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2012-10-15 | Peer Reviewed

Climate negotiations under scientific uncertainty

Dannenberg, Astrid and Scott Barrett. 2012. “Climate negotiations under scientific uncertainty.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109:43: 17372-17376.
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How does uncertainty about “dangerous” climate change affect the prospects for international cooperation? Climate negotiations usually are depicted as a prisoners’ dilemma game; collectively, countries are better off reducing their emissions, but self-interest impels them to keep on emitting. We provide experimental evidence, grounded in an analytical framework, showing that the fear of crossing a dangerous threshold can turn climate negotiations into a coordination game, making collective action to avoid a dangerous threshold virtually assured.

These results are robust to uncertainty about the impact of crossing a threshold, but uncertainty about the location of the threshold turns the game back into a prisoners’ dilemma, causing cooperation to collapse. Our research explains the paradox of why countries would agree to a collective goal, aimed at reducing the risk of catastrophe, but act as if they were blind to this risk.