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Analysis of Climate Change Through The Prisoner Dilemma Theory

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The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a type of game theory that defines human behaviour entirely as self-interested. This theory suggests that an individual will virtually always choose their own self-interest ahead of the interests of an entire group. “A prisoner’s dilemma is a situation where individual decision makers always have an incentive to choose in a way that creates a less than optimal outcome for the individuals as a group.” The classic example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is of two bank robbers, these individuals have a choice to either remain silent which would mean they would both receive a lesser sentence, or “rat” the other one out and receive no sentence at all. However, if they chose to remain silent and the other “rats” them out, they go to prison and the other goes free . This theory not only proves that we as human beings are self-centred, but we do not trust others and that in fact suggests we are not trustworthy ourselves. This is a learned behaviour, the option of choosing the self-interested outcome instead of the most optimal option for both bank robbers can be a case of selfish behaviour with each of them not being trustworthy themselves. It is clear to see that if both remained silent, they would receive the lesser of essentially three sentences, but neither of them would risk trusting the other bank robber.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma theory can also be considered with the topic of climate change. When we analyze this theory with climate change, we thus move away from the classic example of the two bank robbers. Instead we discuss each individual behaviour of the entire population, so no longer a small fringe group but the whole group. The Prisoner Dilemma theory in relation to climate change can be also explained as such; “rational parties prioritizing their personal interests can create a worse situation for everyone .” The Prisoner’s Dilemma is but only one believable reason as to why an individual would not participate in the fight against climate change. The reason this theory so properly demonstrates why each member of the population has not hiked up their boots and done everything in their power to aid in this fight, is that to them, self-interest is more important than cooperation. The thing which most people do not realize is that they can help by doing the smallest things, like, for example, recycling. If each person recycled even in the smallest capacity, like using a reusable water bottle, that is a contribution to saving the planet. Of course, the individuals I am discussing are not those who are not actually physically capable of changing their lifestyles such as the poor, the indigenous communities or others who suffer from social inequalities. I am discussing those who are in complete control of their lifestyles and are perfectly capable of choosing to adapt accordingly to help in the fight. The members of the population who live in the middle and upper classes who have the financial capabilities to contribute, must be held to a higher standard.

What incentives will it take to acquire the participation needed to help with the fight against climate change? What incentives will help the average individual to choose cooperation over their own self-interests? The Prisoner Dilemma theory is present in every aspect of life because it explains why we constantly choose ourselves and are so completely untrusting of others. The untrusting behaviour is that it seems an individual will not contribute if they believe someone else would not do the same. Our mindset is strange, we mimic behaviour, so if that is the case, if many were essentially participating in the fight against climate change, wouldn’t that make others want to contribute as well? The article “Prisoner’s Dilemma: What Game Are You Playing?” discusses the novel titled “The Evolution of Cooperation” which speaks of our urge to be selfish prior to society’s construction of social institutions and a central authority . Human beings have been acting this way for years and years, but as we know we are completely capable of cooperating with each other, hence civilization . Living together and choosing to live civilly is the clearest example of acting in everyone’s interest as opposed to our own interests. It can be said that despite our nature to be self-centred and self-interested, we too have a “nature of morality”. The Nature of Morality “makes claims upon each of us that are stronger than the claims of law and takes priority over self-interest.” This demonstrates not only do we need monetary or punitive incentives, but we also have it within ourselves to do the right thing morally. As self-interested as we are, we do feel an obligation to others, even if that only includes our family and friends and not the rest of the population. Even though we might not feel as if we are obligated to rectify the environment problem for the entire population, some of us however believe that we must help in the fight against climate change for our family’s future generations. If each person decided to take a small step in the fight against climate change just because they want a better future for their children, we would see a tremendous change in the planet. The Prisoner’s Dilemma theory sees human nature in an incredibly dark light. This theory is essentially guaranteeing that if the average individual has to make a decision that was right or wrong, they would choose wrong. The fight against climate change requires everyone’s participation, and anyone who is too self-centred to see this would conclude in the population’s mutual destruction. To make headway and change the way the average person sees climate change is to change people’s focus from a “me” problem to an “we” problem.

