CANCUN SUCCESS?: Despite seeming progress on international efforts to combat climate change at Cancun recently, a computer model based on game theory suggests that such multilateral negotiations will ultimately fail. Image: © iStockphoto.com / Mike Liu
NEW YORK -- A modestly successful outcome from the latest round of international climate change negotiations in Cancun, Mexico, has proponents breathing a huge sigh of relief.
After last year's raucous session in Copenhagen, Denmark, most governments and activists were put on the defensive to prove that multilateral action on global warming was even possible. They now feel vindicated.
But even as optimism strengthens ahead of the next year's major conference in South Africa, one famous prognosticator says it's still more likely that we'll see a repeat of Copenhagen's performance toward the end of 2011.
Last year, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a New York University professor and partner in a Manhattan consultancy, famously predicted the flat outcome at Copenhagen in an article he penned for Foreign Policy magazine, one month before that conference began.
Confidence in the computer model he designed that led to that conclusion informs his views on where the talks are headed next: Namely, multilateral negotiations will not fix the climate change problem, regardless of what U.N. officials and others claim.
"It's depressing, it is what it is, but unfortunately it was right," Bueno de Mesquita said in an interview. "We got nothing out of Copenhagen."
Bueno de Mesquita makes a living by calculating the likely outcomes to various scenarios under the lens of game theory, a mathematical tool political scientists use to better understand how power relationships inform various strategies in negotiations. By applying numerical values to the influence and attitudes of actors, he has used his proprietary software to accurately predict the outcome of elections, foreign aid spending decisions and the Copenhagen talks.
His main argument: Governments probably won't conclude a major international treaty to reduce atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, ever. And even if they do, any such treaty won't actually work.
"Universal treaties have one of two qualities," Bueno de Mesquita said in explaining the modeling. "They don't ask people to change what they're doing, and so they're happy to sign on ... or it asks for fundamental changes in behavior and it lacks monitoring and sanctioning provisions that are credible."
Thus the essence of the Kyoto Protocol, now scheduled to expire at the end of 2012, he said. That agreement was achieved because developing countries don't have to do anything to comply, and thus happily signed on, while developed countries were satisfied that they faced no actual punishment for not meeting their emissions reduction targets. And even then, the United States felt compelled to later leave the treaty, a further indication of the intractability of the climate change problem, said Bueno de Mesquita.
Industrial nations act individually, but public support weakens
In other words, just because climate change is a serious problem doesn't mean politicians will come together to actually do something about it, he said. First and foremost, leaders will, by and large, act on what keeps them in power or helps them to get re-elected, and promising their constituents light economic pain now for vaguely understood benefits years into the future isn't a winning formula.
"People have a tendency to slide too easily from the facts of a matter to the political response as if the facts simply dictate what politicians do because politicians are going to do what is good for society," said Bueno de Mesquita. "It's a nice thought; unfortunately, it's not how it happens. Politicians are out for politicians."
The modeling he led his students through last year, using the same methodology that has made his New York firm, Mesquita & Roundell LLC, a success, predicts that over the next 30 to 40 years, developed nations will gradually adopt emissions standards more stringent than those called for under Kyoto, in fits and starts.
At the same time, real public support for these moves will gradually weaken. That's because emissions rates will continue to increase in China, Brazil, India and other rapidly developing nations, more than offsetting any cuts achieved in the richer world.
Although negotiators are aiming for steep cuts in emissions by 2050, the computer model predicts that by this time, the world will come to realize that multilateral efforts simply aren't working. And by the end of the century, "political will for tougher regulations will have dried up almost completely," Bueno de Mesquita writes in his Foreign Policy piece.
The reasoning behind the model is spelled out in Bueno de Mesquita's 2009 book "The Predictioneer's Game: Using the Logic of Brazen Self-Interest to See and Shape the Future". A Central Intelligence Agency assessment says his methodology is 90 percent accurate.
Peter Wood, a mathematician and fellow at the Australian National University who studies how game theory applies in climate negotiations, sees an inherent prisoners' dilemma at work here.
"Climate negotiations themselves are not a prisoners' dilemma, but addressing greenhouse gas emissions in the absence of international coordination is very similar to a prisoners' dilemma, leading to a sub-optimal outcome," Wood explained. "This is because (almost) every country wants global emission reductions, but would prefer that someone else take on the burden."
So then why did the Montreal Protocol work?
Wood isn't as fatalistic as Bueno de Mesquita's model. He believes a new global treaty can be achieved by December 2011, or at the very least a set of individual agreements along the lines spelled out at Cancun -- money for adaptation in the developing world, an anti-deforestation strategy, and other steps. The key is to overcome the free-rider problem by incorporating the appropriate incentives that will get nations to cooperate.
"One way that this could work is to link cooperation on climate change with cooperation on other issues, such as trade," said Wood. "If a country introduces a carbon price, it may also want to introduce a 'border tax adjustment' that levies a carbon price on emissions-intensive imported goods."
The NYU professor agrees that mankind can eventually solve the problem, just not along the lines governments are currently attempting to.
"The nature ... of international, global treaties is that they almost always fail to do anything," he said. "People get so caught up in the rhetoric they don't focus, from my point of view, on where they might have a political shot at being successful."
There's no logical basis in the famous mantra that "global problems require global solutions," he says, contending that a series of localized, grass-roots or unilateral initiatives can add up to a solution if pursued appropriately.
Bueno de Mesquita would even like to apply his game theory modeling retroactively, to see if it can provide clues as to why some multilateral agreements, like the Montreal Protocol, do work. Unfortunately, no government or institution seems interested, he says, perhaps fearful of the conclusions that would be reached.
"Actually, I, with colleagues in Germany and Netherlands, put in several grant proposals to do that, and not just to do that but also to identify strategies for improving outcomes," he said. "We never get funded."
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500