The Samovar

Kyoto, the prisoner’s dilemma and the rule of law
October 2, 2006, 7:48 pm
Filed under: Economics, Environment, Politics

Woodpigeon wrote an entry about Al Gore’s film An inconvenient truth, mentioning that there is a problem at the heart of the Kyoto protocol related to the prisoner’s dilemma. The protocol only really works if everyone is on board, but if everyone else is cooperating there is a huge incentive to defect (i.e. for you to be the polluter whilst everyone else is cutting down). Zhou Fang made a similar point on his (her?) blog.

However, after thinking about it I wonder if this is really the problem. If it were, you would expect every country to be defecting, whereas in practice a lot of countries are cooperating, and it is only a few (notably the US) that are defecting. There is a positive model of cooperation, which is the rule of law in democratic countries. As an individual, it is never in your interests for there to be any law that stops you from doing something. However, as an individual you benefit if the law exists because everyone else must also obey it. However, there is an additional problem which is enforcement of the law, and in the case of Kyoto the two issues (of agreement and enforcement) are sort of connected.

Woodpigeon says:

The only way long-term co-operation seems to work is when it is imposed from a higher authority. The higher authority says “this is how you must behave”, and if you defect, the higher authority imposes strict penalties against you. To meet the challenge of global change in this context, it seems to me you would need a single world government, and a pretty dictatorial one at that. I’m not sure if too many people would be very happy with this. I certainly wouldn’t be.

If you think about it though, there is no higher authority in a single state, enforcement of the law is conducted by individuals who are part of that state and are also subject to those laws (police, lawyers, judges, prison officers, etc.). What we have is a system of cooperative enforcement. That is, if you defect (break the law), the other members of society agree to collectively punish you. As it happens, this procedure is now very rigid and highly organised, and so it sort of looks like it’s being enforced by a higher authority. In practice, this is probably the most accurate way of looking at it, but it could equally well be seen as a sort of social contract with enforcement carried out by a particular, cooperative mechanism (the system of police, courts, etc.).

The question then is could this same sort of mechanism work in the case of Kyoto? You would need an agreement where defectors were collectively punished by their peers, perhaps by economic sanctions (thus raising the costs of defection to the point where it was rational to cooperate). The problem is that it is not a society of peers. What makes the rule of law in a single nation work is that every individual is roughly equal in power. No one person can stand up against the whole of the rest of the society, and neither can any small group (again, in practice this might not be quite true, but bear with me). This condition for the correct functioning of this sort of peer enforcement contract is missing in the case of the Kyoto treaty. No nation can afford to sanction the US because its economy is so dominating. In order to be able to make an agreement like the Kyoto protocol work, you would need to have a world order without any single dominant economic power. Perhaps the rise of Europe as an alternative economic power might work here?



Hi Dan, yes, you make an excellent point. I would add that it’s not just the US who can go their own way. Arguably China, India, Japan, and Russia and quite a few other countries are relatively immune from any form of real international sanction. Look even at North Korea at the moment. I doubt that even the collective EU (assuming it could get some focus) would be very successful in pressurising these countries in forcing them to change.

I was probably a bit too rigid in my assessment that countries need to be forced to agree by some higher power. Some issues have become relatively commonly supported. Slavery is one example, child sex trafficking, rape and animal cruelty may be others : things that by common consent are seen as outrages by most of the world’s peoples. There is a sense that if the people themselves say “enough is enough”, that the climate for co-operation becomes easier. Agreements are more likely to be successful and to last. You don’t therefore need a higher power as such.

There are exceptions though: we might collectively think whaling is a bad thing: the Norwegians and the Japanese beg to differ. We might think cluster bombs are an outrage, but the Israelis have other ideas. Maiming people for theft might be seen as 14th century to us, but it’s very much 21st century to the Saudis.

So, yes, agreements can have varying degrees of success, but success is more likely to be assured when none but the most corrupt and backward of government would disagree with the proposals being put forward. Where there is some “wiggle room” as is the case with Kyoto, you see a more politicised agenda in place – many countries act solely in their own selfish interest.

Maybe that’s what Gore is trying to do – to make an appeal to the majority of people that ignoring climate change is an outrage on a level equivalent to slavery?


Comment by woodpigeon01

Issues like slavery and so forth are different though because there is no strong financial incentive not to ban these. OK, scrap that actually, these bans came about because of internal pressure rather than external pressure as you say. In which case I think we have two routes for getting something like Kyoto working – making people realise how bad it is so that internal pressure can be applied; and in the long term (possibly too long term), having a more globally equal distribution of wealth and power. Not much we can do about the latter really (although encouraging European cooperation might help), so I guess we just have to concentrate on the former (which is what most people who are concerned about it are doing).

In conclusion: nothing. Damn.

Comment by Dan Goodman

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