How climate talks can be more successful

For more than two decades, mem­bers of the United Nations have sought to forge an agree­ment to reduce global green­house gas emis­sions. But so far, these inter­na­tional cli­mate nego­ti­a­tions have had lim­ited success.

What’s more, game the­o­ret­ical mod­eling of the nego­ti­a­tions sug­gests that there are fea­sible solu­tions to the problem. That is, there are com­mit­ments that the coun­tries par­tic­i­pating in the nego­ti­a­tions could agree to that would accom­plish the tar­geted global emis­sions reduc­tions. “So, if these solu­tions are there, the ques­tion is why nego­ti­a­tions have not yet reached them – why don’t we have an agree­ment,” said Ron San­dler, a pro­fessor of phi­los­ophy at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity who focuses on envi­ron­mental ethics.

We thought the problem might be not be with the poten­tial solu­tions that might or might not exist, but rather reaching them from where we are now,” added Rory Smead, an assis­tant pro­fessor of Phi­los­ophy at North­eastern and an expert in game theory.

In a paper released Sunday in the journal Nature Cli­mate Change, Smead, San­dler, and their col­leagues, including North­eastern Assis­tant Pro­fessor John Basl, put forth a new mod­eling approach that exam­ines this very problem.  The results sug­gest that side agree­ments, such as bilat­eral com­mit­ments between the US and China or those made in venues like the G8 and G20 sum­mits may be even more impor­tant than pre­vi­ously suspected.

Most cli­mate nego­ti­a­tion mod­eling studies have used social dilemma games such as the prisoner’s dilemma, in which the best inter­ests of the indi­vidual agent are not the same as those of the whole. But, as Smead said, “All coun­tries in a sense want to solve this problem—what they dis­agree on is how to go about solving it.”

So rather than using a social dilemma game, the research team used a bar­gaining nego­ti­a­tion model. Here’s how it works: Mul­tiple players must coor­di­nate on an agree­ment with the goal of cut­ting global green­house gas emis­sions by the tar­geted amount. While each agent would like to keep his own reduc­tions as low as pos­sible, he would prefer to increase his pro­posal if it means the group would be more likely to reach a con­sensus. “If push comes to shove, they’d prefer to do more,” Smead said.

The game starts with each player making an ini­tial pro­posal to reduce emis­sions by a cer­tain amount. Then the players see what their fellow par­tic­i­pants pro­posed to and read­just their own pro­posals. Repeating this sev­eral times will even­tu­ally either lead to a break down in nego­ti­a­tions or an agree­ment that makes everyone happy.

It’s a simple model that doesn’t take into account such things as national pol­i­tics and enforce­ment sce­narios, but it has an impor­tant fea­ture: It reveals poten­tial bar­riers to suc­cessful nego­ti­a­tions that might be hidden in more com­plex models.

The research team found that a few fac­tors were extremely impor­tant in main­taining suc­cessful nego­ti­a­tions. In par­tic­ular, agree­ments were more likely to be reached if the group  was­com­prised of fewer agents rather than many; if the group con­sisted of a variety of small and large emit­ters; and if the per­ceived indi­vidual threat of not reaching an agree­ment was high.

The results bare on a number of polit­ical ques­tions,” San­dler said. “For instance, while we ulti­mately need an agree­ment that includes reduc­tions from almost everyone, side agree­ments among smaller num­bers of par­tic­i­pants don’t undermine—but may actu­ally promote—the U.N. process.”

Since smaller groups are more likely to reach con­sensus, the researchers said, it would be better for a sub­group of coun­tries to come to a con­sensus on its own and then bring that single pro­posal to the larger group.

It would be much better if the rest of the world could figure out a poten­tial agree­ment and then invite coun­tries such as China and the U.S. to the table,” Smead explained. If that smaller group’s offer is sufficient—that is, if it promises to reduce emis­sions by the pro­por­tional amount nec­es­sary to achieve the global goal—then it should be suc­cessful in the larger venue.

This sug­gests that efforts such as the G8 and G20 cli­mate sum­mits are actu­ally ben­e­fi­cial to the efforts of the United Nations Frame­work Con­ven­tion on Cli­mate Change, which is con­sid­ered the most impor­tant cli­mate bar­gaining forum. Many have wor­ried that these smaller efforts weaken UNFCCC’s work, but the new research dis­putes that concern.

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