Trump's election success, BREXIT and Theresa May's decision to abolish any mention of climate change are all actions that are commensurate with the move to towards a final-free-for-all which I wrote about in the Vortex of Violence and which I revisit again and update:
The chance of success in getting nations to agree to a zero carbon economy as determined as being necessary by the IPCC to avert runaway climate change can be established by extending the logic of the prisoner’s dilemma from game theory and in particular considering the Nash equilibrium, this being the set of strategic choices that competing players become stuck within.
In the hypothetical prisoner’s dilemma, two prisoners have been arrested at the scene of a crime and are being held by the police in two separate cells. The police don’t have quite enough information to make a conviction, hence they give each prisoner the same choice; if they both confess to the police they will both get 8 years in jail; if one confesses to the police and the other stays silent, the confessor will get only 1 year as an encouragement, whereas the other prisoner who stays silent will get 10 years. If they both manage to stay silent, then they will get only 2 years each as there will be insufficient evidence to gain a full conviction.
The situation is represented in a pay-off matrix where the first entry in each cell is the prison term for the column player and the second entry is the prison term for the row player. Thus (10,1) tells us that the column player will suffer 10 years in prison for staying silent while the row player gets only 1 year as an inducement for confessing.
We can now imagine the decision making choice for either one of the players who both want to minimise their time in jail and we illustrating this with the column player. When he decides if he should speak or stay silent he needs to first think what the row player will do. If he reasons that the row player will stay silent, his best option is to speak in which case he will get only one year in jail instead of two. If on the other hand he thinks the row player will speak to the jailers then his best option is also to speak to the guards in which case he gets eight years in jail instead of ten. So, irrespective of what he thinks the row player is going to do, the best way that he can reduce his prison sentence is to always speak. Thus, the rational strategy to adopt is the paradoxical approach of always speaking to the guards.
The row player will go through exactly the same thought process and come to the same conclusions. The result will be that both players will always settle on the worst solution of both speaking to their jailers and both getting eight years in jail instead of the optimum of two. This worst case solution of both sides deciding to compete against each other is the “stable saddle point” of the game. By contrast the optimum solution of both sides deciding to co-operate with each other by both staying silent and getting only two years in jail is the “unstable saddle point.” It is an outcome that can be achieved, but the slightest perturbation which results in a loss of trust for either partner reverts the game’s outcome back to the stable saddle point with both players competing and settling on the worst case.
The Prisoner’s dilemma model is a perfect analogy for climate change negotiations. The only thing that now needs to be done is to change the titles on the pay-off matrix to represent the respective strategies that nations must take towards climate change. Instead of confessing to guards, a player now continues burning fossil fuel. Instead of staying silent a player now can cut CO2 emissions. In all other respects the matrix can kept exactly the same.
It can be considered thus: if two hypothetical countries both cut emissions together they both incur a cost of £2 billion or whatever other units are used. This could be as a result of developing renewable infrastructure, loss of economic opportunity, etc. If they both continue to burn fossil fuel they will both suffer equal economic loss of £8 billion due to pollution damage such as rising sea levels and riots from food shortages. However, if one country cuts and the other does not, the country that makes the cuts will not only suffer the costs of transforming the economy to a low energy economy, but will also still suffer rising sea levels and food riots and at the same time be at a competitive disadvantage to the other, so its costs rise to £10 billion. The dynamics of the prisoner’s dilemma results in both countries taking the paradoxical position of continuing to burn fossil fuel together to at a level that ensures international competitiveness, even though the resultant costs to each other will be far worse than the costs of stopping burning fossil fuels. This is the simple maths and logic that has prevented the COP talks from reaching a legally binding agreement to make the cuts in emissions that are needed.
It does not actually matter what numbers are chosen in the matrix. All that counts is the relative size in relation to each other. Unfortunately for the climate change talks, it is impossible to envisage any reasonably sustainable scenario that can alter the relative size between the cells of the payoff matrix. The only thing that truly differentiates the prisoners’ dilemma of the climate change talks to that of the classic problem with the burglars is that the £8billion and £10billion costs in the example are replaced with the death penalty for all. Remarkably, even this does not guarantee a change in decision making, as now all columns and rows in the pay-off matrix simply have the same maximum which is the death penalty; thus no minimum cost can be identified for the strategic choices between burning fossil fuels or cutting emissions.
To ensure that the climate change negotiations continue and a free-for-all is avoided, the all players must assume the optimistic which is that either climate change can be stopped by agreement within a largely business as usual environment or that it can be adapted to, even if this is clearly not the case.
The paradox this causes is that the necessity to continue negotiating requires all players to perceive the classic payoff matrix prevails and no death penalty applies; in turn this ensures a Nash equilibrium result occurs where the players collectively continue burning fossil fuels to the extent that they are all destroyed.
