Thursday, 20 September 2012

The Game of Climate Change



This is the fourth in a series of blogs on how Games Theory can be seen in action in the real world. I've already looked at the banking crisis (It's Only Taken Three Years...), the housing market (Games Theory and the Estate Agent) and even the application of Games Theory ideas to the Olympic road race.

Before I start I'd better give you the low-down with links for Games Theory, which drives the plot of my first novel, The Defector, and in particular a thing called the Prisoner's Dilemma. If you haven't come across it before then I will point you at my own description in the foreword to The Defector, a suspense thriller in which it features as the central plot device. Or you can check out a much more technical take in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (SEP) entry.

If there's a big topic for Games Theory then it's climate change, in which all the notions of cooperation and defection are crystallised. Let's start by agreeing to agree on some premises, since I don't intend this to be a discussion of the science. First off, climate change is happening; secondly, its impact could be mitigated by human intervention, specifically spewing less CO2 into the atmosphere.  

We can apply the Prisoner's Dilemma (PD) to our responses to the finger-wagging advice from pressure groups to minimise CO2 emissions. For instance, paying more for solar generated energy rather than burning cheap coal costs the individual money, so formulating this as a PD:

If I cooperate in the fight against climate change by minimising CO2 emissions, then I am individually poorer, but I improve (albeit microscopically) the survival chances of the rest of the human race, and so the group should have a better outcome than if we all defect.

If I defect and opt out of the battle against climate change, then I gain relative to all those people cooperating. By burning cheap coal while other people pay more to switch to solar, then I have more money to protect myself from many of the bad outcomes associated with climate change. I can afford a house on a hill, and sky-high food prices.

The individual's age has a big impact on the way this dilemma formulates, since most people over 40 (ie. those in charge) will be dead before the really bad outcomes hit the planet. They have a realistic hope that enough money will protect them. But for a 15 year old that isn't an option, they're going to be around when the real shit hits the fan, and all the money in the world won't help. And so the young tend to be more in favour of climate change activism than the old.

Things are changing though, and the time will come when it's clear that even the multi-million dollar pensions of middle-aged oil company executives and ex-Prime Ministers won't save them from the hordes of starving refugees roaming the land, armed to the teeth. But by that time, if the scientists are right then it will be way too late to do anything anyway. And evolution's experiment with opposable thumbs and big brains will come to a sad, grisly and untimely end.

In an ideal world I'd have some solution for you, some mechanism for reshaping these choices so that cooperation made sense for the people in charge before it was too late. But it isn't going happen with Games Theory mechanics - science and technology are the only hope. The cost of cooperation needs to drop under the cost of defection. In other words, cheaper solar panels and biofuels. It's back to the scientists, but as they came up with a coal-driven steam-engine rather than a biofuel in the first place, they really should be responsible for getting us out of this mess.