The best way to encourage global cooperation on climate change may be to selectively punish a few nations.

Researchers who study game theory say this approach, called targeted punishment, could provide a path to international climate change cooperation.

“…the international community is a bit like a failed state”

Despite the name, targeted punishment can apply to positive or negative incentives. The key factor is that these incentives are not necessarily applied to everyone who may seem to deserve them. Rather, rules should be devised according to which only a small number of players are considered responsible at any one time.


“It is well known that some form of punishment, or positive incentives, can help maintain cooperation in situations where almost everyone is already cooperating, such as in a country with very little crime,” says Samuel Johnson from the University of Warwick’s Mathematics Institute. “But when there are only a few people cooperating and many more not doing so, punishment can be too dilute to have any effect.

“In this regard, the international community is a bit like a failed state.”

The open-access paper, published in Royal Society Open Science, suggests how the approach can be used to address situations of entrenched defection (non-cooperation).

In the spotlight

“The idea”, says Johnson, “is not to punish everyone who is defecting, but rather to devise a rule whereby only a small number of defectors are considered at fault at any one time.

“For example, if you want to get a group of people to cooperate on something, you might arrange them on an imaginary line and declare that a person is liable to be punished if and only if the person to their left is cooperating while they are not.

“This way, those people considered at fault will find themselves under a lot more pressure than if responsibility were distributed, and cooperation can build up gradually as each person decides to fall in line when the spotlight reaches them.”

Somewhat irrational

For the case of climate change, the paper suggests that countries should be divided into groups, and these groups placed in some order—ideally, according roughly to their natural tendencies to cooperate.

Governments would make commitments (to reduce emissions or leave fossil fuels in the ground, for instance) conditional on the performance of the group before them. This way, any combination of sanctions and positive incentives that other countries might be willing to impose would have a much greater effect.

“In the mathematical model,” says Johnson, “the mechanism works best if the players are somewhat irrational. It seems a reasonable assumption that this might apply to the international community.”

This text is published here under a Creative Commons License.
Author: Lee Page-University of Warwick
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