Since 1990, it has been known that human-generated CO2 emissions cause global warming. In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was signed by 38 industrially developed countries. By doing so they agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to 5% below the levels of 1990 before 2012. Currently, 137 countries have ratified the protocol but have made little progress towards the goal. Even worse: global CO2 emissions have grown four times faster since 2000 than in the previous decade. Additionally, China has surpassed the United States as the largest emitter with a 50% emission increase since 1990. Nevertheless, CO2 emissions in the U.S. continue to rise with a 15% increase in twenty years (US EPA, 2023)
The world is currently grappling with what could be considered one of its most intricate dilemmas, leading to difficulties in achieving successful agreements. In July 2008, sixteen economic powerhouses, including the Group of Eight (G8) and the Group of Five (G5) emerging economies, gathered in Japan to formulate an ambitious climate plan: global CO2 emissions should be halved by 2050. However, no agreement was reached. The emerging economies refused to sign, claiming that the United States made insufficient concessions. In turn, the U.S. declined to make concessions, fearing excessive benefits for the emerging economies.
The prisoner’s dilemma
Negotiations on a collective approach to the climate problem often seem to falter due to political power games. However, the difficulty runs deeper than mere political unwillingness. The climate problem is, in many ways, a classic example of the age-old prisoner’s dilemma. This dilemma, conceived in 1950 by American mathematicians Merril Flood and Melvin Dresher, and later developed by their colleague Albert W. Tucker (1905-1995), illustrates how individuals, driven by self-interest and rational considerations, consciously make decisions that are detrimental to everyone.
The original prisoner’s dilemma involves two people suspected of a crime. The sheriff lacks enough evidence for a conviction and proposes a deal: if one suspect is willing to betray the other, and the other denies involvement, the betrayer goes free while the other receives the maximum twenty-year prison sentence. If both betray each other, they face a five-year sentence. If both deny involvement, they each serve only one year. Therefore, it is in the suspect’s best interest to deny involvement; their punishment then is considered the least severe.
However, in reality, they will both decide to betray the other. A rational assessment reveals that betraying the other is always the most favorable option for each suspect individually. If the other denies involvement, the betrayer goes free. If the other also betrays, the punishment is still five years less than if the betrayer had denied involvement. Denying involvement poses a considerable risk: if the other betrays, the consequences are severe. If both suspects act rationally, they will choose betrayal, resulting in a suboptimal outcome – five years in prison instead of one year.
‘Rational’ here means following the homo economicus. This logic dictates seeking maximum benefit at the lowest cost. Hence, the homo economicus does not deny; the risk of the other going free while receiving the maximum penalty is too high.
The real-life prisoner’s dilemma
Concerning the environmental problem, China and the U.S. appear to be caught in the same rational trap. The most favourable scenario for resolving the climate problem would be for both countries to drastically reduce their CO2 emissions. However, emission reduction also means limiting economic growth. This makes it rational to ‘betray’ the other out of one’s (economic) self-interest: if the other takes environmental measures, the ‘betrayer’ goes free (maintaining economic growth while the competitor deals with the environmental problem). If the other also ‘betrays,’ the outcome is still more favourable than choosing the environment, which entails additional environmental costs. Again, the result is ultimately suboptimal: China and the U.S. will continue to cause environmental damage out of self-interest, even though it is detrimental to everyone in the long run.
Tragedy of the commons
This problem is also known as the free rider problem: taking responsibility (for the environment, for example) makes it more attractive for another party to shirk its duty. If 99 fishermen adhere to the quota to prevent overfishing, it becomes rational for the hundredth fisherman to catch slightly more than the rest. He then earns more than his competitors and the fish population will not significantly change. However, American ecologist Garrett Hardin (1915-2003) aptly called this the tragedy of the commons. Because the free rider’s advantage applies to everyone, the result is that no one takes responsibility anymore. The inevitable consequence is that, if rational actions persist, the sea will be overfished. The same applies to the environment: CO2 emissions continue to increase.
Is there a way out of this dilemma? Yes, says American cognitive philosopher Douglas Hofstadter (1945). It can be solved if you no longer act rationally but superrationally. This means choosing the best option based on the assumption that the other party will do the same. Super rationality is thus rationality based on trust. You assume that the other party, like you, recognizes the best solution and trust that they will also choose it. This neutralizes the risk of being ‘betrayed’, you trust that it will not happen.
Superrational thinking is fundamentally different from the rationality of the homo economicus: you no longer hedge against possible ‘betrayal’ by the other. In other words, you no longer approach the problem (such as the environment) as a conflict of interests (where the other tries to get a free ride) but as a problem in which both parties have the same interest (saving the environment). If you see that common interest, you can trust that the other party will also choose the right solution.
Will we ever get out of this dilemma?
This superrational thinking is precisely what ecologist Hardin meant when he stated that the tragedy of the commons can only be remedied by a ‘fundamental change in our morality.’ We will have to say goodbye to the principle of the homo economicus. This is also the basic tenet of capitalism: choose what yields the maximum benefit at the lowest cost. As long as that principle prevails, we will never find a solution. The homo economicus only makes concessions when he gets them: a stalemate. Therefore, we can expect little from the environmental negotiations that are periodically held. Because as long as negotiations about the climate problem are still necessary, apparently people still do not realize that we are all commons in the same tragedy.
If you want to know more about how we got into this dilemma in the first place, read this article about why humanity has become so dependent on fossil fuels.