The Psychological Dilemma Behind Climate Change

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Factory pipe polluting air, environmental problems

Image: Shutterstock/Tatiana Grozetskaya

The Psychological Dilemma Behind Climate Change

Climate change is pretty depressing to think about. The planet is headed towards catastrophic change and much  faster than we thought it would. It’s a tough pill to swallow, especially when you consider that the major cause seems to be people, and yet no one is really doing anything about it. So if global warming is a human problem, why can’t we just all agree to take the steps necessary to stop it?

Well, those kinds of questions, the kinds that involve analysis of sweeping trends of competition and cooperation between societies is usually handled by economists and sociologists using something called “Game Theory“.

Game Theory envisions human society as a game and uses math to examine the way you might expect rational, and often irrational, people would behave while playing the game. It dates back to the 19th century and has since then become one of the most studied ways of analyzing human behavior. One of the most famous applications of game theory, and the most relevant to Climate Change, is called the “Prisoner’s Dilemma“.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is basically a thought experiment that imagines two people who have just been arrested for stealing something. For our purposes, we’ll say it’s a rare Pokemon card with a factory defect that makes it look like Pikachu is swearing.

So the two thieves, who we will call “Nerd” and “Dork,” find themselves in a police station, facing some hard prison time, which both are woefully unequipped to handle.

As often happens in these situations, the police separate them for questioning. Now Nerd and Dork both know that they were careful in the planning and execution of their heist, so there is little evidence against them. If it weren’t for a jealous friend calling in an anonymous tip, they would have gotten away with it completely. The only thing being held against them is the card itself, which was found during a search of their dorm room.  If each can just keep their mouths shut, they will probably get light sentences because the police can only charge them for possessing a stolen Pokemon card. If neither will admit that they know where the card came from, they will probably both get three months.

Prisoner interrogation

Image: Fisun Ivan/shutterstock

The police know that in this situation Nerd and Dork are holding the cards, *heh*, so they need to get a confession. Towards that end, the detective sits down with Dork, judging him by his thick glasses and wheezing asthma to be the weaker of the two, and makes him a deal. Dork will be allowed to go home if he will confess to the crime and put the blame on Nerd. Nerd, as the ringleader of the escapade, will get a one-year sentence in state prison.

Now, despite his tiny, bird-like frame, Dork is no pushover, and he doesn’t talk to cops. He tells the detective as much, but the detective tells him to just think about it for a minute. After all, he’s about to go make the same deal to Nerd.

So now Dork is in a tough spot. What if Nerd decides to take the deal? Then Dork would spend a year in prison for protecting a guy who flipped on him. If he takes the deal, and only thinks about himself, he can go home today.

Dork loves Nerd like a brother and is happy to do a measly three months for his sake. Nerd feels the same way, Dork is pretty sure. But what if he doesn’t? Nerd hasn’t been to the Karate classes they signed up for in weeks. He won’t have the confidence to face prison.

As the minutes tick by, Dork decides he can’t risk it, he has to take the deal.

He calls the detective back in and confesses the whole thing. The detective has him sign a document to that effect. The detective then goes into the other room where Nerd is waiting. He asks him if he is ready to talk.

Nerd refuses. He’s no snitch.

The detective presents a piece of paper, bearing Dork’s unmistakeable signature, the “o” has been substituted with a drawing of a Jigglypuff.

“Your friend had no problem pinning the whole thing on you”, he says. “I’ll give you one last chance, confess and we’ll take your version of events into consideration.”

Now, Nerd could still refuse to talk. Dork is his best, indeed only, friend, and has been throughout their unpleasant school days. If Nerd doesn’t confess, at least Dork will get to be free.

But this betrayal stings. Nerd is going to prison anyway, but why should Nerd serve a lengthy sentence for a guy who only thought about himself? If he informs on Dork, he might get some leniency. Nerd asks for a pen.

Later at their trial, both are sentenced to six months for theft.

See what happened through the course of that awkward hypothetical? If Nerd and Dork had just trusted each other to do the right thing, they could have received the short sentence. Both were willing to do it, but couldn’t trust that the other would willingly act against their own self-interest.

This is essentially the consideration that prevents governments from working together to take meaningful action on climate change.

Asian boy wearing mouth mask against air pollution (Beijing)

Image: Shutterstock/Hung Chung Chih

If the US were to take serious measures to lower its emissions, it might hurt the economy for a while as we adjusted factory output, taxed carbon emissions, and restricted how much fossil fuel we were burning. It would be worth it though if it meant we could limit the amount of climate change we are causing. Two degrees is much better than four degrees when it comes to global warming.

But what if China doesn’t do the same? Then we’d just be taking the pain for no reason while China surpasses us economically and destroys the planet anyway.

Meanwhile, China is willing to take a hit to its production if it means it can prevent Shanghai from flooding and the crops from failing, but how can it trust the U.S. will stick to its promises to halt emissions? It can’t. Better to get while the getting’s good. After all, if the polar caps are going to melt anyway, you might as well have as much money as possible to start building your cities on stilts.

That’s why halting climate change is so difficult. It requires us to trust each other. It demands we all make sacrifices collectively. Not just in one country, but around the world. It’s tough to overcome our basic instincts, but that’s the only way this problem is going to be solved.

There is some good news, though. Evidence suggests that measures designed to stop climate change may actually be beneficial to the economy, which means if enough people begin to believe that, their own self-interest might make things better instead of worse.

Either way, nothing is going to be done until we are are willing to trust that other countries want to do the right thing. After all, any rational person can see Climate Change is a serious threat to everyone. Of course, that leaves room for the actions of irrational people, but that’s a separate article.

So come on everyone, don’t be Nerds and Dorks.

Wyatt is a writer and your friend. You can follow him on Twitter @WyattRedd.

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