Saturday, 26 December 2009

A Starter and a note on COP 15

So, this is just to get things going. For those of you who may have an interest in my academic doings, just follow the "learn more here" link to the left!

What is more timely than saying something of the debunked COP 15 climate change policy summit. I've already encountered a chorus of reactions coming from such diverse sources as high politicians (several of them present in Copenhagen), supposedly well-informed academics and journalists, as well as the regular Joe and Jane, all blaming developing countries – in particular, China – for the meager outcome. The problem with this analysis is its obvious lack of consideration of the nature of the political challenge inherent in these negotiations, and how the various parties (if not all) so bluntly fail to face up to it.

Climate change policy would have been easy had it not been for its costliness for us all (in terms of money, short-term comfort, etcetera). True, the overall costs are justifiable in view of the threats faced – which is the basis of the idea of having a global upper limit on climate influencing emissions. However, the costs also need to be distributed in some way between the involved parties, and this is where the problems start. For what we see is what game and decision theorists usually refer to as a game of chicken, where each party do its best to press the others to agree to a deal serving this individual party's self-interest. This may result in a deal being made. However, since this takes time and since the climate change scenarios grow grimmer and less predictable the more time that passes, this strategy creates a threat of locking climate change policy into a situation where we all become magnificent losers due to our success in serving our own interests. This is what, in research, is often called a prisoner's dilemma. One of the really nasty features of this dilemma is that there is no way out of it: the only way to escape is to avoid being locked into it, and there are numerous strategies for that.

Now, one would have supposed that all the world leaders, as well as their numerous advisers understand this, since it is basic course 1A for anyone who goes into politics to learn to spot prisoner's dilemmas and to construct strategies to avoid them. And in the case of COP 15 and climate change policy, the first obvious step is to stop playing the chicken game! In the present case, as in most other cases, what is needed for that is to stop being entirely guided by self-interest (or to expand one's self-interest to include the interests of the others). That is, recognize that quite reasonable worries had by all parties in connection to the costs of climate policy. This is where the flaw of the "the Chinese did it"-analysis becomes obvious.

China's economic growth over the past few decades is stunning, but essentially China is still a rather poor country if we look at the wealth/citizen. So what worries China is that its (future) citizens will be robbed of too much forthcoming growth as a result of a climate policy deal. Developed countries have similar worries, but rather regarding loosing too much of already acquired wealth. At the same time, both sides know that a price in terms of lost wealth will have to be paid.

What this means is that, when i deal is not reached, no particular side is more to blame than the other, unless a move has been made that can be understood as either blatantly destroying the prerequisites for negotiation, or by trying to play chicken in disguise. The "China did it"-analysis is a claim regarding the first of these strategies for placing blame. China just refused making a deal, that is true, but why did they do that? Had developed countries invited China and the rest of the developing world to consider a generous offer, we could indeed have concluded that China did it. But this is not what happened. The developed world extended a shame bid, particularly through the declarations made by the US quite early on about a, given the circumstances, quite ridiculous 4% reduction of fossil fuel emissions. This opening bid of the richest and most powerful country of the world made clear to China as well as the rest of the world that this player would indeed play chicken, and the rest of us should just be grateful for being allowed to play the part of the suckers. So China walked away from the table, and quite reasonably so.

Simply put, the COP 15 could have become something, had the developed world only extended a serious offer. In view of the prospective burdens on developing countries of any climate policy deal, this did not occur.