Most games are not simple one offs, but a series of rounds. If the prisoners decide to embark on a similar criminal venture after being released, then if one or both had decided to speak to the guards, the loss of trust ensures that the other would do likewise. Thus if the unstable saddle point of co-operation was not obtained in the first round, then there is virtually no chance of it being obtained in the second under similar circumstances. This leads to the general strategy when faced with the prisoners’ dilemma to always play the next round as the previous one had been played. However, there is often a time dimension which amplifies the intensity of the competition, such that a prisoner who had decided stay silent and spent ten years in jail as a result of his good intentions will be even less likely to stay silent the second time round if doing so again results in him dying in jail and missing his last years with his family.
In the same way, climate change talks must take place through repeated rounds and the results of previous rounds will influence the expected results from future rounds. Thus, those nations that have suffered adversely from the climate change impacts from the emissions of nations that have gained competitive advantage while doing so will be most unwilling to take the risk of a mutual sacrifice, especially if they perceive that control of climate change is about to be lost and their position will become the most adverse of all. Ironically, the regular mantra from politicians and the media is how severely affected the poorest nations will be by climate change, thus backing up this assertion. At the same time most developing nations are developing plans for new coal fired power stations.
There are two critical differences between the decisions that nations have to make on climate change and hypothetical prisoners in a cell. Instead of two prisoners there are 196 nations and instead of one game, there are several where the result from one impacts the result from the others.
To analyse the probability of a mutual agreement taking place with 196 nations, we firstly simplify the problem back to the 2 player prisoners’ dilemma and consider the dynamics of the decision making process following their first joint crime. As it is the first crime they have committed together, neither prisoner knows the intention of the other so they might as well toss a coin to decide if they should speak or stay silent. In this circumstance there is a 25% chance that they both stay silent. If the coin toss dictates they both do this, they will see the benefits of co-operation and are potentially able to trust each other to do the same if they are caught in subsequent crimes. The complementary event is the 75% chance that one or both will decide to speak to the guards. In this case no trust is built up and if the prisoners are caught again, they will both speak to the guards. This is assuming the prisoners do not take the rational approach outlines above and that there is some initial degree of trust between each other.
However if the number of the criminals increases and they are all faced with the same dilemma, then the probability of mutual co-operation in the first round, such that the unstable saddle point is obtained, is given by , where is the number of criminals.
Applying this to the climate change negotiations were there are 196 different nations each facing the same dilemma as the prisoners, thus we can establish the probability of obtaining the stable saddle point of mutual co-operation. Even if we optimistically assume that it is only necessary for the top 40 nations emitting nations to reach agreement, then the chance of this happening would still be an improbably low 9.5E-13.
As rounds have effectively already been played with no agreement which is resulting in many nations already suffering serious adverse effects from climate change despite not yet being fully industrialised and at an equivalent level of competitiveness to the strongest, then even this probability is likely to be overestimated.
As well as having to second guess the intentions of the other players in the climate change game, they must also second guess the results of two other interconnected games that are being simultaneously played, these are international military and economic dominance.
It is a fact of life that irrespective of how successful renewables will be, they are entirely incapable of running an effective modern military force which is totally dependent on a continuous supply of fossil fuel. While it is clear that battlefield operations and ongoing training are clearly demanding on fossil fuel, this is only part of the total energy. A bigger fossil fuel demand comes in supporting and funding the increasingly large and sophisticated manufacturing bases, mineral extraction programmes and logistics networks that are necessary to ensure military supremacy. Without these no modern military can operate and without an uninterrupted supply of fossil fuel none of this can survive. It is of note that the virtually unanimous refusal by the US Congress to pass the Kyoto 1 agreement was due to their fears that it would reduce the competitive advantage that the US military held.
At the apex of the military games is the dilemma that nations find themselves in with nuclear weapons. Today, 9 nations have nuclear weapons. In addition to these 9, there are many others that sit on a nuclear threshold but refrain from crossing it either through political pressure such as with Iran or by sitting under the US nuclear umbrella such as Korea, Japan, Australia and Saudi Arabia.
With nuclear weapons comes the requirement to provide deterrence at all levels from the lowest conventional conflict up to full scale nuclear conflict to ensure that nuclear weapons always remain the genuinely last option. All nations are subsequently caught up in this requirement, irrespective of having nuclear weapons or not. Ironically the fear of either having to use nuclear weapons or having someone else use nuclear weapons on your behalf intensifies the requirement to ensure conventional military dominance. Thus, any nation considering either giving up nuclear weapons or pulling out from under the protection of the US nuclear umbrella and disarming in an attempt to minimise their carbon footprint must second guess what the intentions of its competitors are. Given the arguments on the prisoners’ dilemma above, they will agree to continue to hold nuclear weapons or remain under the protection of someone that already has them even though this is collectively the worse decision. The result is a collective global commitment to supporting a large scale expanding military industrial complex ensuring continued fossil fuel dependency and for thousands of nuclear weapons to remain on hair trigger alert.
The implications of this are clear with today’s events. The only country in the world that voluntarily gave up nuclear weapons protection when there was a potential military threat from its neighbours is Ukraine. Its subsequent experience makes it nearly impossible to expect that other nations would follow similar paths.
