Engage with the altruists, ignore the free-riders: New study explores communication dynamics in climate negotiations

07/16/2020 - Communication is the key to overcoming the social dilemma of mitigating climate change, which requires investments from various actors towards a common goal. According to a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and co-authored by Jürgen Kurths and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, communicating sentiment and outlook significantly improves group interactions in climate change mitigation processes.
Engage with the altruists, ignore the free-riders: New study explores communication dynamics in climate negotiations
Communication increases chances to reach investment goals in climate negotiations. Photo: Mat Reding/Unsplash

This is particularly relevant in the context of the workable but voluntary 2015 Paris Agreement, whose overarching objective – reducing carbon emissions to keep the Earth below 2 °C warming compared to pre-industrial levels – ultimately depends on goodwill. While 195 nations signed the agreement, the extent to which individual states contribute to achieving the goal is far from clear. That is because stabilizing the global climate faces the problem of free-riders: States not willing to invest in reducing emissions but ultimately profiting from willing cooperators and altruists who share most of the burden.

To gain insights into the social aspects of climate change negotiations, an international team of researchers led by Zhen Whang from the Wang Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi’an, China, recruited a total of 351 student volunteers and endowed them with capital. Each participant was then asked to spend or save their capital as individuals taking part in a group effort to mitigate climate change. The more they spent, the more harm done to the climate could be avoided. Yet, the more capital they saved, the richer they were at the end of the game experiment.

The key finding of the study is that communication significantly increases the chances of reaching the collective investment target: When the ability to communicate among participants was introduced, the success frequency rose from little over 50% to over 90%. While the problem of free-riding persisted, altruists and cooperators stepped up their contributions in the face of looming failure – a valuable insight for future real-life climate negotiations: Instead of trying to appeal to free-riders or convert sceptics it may be more effective to build upon existing goodwill.

Article: Zhen Wang, Marko Jusup, Hao Guoa, Lei Shic, Suncana Gecekd, Madhur Anand, Matjaž Perc, Chris T. Bauch, Jürgen Kurths, Stefano Boccaletti, and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber: Communicating sentiment and outlook reverses inaction against collective risks. PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America). [DOI 10.1073/pnas.1922345117]