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Caring for the future is key for cooperation to prevent climate collapse: study

20/05/2020 - How much decision-makers care about the future and not just the present is one key factor for whether or not they take action to stabilize our climate. Another one is how severe they assume the impacts of climate collapse to be. However, the number of actors is decisive – for instance the number of relevant countries, since efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have to be international to add up to the amount needed to prevent a crisis. This is shown by a novel mathematical study. It finds a strong effect of diffusion of responsibility in scenarios with large numbers of actors. The study combines game theory and learning dynamics to explore which options for enhanced political cooperation should now urgently be studied empirically.
Caring for the future is key for cooperation to prevent climate collapse: study

Learning dynamics analysis. Barfuss et al, 2020, figure 5 (cutout)

“Identifying what drives inaction or cooperation in the face of looming climate disaster can provide useful information for decision-makers who struggle with the process,” says Wolfram Barfuss from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences, lead-author of the study. “What might seem as a no-brainer, that caring for the future is an important condition for climate stabilization efforts, can be formalized as a normative attitude which translates into a time preference. Climate collapse will not happen today but sometime in the future. Yet we find that even strong caring for the future does not necessarily make a country’s decision-makers join international cooperation if they think the damage of climate destabilization is mild.”

Most importantly, when there’s a large number of actors involved, the damage – or severity of collapse impact –  needs to be enormously large to provide an incentive to cooperate. “This is a most fatal rational,” adds Jonathan Donges, co-author and co-leader of PIK’s FutureLab on Earth Resilience in the Anthropocene, “while collective action would be beneficial for everyone.” The scientists discovered these dynamics by mathematically expanding previously used game-theoretical analyses.

The socio-ecological dilemma is clear: While collective action would be beneficial for everyone in the long run, individual inaction is beneficial for oneself in the short run. Action for long-term benefits causes costs here and now. “One thing that policy-makers can do is to divide negotiations into smaller sub-groups,” says Jürgen Kurths, also co-author of the study and head of PIK’s Research Department on Complexity Science. “Another thing that science can do is further exploring the damages of climate disasters and options for collaboration – and likewise to envision positive futures that make decision-makers want to care for the future. In fact, we are all decision makers in some way or the other.” Finally, communications should highlight that cooperation is indeed possible. Kurths concludes: “This would be a way to eventually turn the drama of global commons – pool resources like climate stability – from tragedy into comedy.”

Article:  Barfuss, W.; Donges, J. F.; Vasconcelos, V.; Kurths, J.; Levin, S. (2020): Caring for the future can turn tragedy into comedy for long-term collective action under risk of collapse. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).[DOI:

Weblink to the article: https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/05/19/1916545117

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