Did we need unanimity in Copenhagen? (Part 1)

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.

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3 thoughts on “Did we need unanimity in Copenhagen? (Part 1)

  1. It’s not just that fighting global warming without China and India isn’t fair, it’s that pricing carbon in America without a similar measure implemented in China and India will accelerate capital flight to those countries. Dirty industries will just relocate – a process that has already begun due to high labor & tax costs – in a process that is dirtier than the evolution of industry in the United States under the current regulatory regime.

    It’s a bit of a quandary. It’s totally unfair to impose a burdensome global warming agreement on China and India – they are undergoing a process of development that all nations have to undergo and it’s a process that requires emissions. But a solution that only binds the United States will only quicken and deepen the “race to the bottom” that is a central problem in fighting global emissions. It’s not irrational for us to forego expensive measures against global warming if our measures won’t be the tipping point for fixing the climate.

    We should probably do “something” to fight global warming regardless of what China/India do. But if we can’t get China and India on board, fighting global warming will probably be futile.

  2. Alex, you are completely correct that some, maybe many, industries will try to relocate. However, there are still many industries that simply cannot relocate. Power plants cannot move overseas because we cannot transport electricity across oceans. As the physical generators of electricity and a primary consumer of fossil fuels, regulating this industry alone is significant. Drilling and mining companies are restricted by geography. Agriculture and livestock companies (other major sources of emissions) may prefer to keep their American food subsidies, might find it hard to purchase fertile land elsewhere, and may decide that American consumers prefer U.S.-raised beef or corn vs. safety risks from other countries. Other companies may find that the transportation costs and the costs of building new plants outweigh the costs of refitting their existing factories. Some companies might want to stay in places with political and economic security and guaranteed property rights, or need to attract workers that prefer living in the U.S. and Europe. I can also imagine other companies that legitimately care less with the bottom line than making a contribution in the fight against global warming. My point in this post was simply that not having an ideal, unanimous solution does not mean we should quit all together, IF we believe that marginal gains in stopping/slowing global warming is a worthwhile goal. Are we willing to bet it all on an assumption that we cannot be the tipping point or cannot buy more time to figure out the tipping point?

    I do think that China and India should get on board, however, and I propose a method for doing so in Part II that you are free to critique.

  3. Pingback: Chinese Currency Revaluation is Overrated « stone soup

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