Study Finds Climate Negotiations Are About the Present

Sorry kids, grandpa wants air conditioning.
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(ILLUSTRATION: TASSEL78/SHUTTERSTOCK)

(ILLUSTRATION: TASSEL78/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Two days ago, a study appeared in Nature Climate Changearguing what seems like an obvious point. In groups mimicking countries at an international negotiation, subjects were given policy options with greater and lesser consequences for themselves and for the planet's climate. The study concluded that long-term environmental goals were a tough sell in a group negotiation because of short-term rewards for unilateralism. A hot political climate at home today trumps a hot planet in 100 years. Or even a cool planet. "The present generation bears the costs of cooperation, whereas future generations accrue the benefits if present cooperation succeeds, or suffer if present cooperation fails."

Incentives for policies that have positive climate effects, but can be demonstrated to have short-term benefits too—and those benefits immediate—have a better chance of resulting in fruitful negotiations.

What they did was put together a group and then tell the group to negotiate a decision pertaining to climate change. They put some rules to the negotiation. If a participant cooperated with the group, a reward arrived. But the participant knew that the reward would arrive only after the meeting, either by a day, by seven weeks, or by several decades. The reward was also distributed among several participants. Those delays allowed the model to account for benefits affecting only succeeding generations ("intragenerational discounting" this is called; it means the current generation takes the "discounted" effects).

If they negotiated, none of the participants would still be there when the award arrived.

However, if the participants decided to act from immediate self-interest ("intergenerational discounting; the next generations faced the "discount") they got a reward anyway, and didn't have to share any of it. And it came right away.

As you'd figure, people got greedy: "We find that intergenerational discounting leads to a marked decrease in cooperation; all groups failed to reach the collective target. Intragenerational discounting was weaker by comparison. Our results experimentally confirm that international negotiations to mitigate climate change are unlikely to succeed if individual countries’ short-term gains can arise only from defection."

By "weaker" there, they mean the negative effect—the tendency for negotiations to break down—was weaker.

Proving the seductiveness of short-term thinking is cynical, but the study's outcome is hardly surprising. So what was the point?

It turns out the scientists were after a way to prove an incentive structure that worked. The study appears at first glance to prove that meaningful climate negotiations are beyond the reach of nations understandably worried about their own situations, in the current day. On second reading, it suggests more of a critique of the way climate change is discussed, the "save the planet for your grandchildren" idea, which looks like a non-starter. Incentives for policies that have positive climate effects, but can be demonstrated to have short-term benefits too—and those benefits immediate—have a better chance of resulting in fruitful negotiations.

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