes the winning strategy…’ … this new mathematical model also enables policymakers to explore future possibilities raised by climate models and explore next steps on a more rational basis. ‘This opens up many new possibilities,’ says Nowak. Because key impacts of climate change occur over a long timescale, one option is not to rely on environmental decline to spur policymakers into action. Instead we need to devise incentives that work over much shorter timescales, say a year or so. ‘We even show which feedback is needed,’ Nowak says. ‘This new approach is a game changer.’”Roger Highfield, Wired

“Game changer?” Only time will tell.

For me, the primary takeaway from this article are found in the opening lines, including these two:

  • “… humanity will witness marked sea level rises and frequent killer heatwaves before governments take decisive action against climate change.
  • “The bad news is that the model suggests that, when it comes to climate change, things might have to get demonstrably worse before they can get better.”

Twenty-three failed UN-sponsored climate summits support these two predictions.

Here’s a summary of Roger Highfield’s article, reposted below –

People have a chronic inability to sustain a natural resource that everybody is free to use and just as free to abuse. The most extreme example of this inability to sustain a natural resource is the current environmental crisis. Along comes a new mathematically-based game theory model showing that to get people to cooperate, they need to get positive feedback that spurs cooperation. In the case of the environment, feedback to government policymakers on how quickly our natural resources are being degraded could inspire cooperation

Trouble is, climate change is a “wicked problem,” complex, occurring over long timescales, making it much harder to inspire cooperation. To counter this, the new model suggests that severe, highly visible, weather events of short duration are more likely to spur global cooperation. The model devises “financial incentives” that work for shorter timescales, and even shows which kind of feedback is needed. Financial incentives can be used to get people, cities, countries to work together on problems.

The repost below of the article includes subheadings and text highlighting. To read Highfield’s piece on Wired’s website, click on the following linked title.

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Climate change will get a whole lot worse before it gets better, according to game theory by Roger Highfield, Wired, July 7, 2018

To understand why governments continually fail to take decisive action against climate change you’ve got to have a strong grasp on game theory and the tragedy of the commons.

A firefighter douses flames from a backfire in San Andreas, California

The climate crisis will get a lot worse before governments take decisive action

It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets any better. According to new research published in Nature, humanity will witness marked sea level rises and frequent killer heatwaves before governments take decisive action against climate change. And to predict the future, mathematicians have turned to game theory.

New study by mathematicians explains why it’s hard to protect the environment

The paper, published by a team of mathematicians, uses game theory to explain why it is so hard to protect the environment, updating it so they could model the effects of climate change, overuse of precious resources and pollution of pristine environments.

Game theory could help policymakers improve local and international decision making processes

The bad news is that the model suggests that, when it comes to climate change, things might have to get demonstrably worse before they can get better. The good news, on the other hand, is that game theory could help policymakers to craft new and better incentives to help nations cooperate in international agreements.

People have a chronic inability to sustain a resource that everybody is free to use and just as free to abuse

The researchers used one of the best known social dilemmas in game theory — called the tragedy of the commons — to reach their predictions. The tragedy of the commons was first described in the 19th century by William Forster Lloyd, an Oxford University political philosopher. Lloyd analysed the overuse of common land (also known as a “common”) by people who had rights to use it — to graze their sheep, for example — to air the idea that resources that do not clearly belong to an individual or a group are likely to be overexploited, since conserving them isn’t in the interest of the individual.

The idea was later made famous by American ecologist Garrett Hardin, in a 1968 paper published in the journal Science. The tragedy of the commons has become one of the most used metaphors among experts to illustrate our chronic inability to sustain a resource that everybody is free to use and, alas, just as free to abuse. We see examples of this dilemma in our daily lives, from litter on the subway to the reluctance to empty the dishwasher in the shared student kitchen.

The most extreme example of this inability to sustain a natural resource is the current environmental crisis

Previous attempts to come up with a mathematical model of the environmental tragedy made the unrealistic assumption that the commons remained unchanged as people exploited them – they played the same game in every round of the model. These approaches could not study the effects of a degrading environment, such as an increasingly overfished sea or a river as it was being polluted, for example. In their new Nature paper Martin Nowak of Harvard University, working with Christian Hilbe and Krishnendu Chatterjee of the Institute of Science and Technology Austria, and Stepan Simsa of Charles University in Prague, detail a more faithful way to model – and understand – the dilemma with mathematics.

“It is based on the simple idea that our actions today change the game we can play tomorrow,” Nowak says. The games in question involve encounters between people where they can either work together and cooperate or pursue their own selfish motives instead. “Depending on what you and I are doing, we move to another game so, as an example, you and I write an article together and, if we do well, we may do a book and, if this continues, we might set up a research institute.”

The new model shows that to get people to cooperate, they need to get positive feedback that spurs cooperation

When they explored the new mathematical model, the scientists found that this dependence on players’ actions could greatly increase the chance that players cooperate, provided the right conditions were in place. “We have shown how environmental feedback can spur cooperation,” says Nowak, who has spent decades exploring the laws of cooperation.

In the case of the environment, feedback to policymakers on how quickly our natural resources degrade could inspire cooperation

These feedback factors include how quickly our resources — be it the ocean or the planet’s ozone layer — degrade.

A good example — The Montreal Protocol to protect the stratospheric ozone layer

This might explain why relatively rapid action to ban chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons were prompted when a dramatic drop in atmospheric ozone that protects life from the Sun’s harmful UV rays was detected by a British team working in Antarctica in 1985. A global agreement to protect the stratospheric ozone layer, the Montreal Protocol, was finalized in 1987 and went into force a couple of years later.

But climate change is complex and occurs over long timescales, making it much harder to inspire cooperation

This is not the case with climate change. Although we know that glaciers are shrinking, sea levels are rising, and extreme weather events — from hurricanes to heatwaves — are becoming more intense, these effects are often complex and occur over longer timescales, so establishing a clear link between them and climate change is less straightforward. This, according to Nowak, might explain why it has been more difficult to come up with effective international cooperation to curb climate change driven by greenhouse gases.

The new model suggests severe, highly visible, weather events of short duration are more likely to spur global cooperation

The new mathematical model suggests the global environment has to deteriorate in a dramatic way – hurricanes becoming more intense, more droughts and heatwaves – before our eyes before governments will be spurred on to make things better. “When human activity leads to drastic environmental deterioration, through global warming, cooperation becomes the winning strategy,” Nowak says.

The new model devises “financial incentives” that work for shorter timescales, and shows which kind of feedback is needed

However, this new mathematical model also enables policymakers to explore future possibilities raised by climate models and explore next steps on a more rational basis. “This opens up many new possibilities,” says Nowak. Because key impacts of climate change occur over a long timescale, one option is not to rely on environmental decline to spur policymakers into action. Instead we need to devise incentives that work over much shorter timescales, say a year or so. “We even show which feedback is needed,” Nowak says.

Financial incentives can be used to get people, cities, countries to work together on problems

“You could give people, cities or countries financial incentives to work together on a problem and, if they succeed, they get these incentives and can move to bigger and more complex problems, along with even larger rewards.”

“This new approach is a game changer”

The financial incentives hinge on the actions of the players, whether they are people or countries. “Cooperation leads to more valuable games, defection to less valuable ones, and can be designed to occur quickly enough to make a difference,” Nowak says. “This new approach is a game changer.”

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This entry was posted on July 10, 2018 by in academic counterpower, climate change red flag warning.
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