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The Prisoner's Dilemma Climate Change and Collapse

Updated: Apr 27, 2022



The prisoner's dilemma perfectly illustrates just how deep down the rabbit hole we have come. Global environmental collapse is rapidly approaching while the apathetic world does virtually nothing to stop it. When will we wake up and take action on the environment? An analysis of the prisoner's dilemma tells us, the probable answer is never.

The prisoner's dilemma is a standard example of a game analyzed in game theory that demonstrates why two completely rational individuals or groups might choose not to cooperate, even if it appears obvious that it is in their best interests to do so.


In this game, two criminals are arrested and interrogated in separate rooms with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors do not have enough evidence to convict the pair, so each prisoner is offered the opportunity to either betray their partner by testifying against them in court or to cooperate with each other by remaining silent.


If both prisoners choose to double-cross each other, both serve 5 years in prison. If prisoner 1 betrays prisoner 2 while prisoner 2 remains silent, prisoner 1 is set free and prisoner 2 serves 10 years in prison, or the reverse is true. Finally, if each remains silent and cooperates, then each serves just 1 year in prison.


In such a setting, both prisoners are unaware of the decision chosen by the other prisoner. Therefore, the most rational decision from the perspective of self-interest is to betray the other prisoner.


For example, prisoner 1 is afraid of remaining silent because in such a case, he can receive five years in prison if prisoner 2 betrays him. If prisoner 1 chooses to betray prisoner 2, he can be set free if prisoner 2 remains silent. However, that is not likely, because prisoner 2 is probably using the same line of thinking and is almost surely going to betray prisoner 1.


Although the decision to remain silent by both parties provides the more optimal overall payoff, it is not the rational option because each prisoner should choose to behave in their own self-interest.


Another factor to consider is the psychological phenomenon called loss aversion. Loss aversion is a cognitive bias that describes why the pain of losing is twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining. The idea that your betraying partner in crime could go off scot-free, while you rot in jail would strongly motivate many to choose to testify in court.


This is also true on the international stage especially regarding the fulfillment of pledges to reduce fossil fuel emissions. The best case for the planet is for the nations of the world to cooperate in dramatically reducing collective emissions of greenhouse gases. The problem is although all countries are collectively better off cooperating, each country is individually better off emitting greenhouse gases business as usual.

For example, the US may be reluctant to go to the effort of reducing emissions because other countries such as Russia and China may choose to ignore their nation's environmental pledges. The US would be left with a hefty bill while Russia and China would enjoy all the benefits, as we all share the same planet. Thus, the rational choice for the US and every other country in the world, would be to act in self-interest and not to fulfill their environmental pledges. Which is essentially what we see in the real world.

Unfortunately, the rational choice for nations is the most irrational choice as caretakers of the environment for which we all depend. This mode of thinking will lead to a disastrous future as climatologist Peter Carter informs us that we are currently tracking RCP 8.5 in most climate change metrics, the worst-case scenario. According to António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations:

We are on a fast track to climate disaster. Major cities under water. Unprecedented heatwaves. Terrifying storms. Widespread water shortages. The extinction of a million species of plants and animals. This is not fiction or exaggeration. It is what science tells us will result from our current energy policies.

It's hard to imagine what it would take to motivate the nations of the world to genuinely cooperate to avert the worst effects of climate change. Nations won't choose to handicap themselves in all out efforts to transition off fossil fuels. Not unless, all the nations are doing it at once. This is mainly a result of a lack of trust. The nations of the world have been playing repeated games of the prisoner's dilemma with each other for decades. Relationships have been forged and so has infamy. Russia has invaded Ukraine and the world is likely to enter a new cold war.


It seems to me that the only way to break this cycle is for our institutions to completely change. I can imagine a too near future where the masses around the world rise in rebellion as the true horror of our predicament becomes undeniable to all. There will be deadly fire, famines, and floods. There will be blood. Governments will be overthrown, and it will be too late.















































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