Prisoner's Dilemma & Climate Change

The Paris Climate Accords were ratified in 2015 and have gained 195 signatories since. Most experts agree that a 2-degree (Celsius) increase in global temperatures would avoid the worst impacts of climate change and that a 4-degree increase would be devastating. But how are we tracking towards those goals? Not well, it turns out. Most countries are on track to miss the 2050 net-zero emissions target. The top 7 emitters account for 50% of all global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and none of them meet the most aggressive Paris targets. Three (China, India, and Indonesia) are considered highly insufficient, according to One (Russia) is listed as critically insufficient. The remaining three (US, European Union, and Brazil) are rated as insufficient.

Enter the prisoner’s dilemma, a classic thought exercise where two accomplices in a crime are interrogated separately. If neither of them confesses or incriminates the other, they will only get a minor sentence. If one of them testifies against the other, he could get off free. However, because they are separated, they each have to figure out the likelihood that the other will sell them out and they will get the full punishment for the crime.

We are in a global prisoner’s dilemma around climate change. If we “do the right thing” and invest heavily in carbon reduction, we may have a chance of averting the worst effects of climate change, but that strategy depends on every other country also doing the same. If they don’t then we may not have the necessary resources remaining to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Alternatively, we could direct more resources to hardening against the impacts of climate change, betting that most other countries will indeed fail to meet their carbon reduction targets, and we should be prepared for the worst-case scenario.

These strategies are predicated on what we think other countries might do when faced with the same choices. Vermont has its own little microcosm of this global posturing; however, we have one key advantage. Our forests are already absorbing about half of all the carbon that our human population is producing, meaning that we are well on our way to net-zero in terms of contribution to atmospheric carbon (which is the 2050 Paris target). It seems likely we can get quite close to carbon neutral with the coming EV revolution in our transportation sector. This cannot be said, however, for other (often overlooked) aspects of our environmental impacts.

Our waterways cannot absorb the amount of phosphorous and other pollutants that we are subjecting them to. Our landfills and recycling waste streams are struggling to handle the mountains of post-consumer products and forever materials we are discarding. Perhaps as environmentalists, it is time to start thinking more wholistically about our impact.

We are stewards of our own little corner of the world, but so much of our state policy is focused on GHG emissions that I fear we are neglecting things like the health of our soils, forests, and waterways. Carbon is not the only pollutant that has an impact on our natural environment.

Further, it is likely time to start embracing climate resilience – improving our natural and man-made infrastructure and social safety nets to better absorb the impacts of climate change. The UN documents on climate actually speak to this quite a bit, indicating that resilience is (almost) as important as mitigation of GHG’s. For Vermonters this might mean shifting more investments towards infrastructure hardening to withstand increasingly severe heat, wind, and, yes, flooding.

Ben Kinsley has over a decade of public policy experience in Vermont. Working for non-profit organizations, he has shaped public policy in areas such as education, elections, and ethics. He currently serves on the board of directors for Campaign for Vermont, a non-partisan advocacy group seeking to grow the state’s middle class.

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