As mentioned earlier, the theory on the “Nature of Morality” safeguards our humanity in that we do act in our moral interests as well. However, we cannot only depend on our morality and moral obligations that we would have toward our friends and family to help the planet. There must be additional help in gaining the population’s participation in climate change. The implementation of proper incentives would be one of the plausible solutions to ensure more participation towards the fight against climate change. In December of last year, the Minister of Finance announced the “2020 Climate Action Incentive payment amounts” which is tailored to the provinces who have not adopted the federal system of carbon pricing. The direct beneficiaries are the residents who have paid themselves, for example, to rebuild homes from natural disasters such as; floods and fires. The Canadian Government believes these incentive programs will not only better the environment but will be good for most families who are struggling in these times of natural disaster provoked by climate change. According to the Minister of Finance: ‘most households will receive more money back through these payments than what they will pay out due to federal pollution pricing — helping families to make ends meet as we move toward a cleaner future. ”

There is also incentive for the provinces who have adopted the federal carbon pollution pricing system, because the Canadian government does not keep any direct proceeds from the carbon fund, instead returning the proceeds to the province or territory of origin. The proceeds from the incentive programs either go directly back to the provinces who have adopted the federal system or to the residents of the provinces who have not met the (do you mean have NOT met or have met) federal requirement of carbon pollution pricing. These incentive programs ensure the participation from major corporation to the average individual, to acquire change it requires participation from everyone.

The United Nations has seventeen sustainable development goals that they have released in 2015. One of their sustainable development goals is “Goal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts” or also known as “Climate Action”. Goal 13 is exactly what the world needs to be focused on now. We know the causes, and we know the consequences now, therefore, the only thing left to do is to act. Within the United Nations’ “Goal 13” they include a Covid-19 response plan, as this virus is one of the main pressing issues the world currently faces. As the countries are recovering from the Covid-19 crisis and are doing their best to rebuild their economies the UN has provided a plan. This plan will aid the countries to rebuild their economies but “ in ways that are clean, green, healthy, safe and more resilient” to better reflect a current sustainable economy . “The UN Secretary-General has proposed six climate-positive actions for governments to take once they go about building back their economies and societies:

  1. Green transition: Investments must accelerate the decarbonization of all aspects of our economy.
  2. Green jobs and sustainable and inclusive growth
  3. Green economy: making societies and people more resilient through a transition that is fair to all and leaves no one behind.
  4. Invest in sustainable solutions: fossil fuel subsidies must end and polluters must pay for their pollution.
  5. Confront all climate risks
  6. Cooperation – no country can succeed alone .”

The United Nations Secretary-General’s action plan is very smart. Each developed country must rebuild their economy as virus has caused much damage. This is the perfect opportunity to implement sustainable change while the countries rebuild their economies. Why not build it in a way that would help with the fight against climate change? We still have time to fix what the population has almost damaged beyond repair, there is still time to essentially leave the planet in better shape for our future generations.

“The Common Heritage of Mankind (CHM) principle has been incorporated in various international treaties governing the global commons .” There is no specific definition to define the principle of CHM, the principle is merely to be understood as what the future generations will inherit, and unfortunately it will be the damage that the present generation has done to the environment. In the journal article “Common Heritage: Saving the Environment for Humankind or Exploiting Resources in the Name of Eco-Imperialism?” written by Werner Sholtz, he explains the common heritage of humanity principle with five key elements, the elements can be explained as follows:

“First, common heritage areas are owned by none and states cannot make territorial claims to these areas. Secondly, states therefore act as the representative agents of mankind in the management of the areas and governments cannot manage common heritage spaces as sovereigns. Thirdly, all benefits arising from the exploitation and use of the areas in question must be shared by all. Fourthly, the relevant areas may be used solely for peaceful purposes. Fifthly, the area must be preserved for the benefit of future generations.”

The conception of the Common Heritage of Mankind principle was primarily based on the well-being of the poor. The principle focused on those whose voices are not heard or taken into consideration when important world decisions are being made and yet, the poor are affected most by the consequence brought on by the rest of the world’s actions. The Common Heritage of Humankind “has lost its original meaning and substance when it symbolised the interests, needs, hopes and aspirations of a large number of poor peoples.” The Common Heritage of Mankind is a beautiful concept and must be reinvented to reflect the needs of the current underdeveloped countries. This concept was first viewed by the underdeveloped, third world countries as a “mechanism of equity” to ensure that the developed countries, first world countries, who were “technologically superior would not colonise the global commons and exploit these areas for their own benefit .” The principle was developed in a different time, during a time of the Cold War. However, as we know things have changed and improved from that time of detente, but the concept remains the same. The CHM principle stills applies today, and we must save the environment for humankind, for man to be able to continue to exist on a healthy and sustainable planet for many more years to come.

In conclusion, the fight against climate change is a global problem that requires global cooperation and participation. Without this unilateral participation we are faced with the negative outcomes as in the Prisoners Dilemma, suffering larger scale erosion of the planets well being. We must start looking at the planet as a shared and common space like the “Common Heritage of Mankind” principle. The idea behind the Common Heritage of Humankind principle is to leave the planet in better shape for the future of the human population. To finish this paper, I will end with a meaningful quote that will summarize my paper’s intentions; “The short-term solution to the climate challenge lies in individual action. While no single entity can halt global warming alone, those that take the lead in implementing key climate actions can have a positive multiplier effect.”  

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Analysis Of Climate Change Through The Prisoner Dilemma Theory. (2022, February 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 26, 2023, from
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