What Can Be Done if Climate Change is a Prisoner’s Dilemma?
2018, High School, Prose
1. A fisherman’s dilemma
The sun sets over the ocean horizon. You orient your boat toward the shore and head to the dock. You’re a fisherman. As your boat skims across the glassy evening water, you reflect on the past fishing season, which has nearly ended. The season hasn’t been good. In recent years, many new fishermen have come to your section of the coast, and consequently, fish populations have declined sharply. You’ve heard that some fishermen are considering pledging to catch fewer fish so that the population may recover. You ponder whether you should make this commitment. You are convinced that if every fisherman continues to catch fish at the same rate, there will soon be no fish left. Everyone will be worse off. However, you also know that significantly lowering your fish catches will make it considerably more difficult to provide for your family. And, now that you think about it, your own contribution to the overfishing problem is negligible. You are just one person. While reducing your share of fish will greatly impact you, it will barely impact the fish population in the ocean. You resolve to continue catching the same amount of fish. As you come to this conclusion, you reach a second, worrying realization. This logic you have used to reject conservation could be used by anyone. Each fisherman would prefer to greatly benefit themselves rather than negligibly benefit everyone. Yet, if each fisherman continues his current practices, the collective fishing population will be worse off. But does this mean that you should reduce your fishing rate? The very worst case would be if you reduced your fishing, but everyone else continued overfishing. If you overfish with the rest of the fishermen, at least you can gain the most benefit possible before your coast becomes too depleted to recover. And the best case would be if you overfished while others sacrificed their incomes for conservation. Again, whatever choice you make will scarcely affect the collective, while greatly benefiting or harming you. It is only reasonable to act in your self-interest, even if everyone’s choice to do so would make the collective worse off …
The philosopher Derek Parfit discusses the fisherman’s dilemma in his book Reasons and Persons.1 The fisherman’s dilemma is part of a larger class of ethical problems called Prisoner’s Dilemmas.2 Like our ocean-themed example, all Prisoner’s Dilemmas are characterized by a common feature. In every case, it is best for each participant to act in their self-interest, but if they do, the collective is worse off. In the next section, we will see how the structure of the Prisoner’s Dilemma appears again.
2. Climate change
Climate change is real and anthropogenic, or so say 97% of climate scientists.3 And climate change poses a catastrophic, existential risk. It is the single greatest problem of our time. Scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predict a 2.5-10℉ temperature increase over the coming century.4 This temperature change will bring a host of environmental impacts that are already starting to occur. Precipitation patterns will be disrupted, droughts and heat wave rates will increase, and hurricanes will become stronger and more frequent.5 Effects on the ocean in particular will be devastating. Ocean warming is already observable, occurring at a rate of 0.092℉ per year.6 This warming will affect ocean ecosystems and humans alike. It will create slower thermohaline currents, reducing the circulation of essential resources like nutrients and oxygen and lowering bioproductivity. Melting glacial land ice will cause sea levels to rise, flooding coastal cities, polluting land-based freshwater reserves, and even submerging islands.7 More freshwater entering into the ocean will alter ocean salinity levels, which many organisms will find hard to adjust to. And changing ocean temperatures and ecosystems will cause habitat loss. Many organisms will need to migrate elsewhere to find ecosystems that suit them, which will have unforeseeable consequences on the success of each species.
The disruption and destabilization of the ocean should worry all of us. Many people rely on the ocean for food, oxygen, and the success of various terrestrial ecosystems. And many humans live on or near the coast, making them vulnerable to sea level rise. If climate change will adversely affect the ocean, we should certainly try to prevent or mitigate it. But this is no easy task. One barrier to solving this issue is the familiar structure of the climate change problem. Climate change is like the fisherman’s dilemma. Just as the fisherman has an interest in a healthy fish population, all of us have an interest in preventing climate change and saving the oceans. But the return on investment is poor. To mitigate climate change, each of us can use greener transportation, compost and recycle, use renewable energy, eat less meat, buy more energy-efficient products, and support environmentally conscious companies.8 If we all did these things, the problem of climate change would be less severe. But each person’s individual contribution would be negligible, while they would have to sacrifice a great deal.
The climate change dilemma does not just apply to individuals. Companies need to weigh sustainable, environmental policies against cost-efficient ones. The benefits of these green practices may not be worthwhile for each company because the cost to an individual company might be too great to justify the small benefit of sustainability everyone would receive. In order to remain competitive, companies thus forgo environmental considerations. Nations face the dilemma as well. A government might best enrich its nation by permitting its companies to operate without environmental regulations. If every nation were to do this, the problem of climate change would be hopeless. But from the perspective of a single nation, this might be a rational option.
