Can the U.S. be shamed into climate action?

31 Oct 2009

The U.S. has done little to cut its greenhouse gas emissions (other than contribute to a worldwide recession that’s cut emissions a lot).

So how can the rest of the world get the U.S. to take action, since most everyone agrees that they have to take some measures first before the rest of the world can be expected to cooperate on a global deal to tackle climate change. But so far the 800-pound gorilla of climate change hasn’t budged (although Obama’s “green dream team” gives me hope, and there’s a decent climate bill grinding its way through the U.S. Senate).

So now one of the world’s top climate scientists is advocating a new approach, employing one of the most basic emotions: shame.

Rajenda Pauchari—head of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the group that forms the consensus view on the causes and impacts of climate change, and who hails from India—argues that poorer countries like India and China should take the high road. Even though they contributed little to the global warming we’ve experienced so far, they should do more than is really fair. The AFP quotes him saying:

[India and China can] take a few steps beyond what the developed world expects them to do and then they can point the finger at developed countries and tell them, “Look, in comparison, we are much poorer than you, yet we are taking all these actions so why don’t you do what is expected of you.”

So would this kind of strategic shame actually work? It seems to me it might help a little bit, but it won’t go very far.

Nature Reports Climate Change just published an article of mine, “The Climate Change Game,” about research on cooperation and what it can tell us about the efforts to create a strong climate treaty. Based on what I learned in that reporting, I’d say this shame tactic won’t accomplish much.

“These fairness arguments can be used for strategic purposes,” behavioral economist Olof Johansson-Stenman told me. “The reason they’re useful is because people care about fairness.”

As I explained in my article:

… for these tactics to lead to happy outcomes, negotiators need tools to aid cooperation, and the students in Milinski’s class didn’t have any of these. They didn’t have any way of rewarding team members who helped out, nor could they punish the slackers who refused to pull their weight. And any reputation the students may have earned — either good or bad — didn’t stick with them outside the game. “The less-good news from behavioural economics,” as Johansson-Stenman puts it, is that “unless you have enforcement, people tend to gravitate toward what you’d predict from conventional game theory,” which is that people only cooperate if it’s in their own self-interest.

I don’t want to disparage the climate negotiators, but it does seem like there hasn’t been enough attention to building these tools for cooperation. Shame could be one of these tools. As Johansson-Stenman put it to me, “People don’t wan to live in a country that’s known as being unfair.”

But on the international scene, I have my doubts about how far this kind of reputation and shame can go. It seems that the U.S. has had no issue with taking unpopular stances at odds with most of world opinion. Take the latest war in Iraq, for example, or any number of examples detailed in William Blum’s book Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower (see the book’s Amazon page or Google Books page). (Incidentally, Blum’s book is on Osama bin Laden’s recommended reading list.)

So while international climate treaties are still essential, to get the process moving will take U.S. leadership—and for leaders to have a mandate to take strong action will, in turn, require stronger calls among the U.S. public to tackle climate change. We need more popular movements like, which is aiming to get the concentration of CO2—the primary greenhouse gas—down to 350 parts per million, hence the number. (The level is now at about 390, and it was about 280 in pre-industrial times.)

But it seems we also need a climate change leader that’s some kind of superman-rockstar to inspire everyone as well. (I’ve got another post on that.) It seems like a lot to ask for—but that’s what it will take, say some leading climate scientists and policy analysts. And since it’s hard to imagine all these pieces falling into place fast enough, that’s why I’m so worried about the future.

UPDATE: Stephan Faris reports from Tuvalu: “Tuvalu is eliminating its carbon output. It hopes to shame bigger polluters into following along — before it sinks.” I wish them luck.


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »