Addressing global warming on the international level seems to be a classic tragedy of the commons/free rider dilemma. A grasping strategy by any nation can negate the emission reductions by other nations, and while refusing to join, the polluting nation still enjoys the advantages of a cleaner earth. While we suffer free riders all the time without cutting off our own coattails (vaccines being a prominent example), Senate Democrats have signaled that they will not ratify any climate change treaty unless developing and industrialized countries are held to the same standards as the United States. As we may sometimes forget, the U.S. (or Al Gore) did in fact sign the Kyoto Protocol; the Senate just refused to ratify it. Part of Congress’ intransigence might be from a justified calculation that U.S. manufacturers will suffer and the environment will not get greener if China and India don’t play ball (i.e. it won’t work without China and India and Brazil, even marginally). I suspect that another part is due to the simple selfishness of human nature that trumps seemingly rational behavior.
In the ultimatum game, one player proposes a division of a number of coins. The second player can choose to accept the division or reject it. If the second player accepts, then the division occurs; if the second player does not, neither player gets any coins. Rationally, we expect the second player to accept any non-zero share, but frequently children and adults will reject the division, landing themselves nothing in order to ‘punish’ the other player. There are of course many rationalizations of this; perhaps we derive more psychic gain from punishing others than we do from getting the coins. If the game is repeated many times, such behavior could lead to fairer distributions in the future, so we reject with a long-term outlook. I find the former explanation, however, very likely to be true and very disturbing. It seems very petty and not at all materially productive, and is a scary peek at human nature and organic human psyche.
In the world of climate change, America refuses to self-regulate because China and India refuse to enter into binding agreements–they are offering unfair distributions. I think if you ask many Americans, the reason is not efficacy without China/India on board but “why should we reduce emissions if China and India aren’t? It’s not fair.” Unfortunately, like so many things in life, fairness has nothing to do with it. Whether or not China and India play ball, or offer a fair distribution, it is still in our best interest to reduce emissions as much as possible on our end if we believe that global warming is a real, existential crisis. Rejecting their distribution may make us feel happy about spiting them, but as long as we (and they) keep polluting, we’ll all be rats on a sinking ship soon enough. If America is serious about fighting global warming, we can attempt to reduce our own emissions (like Europe and Japan do) without China and India.