Game Theory and the Self-Fulfilling Climate Tragedy

Environmental Values 26 (2):203-221 (2017)
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Game theorists tend to model climate negotiations as a so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’. This is rather worrisome, since the conditions under which such commons problems have historically been solved are almost entirely absent in the case of international greenhouse gas emissions. In this paper, I will argue that the predictive accuracy of the tragedy model might not stem from the model’s inherent match with reality but rather from the model’s ability to make self-fulfilling predictions. I then sketch some possible ways to dispel the tragedy, including (1) recognizing some ways the assumptions of the model fail, (2) taking seriously recent work suggesting that increasing greenhouse gas emissions is not in most nations’ own self-interest, and (3) preferring alternative models like collective risk dilemmas, bargaining games, or cooperative models.

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Matthew Kopec
Harvard University


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