Anxiety and hope are growing as the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow approaches. There is anxiety because, unless a handful of willfully blind people, we can all see the damage we are doing to the planet. Fires, floods and sea level rise are wreaking havoc around the world, while environmental destruction and resulting conflict trigger large-scale refugee movements that evoke biblical imagery.
But there is also hope, as some – including climate activist Greta Thunberg, with her long-standing and encouraging call for more ambitious action – recognize the scale of the challenge facing humanity. With this in mind, the European Union launched the European Green Deal, which aims to make the EU carbon neutral by 2050.
The United States is also aiming to reach net zero emissions by mid-century and recently announced it would double its financial contribution to help developing countries cope with the climate crisis, to $ 11.4 billion. per year. Some US lawmakers, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey, have proposed a Green New Deal, an ambitious plan to rethink the US economy and eventually eliminate all US carbon dioxide emissions.
Yet despite these efforts, the point is that we have started late in the fight against climate change, and now we must accelerate corrective actions if humans are not to follow the path of the dinosaurs. The climate crisis is a global problem and requires action by all countries, but many developing economies, including some of the most climate vulnerable, do not have the financial means to do enough on their own. Some emerging economies, including South Africa and much of South and Southeast Asia, are heavily dependent on coal and will need to undergo a disruptive green transition.
So we need a collective commitment to design support systems – financial and scientific – to help all countries do their part. The 2015 Paris climate agreement was a diplomatic success, garnering support from nearly 200 countries. But the world is woefully far from meeting the target – limiting global warming to 1.5 Â° Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels – which was agreed in Paris.
Will the Glasgow rally catalyze real action? Thunberg recently warned that “the leaders will say we will do this and we will do it, … and then they will do nothing.” And widespread frustration with leaders’ insufficient climate ambition is not limited to young people. Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II expressed a similar sentiment, saying “it’s really irritating when they talk, but they don’t.” Such desperation is natural. When we see climate action lagging behind the rhetoric so far, we inevitably wonder if all the talk is hypocrisy.
But it is not necessary. If we are to bequeath a liveable planet to future generations, it is crucial to understand why there can be a disjunction between what each intends to do and what the group actually delivers. Iconic games like the Prisoner’s Dilemma have shown this to be the case in the realm of selfish decision-making. Mobilizing the determination and commitment needed to tackle the climate crisis is a problem for social science and moral philosophy as much as it is for politicians.
Contrary to what neoclassical economics would have us believe, the modern economy does not function as a series of impersonal markets driven only by the aspirations of individual actors. On the contrary, as Mariana Mazzucato notes in her book Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism, markets are “rooted in rules, norms and contracts affecting organizational behavior, interactions and institutional designs”.
It is therefore a mistake to equate collective action with the sum of individual intentions. When people say they want to do everything to avoid a climate catastrophe but aren’t doing much, maybe that isn’t hypocrisy. They may be plagued by what I described in a recent article as “Greta’s Dilemma”.
In this game, a group of people initially pursue their own interests, regardless of how the environmental damage caused by their actions harms future generations. If people then become aware of the environment and take corrective action, traditional economic models predict that such a change will lead to improvements in the well-being of future generations.
But in the complex and strategically connected world we inhabit today, the outcome may be different. Greta’s dilemma illustrates the paradoxical result that individuals who become collectively aware of the environment cause more damage to the environment. Like one of those paradoxical paintings by MC Escher, it is the tangle of small individual steps that lead the group towards a destination it has not sought. Far from helping future generations, they end up hurting them.
Certainly, this game is deliberately designed to emphasize the paradox. But it shows that, in today’s complex global economy, we need to pay much more attention to the strategic foundations of human interaction in order to design policies that can help us steer away from the brink of disaster. climate.
It might sound like a narrow academic argument, but it isn’t. If we are to achieve Thunberg’s ambition, which I think many people – including many leaders – genuinely share, we must use Greta’s dilemma as the basis for designing the policies and institutions we need.
So while we are right to worry that the leaders may not be doing enough at COP26, we also need to be aware that there is a scientific problem here. When it comes to climate change and other issues, we need to understand the social and economic game we are playing and try to change its rules so that our individual moral intentions are better reflected in the collective results.
Kaushik Basu, former Chief Economist of the World Bank and Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India, is Professor of Economics at Cornell University