When negotiating a climate change agreement, it may be helpful to be familiar with game theory. The prisoner's dilemma is often cited to explain why people might not cooperate, even if it is in their best interests to do, such as preventing the planet from heating up.
This knowledge could be useful at the climate change conference in Warsaw on 11-22 November, when 192 countries will discuss a successor to the Kyoto agreement. Success is far from guaranteed, even though it is in everyone's interest to move closer towards a globally binding agreement to curb carbon emissions after 2020.
This is where the prisoner's dilemma comes in. It goes as follows; Two criminals are incarcerated with no means of contacting each other. As the police do not have enough evidence to convict them of the main charge but can send them to jail on a lesser charge, they offer each of the prisoners a deal. If they testify against their partner, they will go free and their partner will be locked up for three years on the more serious charge. Should both testify, then the two of them will be imprisoned for two years. If neither one of them does, then they will get one year each for the less serious charge. What would be the best course of action to pursue?
The best outcome for both prisoners would be to keep silent, but that only works if they are certain that the other person will do the same. Otherwise it makes more sense to betray your partner.
A climate change agreement works the same. It only works if everyone does their part, because if only a few countries cut emissions, global warming will still happen. In this case it would make more sense for individual countries to continue to use as much energy as before, as it would probably have economic advantages.
The key to resolving the prisoner's dilemma and in turn concluding a climate change agreement is trust. Everyone involved will have to have confidence that the others will live up to their commitments. This is where the EU can play a crucial role. It has already committed to unilaterally cutting emissions to 20% below 1990 levels by 2020 and has taken steps to more sustainable energy, for example by investing in renewable energy. It has also tended to play an intermediary role between the US and developing countries.
In a resolution adopted in October, the Parliament called for the conference to come up with a timetable and steps towards a globally binding agreement in 2015. It also reiterated the EU's offer to increase its emission reduction target to 30% by 2020 if major emitting countries commit to comparable goals.
There can be a happy ending so long as everyone can find the trust to successfully resolve the prisoner's dilemma.
Infographic copyright European Parliament