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A fair COP

The author prepares to attend the UN Climate Change Summit, COP17, in Durban, and wonders if there is any solution to this particular version of the Prisoner's Dilemma

The date the world ends (or doesn’t) is set. 9 December 2011. The United Nations Climate Change summit, COP17, concludes that day and so does any realistic hope of keeping climate change to the already significant 2°c increase in global temperatures that countries have signed up to.

While it is in the best interests of every man, woman and child on this planet to put into effect massive, sustained and genuine measures to halt global warming, there is a yet higher prize for every single negotiator at the table: to bring about an accord which limits everyone else (thus saving the planet) while leaving their nation free to carry on or even increase emissions (thus saving their political careers). It is therefore recognised as a classic instance of the prisoner’s dilemma.

There are three entirely plausible narratives at work. From the poorest countries, there is a plea for funds to manage the already horrific consequences of global warming such as floods, droughts, famines and hurricanes. From the rapidly industrialising countries there is the demand to increase emissions as they pull their people out of poverty and catch up with the developed nations who have caused the problem in the first place. From the developed nations, staring down the barrel of what seems like intractable financial collapse, there is a desire to look good but sign nothing that will harm any hopes of a recovery.

No one will want to be seen as wrecking any chance of progress (that dubious honour goes to Republican Presidents of the USA alone), but many countries will be glad to see nothing happen. As the BBC’s Environment correspondent notes when considering what Japan’s gameplan is likely to be when considering this quote.

"The world's number one emitter (China) has no obligations under Kyoto, the number two emitter (US) is not a party and the number three emitter (India) has no obligations," Akira Yamada of Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the specialist reporting service Point Carbon News recently.

It is not hard to see how every country will spin their refusal to sign anything that might actually address the problem in advance. The US will say that hardline demands for changes were unacceptable, Europe will say the share of the responsibility it was being asked to shoulder was too onerous, the rapidly industrialising countries will say that the polluters were unwilling to shoulder the blame and tried to shift the onus onto them and the poorest countries on earth will conclude rightly that they were screwed again.

To cover their shame, leaders may well sign a series of technical measures that will enable trading in soil carbon markets, push for biofuels to offshore carbon emissions to poor countries and a whole series of other ‘fixes’ that will do nothing to fix the problem and make the lot of the world’s poor even worse than it is already.

That’s the worst possible outcome and to be frank, it is also the most likely. But let’s return a moment to the prisoner’s dilemma. Two criminals are locked up in separate cells after a jointly commissioned crime. The best outcome overall is cooperation (in this case neither rats out the other). The best individual outcome is that one rats out the other but the other does not rat them out. The worst outcome from the criminals’ perspective is that they each rat each other out thus furnishing the cops with enough evidence to put them both away for longer.

So the question that has puzzled game theorists looking to encourage optimal solutions is how to encourage cooperation in such circumstances. Modelling has shown that if the dilemma is repeated, over time, more altruistic strategies can win out. The question for negotiators at COP though should be how to game the outcome from the start. Unlike our two criminals locked up in separate cells, the Presidents of China and the USA can call each other before negotiations begin as can any of the players.

Can it be done? Actually we know it can be done as other equivalent dilemmas such as the nuclear arms race or most peace treaties have proved. It requires vision, courage and a more enlightened notion of self-interest than we normally see on the world stage. There are three weeks to go until public negotiations begin in Durban. World leaders need to drag their gaze away from Greece and make their names in the history books. In 100 years, it will simply be too late.

About the author

Damian Rafferty has been a music journalist and in 1995 he set up, one of the UK's first web-based music magazines. He has worked on digital projects for the BBC, the UK's Department of Culture Media and Sport, the Royal Opera House, Channel 4 and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. In 2009, he made a documentary with UNICEF in Mali on the subject of female circumcision.