The Next Move for Planet Earth

What game theory can teach us about climate-change negotiations.

by Claudia Dreifus Published Winter 2015-16
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Photograph by iStock / WestLight, left and iStock / Antagain, right.

Scott Barrett, Columbia’s Lenfest–Earth Institute Professor of Natural Resource Economics, is internationally recognized for his work applying game theory to the high-stakes business of environmental-treaty negotiations. Earlier this year, as Barrett prepared to fly to Paris to attend the 2015 United Nations climate-change conference, we asked him to give us an insider’s perspective on the interpersonal dynamics behind the talks and the likelihood that nations will reach a global accord to curb emissions and address the world’s environmental challenges.

Q Columbia Magazine: Give us the definition of your job. What does Scott Barrett do for a living?

A Scott Barrett: I’m an economist who tries to explain why international cooperation is needed, and when and why it succeeds or fails. Probably the two greatest successes from modern history are the eradication of smallpox in 1979 by member states of the United Nations and the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which protected the stratospheric ozone layer. In both cases, the world cooperated flawlessly. Everyone alive today is better off because of these efforts. 

Often cooperation fails. In these cases, I use the tools of social science — specifically, game theory — to show diplomats and global political leaders how cooperation can be achieved.

Recently, I’ve been working on climate change, the eradication of polio, and global overfishing. All these problems can only be solved through international cooperation.

You didn’t grow up wanting to be a game theorist?

As a child, I wanted to be a conservation biologist like George Schaller, who studied gorillas, pandas, and lions in the wild. As I grew older and read more, I decided that what I really wanted to do was not only to observe but also to protect the wildlife that remains. 

In college at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, I read the work of the American conservationist Aldo Leopold, who in 1933 wrote that basically every deer, every animal, every part of nature that we observe is there because people allow it to be there. Leopold helped me to understand that humans have the wherewithal to destroy nature, alter it, or protect it. 

Reading Leopold was eye-opening. It caused me to switch my major to economics, because it seemed to me that I needed to help change how people behaved if I was to help conserve wildlife.

But why economics? If you were interested in human behavior, why not study psychology or anthropology?

Economics is concerned with the way people interact. When economists refer to markets, what they are really talking about are social interactions. Economists study individual behavior and interactions by small groups and see how they add up at the societal level. Why is there poverty? Why is there so much pollution? Economics helps to answer these big questions.

The discipline is known for explaining how, when people act only in their self-interest, the outcome can still be pretty good overall for everyone. This was Adam Smith’s great insight. But economics also explains that there are circumstances in which the pursuit of self-interest by each of us individually brings about an outcome that is bad for us collectively.

“I use the tools of social science - specifically, game theory - to show diplomats and global political leaders how cooperation can be achieved."

Can you give an example of this?

Sure. Let’s talk in public-health terms — vaccinations. When I decide whether or not to get vaccinated for an infectious disease, I am likely to consider only my own well-being. I am unlikely to take into account the fact that if I don’t do it, I can transmit the disease to others. That’s because if I protect others, I get no personal reward. Sometimes bad outcomes arise not because people are bad, but because they face the wrong incentives. In this case, what we economists call the market has failed to provide me with an incentive to behave in the public interest. Individual nation-states can adopt domestic policies to correct market failures like this. It’s why states usually have public-health laws. 

But the same problems often get scaled up to the global level. If one country, for instance, does too little to prevent the spread of an emerging infectious disease like Ebola, other countries are put at risk. 

We don’t have a world government that can change this. There are instead about two hundred sovereign states, and they can pretty much do as they like. This is why global problems like climate change, overfishing, and infectious disease can’t be addressed in the same way as national problems. Sovereignty makes cooperation necessary. 

As it happens, international cooperation is normally brought about by treaties. My insight as a researcher was to see that these treaties could be modeled as games.

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