I got a lot of nice feedback on my Word of the Day: Dialectic post, so I figured I would double down. That article was written after the terrorist attacks in Paris. I know that at times it seems that terrorism is an all-consuming threat, but I believe that climate change is a much larger threat. Semi-existential. Among the top three threats to humanity, if not the top threat.
That being said, we have a climate agreement. No one thinks it is perfect. No one is 100% happy with it. But it does go further than any agreement beforehand, and the end goal is aggressive: limiting global warming to between 1.5°C and 2.0°C.
I didn’t study game theory very much in college (I wish I had studied it a lot more), but very often I see issues boiling down to game theory. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you’re an economist, you try to apply an economic theory to all problems and issues. In the past I’ve applied game theory to employee evaluation at my old consulting firm, protracted civil wars, and to climate negotiations. The new climate accord lacks enforcement teeth. In fact, part of it was left specifically not legally binding so that the world’s largest clown car, the United States Senate, couldn’t get its hands on the accord. In some ways international law is always a charade. In the absence of military action, there is no way to force another country to do anything at all. However, prior to this agreement, the world was stuck in the classic game theory “prisoners’ dilemma.” The dilemma is simple. Why will I do something that also benefits someone else if that person can cheat, reap the benefits, and I get screwed over?
I wrote about this dilemma a year ago on my economics blog after the Lima talks.
In climate terms, why should my country reduce emissions and possibly contribute money to the reduction and mitigation efforts of other countries if I do not have any assurances that all other countries will follow through? This agreement, unique from others, addresses this dilemma in two ways. First, unlike its predecessor Copenhagen agreement, all countries need to reduce emissions, not just developed countries. Secondly, the accord also stipulates that all countries will contribute to the global assistance funds, as their economic situations allow. This will compel large developing countries, such as China and India, to pony up as well, not just the United States, Europe, and Japan.
This agreement will allow politicians to go home from France and defend the plan to their people and legislatures. Barack Obama will no longer have to see, “We will reduce and we will pay.” Now he can say, “We will all reduce and we will all pay.” The prisoners’ dilemma has been overcome.
The deal is not perfect. The $100 billion in climate assistance funds is only in the non-binding preamble to the agreement. In addition, there is no global limit on emissions, and countries will have to draw up their own reduction levels. And that’s where the hard work starts. There are climate deniers all over the world. In addition, there are companies and countries that profit from fossil fuels that are billions millions of dollars on lobbying to keep the wells pumping. Their apocalyptic behaviors will have to be overcome.
Which brings us back to Paris, and the dialectic. In some ways it is fitting, in a poetic ironic sense, that Paris was selected as the locations of these talks long before the attacks last month. Just like I wrote after those attacks, it is time to use words, both written and spoken, to learn and compel. Congresspersons and state legislatures need to be convinced that getting re-elected is less important than climate health. We need to listen to our experts, and help policy makers use scientific knowledge to craft effective policy. And lastly, Americans need to learn that we need to make sacrifices in our own lifestyles today to preserve our lifestyles for the future. Cutting back on fossil fuels may be expensive. Contributing to global climate assistance funds will also be expensive. However, they are necessary to save the Earth, and at the most basic level, save the lives and livelihoods of people threatened by climate change and sea level rise, people who primarily dwell outside of the United States and in lesser developed countries.
It is easiest to frame these debates as political, but truly they are moral, so long as you believe it is wrong to cause harm to other people. That is what our carbon emissions are doing, and will continue to do more and more as this century trudges on. And surely, they are not just our carbon emissions. China is the world’s largest emitter. But the United States is much richer than China and we enjoy a much better quality of life. If we ask China to cut back, stymieing their own economic growth, it is just to assist them monetarily, so that they can one day enjoy the same standard of living that we enjoy.
So again I implore my readers, you need to pitch in your part to the international dialogue. Engage in discourse with people who disagree with your opinions. Don’t just post on Facebook about how stupid climate change skeptics are and make fun of them. You need to talk directly to them, and respectfully get them to change their mind. Use writing, use art, use Twitter, use Facebook, use music, don’t use mass news media that gives a podium to misinformation spewing politicians – use whatever media you do see fit to use, but remember that this is dialectic. The fate of the world depends on you remembering that.