The original Kyoto approach was to change national self-interests by making a common commitment. That was to be “I will cut emissions 5% below 1990 if you will.” That kind of deal making is how we get things done in a world that is not mainly altruistic.
The Kyoto approach was right in spirit, but wrong in its most important assumption. It assumed commitments had to be to quantity caps. The Kyoto negotiators struggled mightily for two years, but ultimate failed to reach there goal of a common quantity commitment. The negotiators were not the problem. The problem was the cap fallacy. Caps are not necessary for strong commitments, and in fact they make negotiating a strong policy nearly impossible.
Now, almost everyone recognizes that a strong common cap/quantity commitment is impossible. But instead of giving up on caps, the cap fallacy has been retained and the essence of the Kyoto approach — the common commitment — has been abandoned. This is disastrous.
It’s disastrous because climate change is the worst public goods problem we have every faced, and a public goods problem is essentially a prisoners’ dilemma game with many prisoners. With just two prisoners, the game’s structure works strongly against cooperation. With many prisoners, experiments show, that disastrously uncooperative behavior is inevitable. That is what is happening now, and that is what will be ratified in Paris in 2015. This is the result of abandoning Kyoto’s good intentions because of the cap fallacy.
The solutions is to see through the cap fallacy and focus on a price commitment. As explained in the Voting and Game-Theory sections, switching to a price commitment changes the game. And the new game makes it far easier to cooperate.
- Kyoto intended to change self interests for the better with a common commitment.
- But it assumed caps were the only possible commitment.
- This cap fallacy was (1) transparently wrong, and (2) disastrous for negotiations.
- The Kyoto failure was misdiagnosed in two ways
- It blamed failure the good (and essential) intentions
- It continued to accept the cap fallacy.
- The result is that the bad has been kept and the good thrown out.
The Cap Fallacy: The only real commitment is a commitment to a quantity cap.
This is manifest nonsense. If a country commits to a $200/ton carbon tax, that is a real commitment. And it is a far stronger commitment than committing to a cap that rises only 2%/year instead of an expected 3%/year.
The Top Level View:
The result of the cap fallacy has been this. Since quantities were deemed sacred, Kyoto’s failure had to be blamed on its goal of changing self interest with a common commitment. The conclusion has been that self interest is immutable and so we must depend on altruism. Given that conclusion, exhortations for more “political will” and more “ambition,” is one option, and scare tactics are the other. The first is doomed and the second exacerbates polarization, making cooperation more difficult.
The opposite is true. Changing self interest is possible and is the way all nations solve public goods problems. That is our only hope. The sections on Voting and Game-Theory explain how self interest can be changed for the better. They also explain why a price commitment is the way to change the climate game and make that happen.