One may argue that fishermen, individuals, companies, and nations do not always behave as we have described. This is certainly true. Many of these entities care deeply about the environment, or at the very least are required to protect it. These cases are likely examples of solved Prisoner’s Dilemmas. They are important examples of successful cooperation, and we can use them in the fight against climate change. Solutions will be discussed in the next section.
There are two main kinds of solutions to the Prisoner’s Dilemma: regulatory solutions and cultural solutions. Generally speaking, regulatory solutions are realized in law, while cultural solutions are realized ethically, in the public conscience. Regulatory solutions, as the name would suggest, regulate people’s decisions through a third-party authority, like a government. We would all agree that regulatory solutions are essential to preventing climate change. Governments rightfully regulate products and companies that are unsustainable or overproduce greenhouse gases. And they incentivize companies and people to save energy, use energy-efficient resources, and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
Cultural solutions, on the other hand, involve changing people’s behavior through social norms. For example, in China, shark fin soup is considered a delicacy. Unfortunately, high rates of shark consumption have a devastating ecological impact. In recent years, many environmental organizations have campaigned to raise awareness about the ecological harm of shark fin soup. As a result, shark fin soup sales have dropped significantly, decreasing, for example, a full 70% at Beijing hotels and restaurants during the 2013 Chinese New Year.9
Likewise, many are trying to create cultural changes around attitudes toward climate change. On the theological front, Reverend Dr. Ambrose Carroll founded the organization Green the Church to help raise awareness about climate change in African American churches.10 Similarly, Katharine Hayhoe, a Christian climate scientist, produces a PBS digital short series called Global Weirding: Climate, Politics, and Religion. The series aims to convince people, particularly those of faith, of the problem of climate change.11 More generally, The University of California Climate Lab researches ways to change people’s unsustainable behaviors. They investigate, for example, how to use behavioral psychology to reduce food waste (which accounts for 6.7% of greenhouse gas emissions).12
We can further distinguish between two kinds of cultural solution. On the one hand, there are cultural solutions that raise awareness about particular issues and thus play off of people’s preexisting values. For example, once you know that supporting the palm oil industry reliably leads to the destruction of rainforests, you might be motivated to stop buying Nutella, simply because you value the rainforests. The campaign that protests shark fin soup consumption in China is likewise an awareness-raising solution. On the other hand, cultural solutions might alter one’s values. Some environmentalist might convince me not to purchase disposable plastics on the grounds that the marine organisms I will harm really matter just as much as I do.
These value-altering cultural solutions may deserve more focus. In “Philosophy and Climate Change,” the philosopher Maria Bernier emphasizes the importance of radically restructuring humanity’s value system to favor the environment. As she argues, if we are to have any hope of preventing climate change, we must significantly change our relationship with nature.13 Part of this transformation involves departing from our anthropocentric value system and viewing the environment as intrinsically valuable and sacred.14 Thus, regulatory solutions will not be enough; humanity needs to overcome its anthropocentric value system. In the following, I will further discuss Bernier’s claim that society needs to embrace a non-anthropocentric value system. I’ll also try to demonstrate the theoretical appeal of the value-altering solutions through my own experience of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.
4. The personal perspective
When it comes to climate change, I feel the pull of the Prisoner’s Dilemma quite strongly. I can be certain that whatever I do to stop climate change will be irrelevant to whether we end up preventing it. And it is no consolation that I and others will together be part of the effort to save the planet. I am not everyone, I’m just me. Likewise, I am not convinced that my sense of apathy is irrational. Of course, if everyone were to be indifferent to the problem of climate change, we would have no future on this planet. But again, I am just one person, not the arbiter of everyone’s attitudes. And while I hope for regulatory solutions that successfully mitigate global warming, I know whether or not we enact these regulations almost certainly depends on factors out of my control. Awareness-raising cultural solutions are similarly flawed, and also suffer from a second problem: even if everyone were completely aware of environmental issues, their values may still cause them to act selfishly. Recalling our earlier case as an example, the fisherman is fully aware of the declining fish population, yet chooses to continue fishing, simply because he does not value the lives of the fish as much as his own.
Value-altering cultural solutions might save the day here. I am convinced by the arguments for the intrinsic value of nature. If I value the environment as much as humanity, I cannot wait passively for environmental regulations. I must preserve the environment and combat climate change. Even if my environmentalism only negligibly benefits the Earth, I am still justified in acting this way. I am acting rationally, in accordance with my values. And, crucially, were everyone to hold these values and act this way, we could solve the problem of climate change, even while each person would make only a dispensable contribution.
It should be no surprise that adopting environmental values will help us solve the problem of climate change. The more interesting conclusion here, in my view, concerns the issues with non-value altering solutions. Because solving climate change is like a Prisoner’s Dilemma, regulatory and awareness-raising solutions are out of the control of any particular person. Either these solutions will end up being enough to stop climate change, or they won’t; individuals have no reason to try to make a difference here. We cannot rely on these solutions to prevent climate change. Yet, within the framework of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, we can promote non-anthropocentric values. Thus, the value-altering solutions deserve greater emphasis.
Practically speaking, we have by no means found a clear path toward solving the problem of climate change. But perhaps we have clarified some things. The problem of climate change is hard because it is structured like the Prisoner’s Dilemma. To stop climate change, each person must sacrifice greatly to make a negligible difference. As a result, few bother. We might make the problem easier if we established environmental regulations or raised awareness about environmental issues. But these solutions might not be enough; they will be hard to enact because they are out of each person’s control, and may not motivate sufficient preventative action. Thus, to solve the problem of climate change, we must supplement these solutions with another kind of approach. We must create radical social change, fostering a new, non-anthropocentric value system. While this will surely be difficult, and perhaps unachievable, there is cause for optimism. Humans are responsive creatures; at their best they can listen to good arguments. And it should be unsurprising that humans are so adaptive. We are a part of nature after all.
1 Parfit, Derek. Reasons and Persons. Oxford UP, 1984, Accessed 17 May 2018.
2 The Prisoner’s Dilemma is named after the original thought experiment that described this type of problem, where two prisoners would consistently betray each other to avoid an individually harsh sentence and together incur a greater total jail time.
3 “Scientific Consensus: Earth’s Climate Is Warming.” NASA. Accessed 17 May 2018.
4 “The Consequences of Climate Change.” NASA. Accessed 17 May 2018.
6 Doney, Scott, and Andrew A. Rosenberg. “Oceans and Marine Resources.” NCA 2014 Climate Report, 2014. Accessed 17 May 2018.
7 “Going UP: Sea Level Rise in San Francisco Bay.” KQed, 24 Aug. 2010. Accessed 17 May 2018. and “Vanishing Islands.” YouTube, 1 Nov. 2013. Accessed 17 May 2018.
8 “Top 10 Ways You Can Stop Climate Change.” David Suzuki Foundation, 5 Oct. 2017. Accessed 17 May 2018. and Denchak, Melissa. “How You Can Stop Global Warming.” The National Resources Defense Council, 17 July 2017. Accessed 17 May 2018.
9 Evans, Michael. “Shark Fin Soup Sales Plunge in China.” Aljazeera, 10 Apr. 2014. Accessed 24 May 2018.
10 Murdock, Andy. “Awakening a Social Giant in the Effort to Fight Climate Change.” University of California Carbon Neutrality Initiative, 24 May 2017. Accessed 24 May 2018.
11 Hayhoe, Katharine. Biography. Katharine Hayhoe Climate Scientist. Accessed 24 May 2018.
12 Branin, Larissa. “Can Behavioral Psychology Help Stop Food Waste?” University of California Carbon Neutrality Initiative, 22 Dec. 2017. Accessed 24 May 2018.
13 Bernier, Maria. “Philosophy and Climate Change.” GNOSIS, vol. 13, no. 2, 2014. Concordia University. Accessed 17 May 2018.
14 Anthropocentrism dates back to the philosopher Aristotle, who famously argued that all of nature has value merely insofar as it provides resources for humanity. Source: “Environmental Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2015 Edition). Accessed 17 May 2018.
I don’t see this essay as making any radical or novel claims about environmental ethics or climate change. Rather, I tried to develop an interesting and educational way of looking at the problem and the various solutions, as well as trying to explain why I think one particular kind of solution deserves more explicit attention. I think we underestimate the power of clear arguments. They have a surprisingly good track record. Both the animal rights movement of the 1970s and the contemporary effective altruism movement were in part founded on strong ethical arguments, thanks to the work of philosophers like Peter Singer and William MacAskill.