Crudely there are about 50 countries in the world that are either nuclear armed or depending on nuclear weapons protection provided by the US and as a result all are involved in conventional arms races. Thus, the probability of a mutual agreement to cut the global military industrial complex commensurate with to a zero carbon economy is 8.9E-16 using the same analysis as above.
Finally nations are engaged in economic competition as they compete for markets and access to resources. Without economic strength then military forces that are needed cannot be afforded, food supply cannot be guaranteed and basic energy supplies become at risk. Climate change will increased likelihood of all these. A prerequisite to ensure continued economic strength is for nations and corporations to be able to continue with the ability to be able to pay off past debts which have accumulated and which are always a function of economic growth. This requires further economic growth and no nation has ever managed to achieve this without increased energy consumption, either within its own boarders or when taken collectively with its trading partners.
The supposition therefore is that to address climate change large scale debt writes offs would be needed. This would result in the inability to pay pensions, to provide basic health and social care and to make the infrastructure investments necessary to cope with the onset of climate change. All of these will require funding by raising additional debt and these demands will rise as climate change intensifies. The result of this failure will be mass social upheaval. This has already been recognised by the Bank of England in their document, “The impact of climate change on the UK insurance market,” (Bank of England) . Even though the basic assumption of their report is the highly optimistic scenario of temperatures stabilising below a 2 deg C increase, its conclusion is that that the future heralds a collapse in the investment value of high carbon related stocks, the failure of long term investments such as pensions and life insurance policies to provide any sort of returns and the inability of insurance companies to cover climate change losses under this economic environment. Thus added to the dilemma that nations face in the transition to a zero carbon economy is the willingness to accept the collective write down of large scale debts. If it were assumed that half the global economy was trapped in this dilemma, such that 100 nations had to make this mutual agreement, then the chance of the necessary co-operative economic agreement occurring is 7.8E-31.
As the three “games” listed above are interlinked, such that failure to reach agreement in one leads to failure in all, then simultaneous success must be achieved. The probability of success is thus the product of success in these three games, which is 6.3E-58.
This is less than the chance of finding a single atom at random from all the atoms that make the planet. This negligible probability of success and bleak conclusion contrasts starkly with the optimism and euphoria following the end of the COP21 agreement and the subsequent dialogue that has gone on since then.
However, the facts support the analysis above. Despite the hype surrounding the closing ceremonies and the increasingly clear evidence of ecological collapse, no agreement was made to start the down ramping of CO2 emissions commensurate with the latest science. Instead nations are continuing to expand fossil fuel burning to ensure the destruction of the planet. For example, India, Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines are all planning new coal fired power stations; the UK and US is supporting expanded fracking despite taking the lead in the climate change talks, Canada will continue with its tar sands projects despite climate change induced wildfires nearly burning them down and Russia has invested 186 billion in the Novoportovskoye oil and gas field despite its near bankruptcy and methane explosions in the Arctic tundra.
This is all happening against a background of increased military posturing driven by international tensions which in themselves are being driven by climate change. There are real reversals in progress in all areas that were once moving in the right direction. For example, the recently commissioned Iskander tactical nuclear missiles in Kaliningrad have negated the progress made at the end of the Cold War when the entire class of short range nuclear missiles were withdrawn by NATO and Russia; the US has responded to Russian aggression by committing to a $1 trillion upgrade of its nuclear weapons despite its already unsustainable debt and North Korea has moved the world closer to a worldwide crisis of nuclear proliferation. These tensions which are building up their own unstoppable momentum are moving the world increasingly away from the agreements needed to tackle climate change.
The planet now faces the real danger that once it becomes clear to nations that the strategy to avoid runaway climate change is failing and catastrophic temperature rises cannot be avoided, then a free-for-all will result where nations will forsake any pretence of co-operation. Instead they will expand their economic and military might to ensure access to the last remaining resources and protection from increasingly predatory nations. Looking at global events in this context, it is not hard to come to the conclusion that this is already happening. As we move closer to the free-for-all, then the nation state co-operation which has increased continuously since the Second World War will be reversed and replaced with isolation and competition as predicted by the prisoners’ dilemma, especially given the time dimension. This is evident with the independence demands in nations such as Scotland, the BREXIT campaign and the rise of nationalistic leaders such as Donald Trump and Putin and ultimately in disasters such as the Syrian war.
It is thus arguable that the primary purpose of the COP talks is to delay the free-for-all as long as possible rather than to agree on the greenhouse gas cuts necessary to prevent runaway climate change. To do this, they must emphasise that success is possible even when its probability is so low as to be negligible. However, this can only continue for so long and in so doing, it prevents the dialogue that is needed to properly address the crisis and it locks all players in all games in the stable saddle point of mutual competition and mistrust. Thus if not to heaven, then hand to hand to hell.
It is against this background that the climate restoration strategy being proposed is the only way to break the death spiral into which we are currently locked.
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