Will Global Warming Defeat Us?

Last week, Ezra listed reasons he expects America to lose the battle against climate change. In a follow-up, he adds another cause for pessimism:

States like Kentucky and Montana and West Virginia care much more about pulling fossil fuels out of the ground than other states care about keeping them in the ground. And the American political system, which makes action hard under any circumstances, cares much more about the strong objections of individual states than the weak preferences of the country.

As I wrote in the original piece, “if you were going to weaponize an issue to take advantage of the weak points in the American political system – to highlight all the blind spots, dysfunctions, and irrationalities – you would create climate change. And then you would stand back and watch the world burn.”

In response, Plumer insists climate change is still worth fighting:

Different models have different estimates for how costly global warming will be. But everyone agrees on the general point — risks and damages keep piling up as the world gets hotter. So if the world can’t prevent 2°C of warming, it’s still a good idea to try and avoid 3°C of warming. If we can’t avoid 3°C of warming, it’s still a good idea to avoid 4°C. And so on. …

Setting hard boundaries — and framing things in terms of success and failure — is a much more intuitive way to think about the issue. (I’ve been guilty of this sort of talk myself.) But it doesn’t really make sense to declare “game over” at any point.

Ronald Bailey wonders about international cooperation:

International climate negotiations are somewhat similar to the prisoner’s dilemma. Assuming man-made global warming is costly to all countries, the optimum solution is for all countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. But for an individual country, the better option is to keep burning low-cost fossil fuels while other nations reduce their emissions. Since all countries recognize that other countries are likely to cheat and continue to use fossil fuels, they all fail to cut their emissions.

Is there a way out of that dynamic? Two political scientists, Scott Barrett of Columbia and Astrid Dannenberg of Princeton, tried to find one in a 2013 study using game theory experiments. They concluded that if game players know for sure where the threshold for huge losses is located, they will cooperate to avoid it. The catastrophe threshold acts a form of punishment that encourages cooperation.

However, the experiments showed that “when the threshold for catastrophe was even slightly indeterminate, the players crossed essentially every time”:

The current uncertainties about the effects and intensity of future climate change suggest that countries are unlikely to follow the Obama administration’s lead. Based on their experimental results, Barrett and Dannenberg hold out the hope that climate research that reduces threshold uncertainty might help spur countries into mutual cuts of their greenhouse gas emissions.