Using Game Theory to Break the Climate Gridlock

Ric Francis / AP
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Let the game begin! I was very excited by my colleague Andrew McGill’s work to bring game theory into the context of the election. Long story short, the weird three-sided game of chicken between GOP #NeverTrump leaders, voters, and candidates can be explained by game theory, which uses mathematical concepts to model and predict interactions between multiple decision-makers. Essentially, the game of endorsements and counter-endorsements, the dance of pledges, and the calculus of electability are all based on complex webs of predictive decisions that can actually be modeled.

I’ve long been a fan of game theory, even though I’m not an expert in it. I studied the related, but infinitely less interesting field of decision theory in graduate school, and I’ve always been interested in modeling how to solve complex global problems. Andrew’s article gave me an excuse to revive my old fascination with game theory and global catastrophe.

The very first game theory concept I became familiar with was the prisoner’s dilemma in the context of nuclear war and mutually assured destruction. In this particular game, two nuclear-armed adversarial sides that aren’t diplomatically engaged tend towards an arms race and an eventual mutual strike, even when the obvious best solution is both sides disarming. Luckily for the world, we had just enough diplomacy, luck, and influential free-radical actors to defuse that situation. So far. Here’s a little more on that.

Both the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and President Barack Obama identify climate change as one of the key looming catastrophes of today. My colleagues here have been doing great work on the issue of climate change and the war-like mobilization that might be necessary to confront it. I’m concerned with the political and diplomatic nuts and bolts required to implement climate policies, and my guess is that game theory can help. My limited sense is that both are informed by the prisoner’s dilemma, but this “game” is much more complex than the two-sided dilemma I’m familiar with. I still think the concepts hold up well enough to use game theory to help provide workable policy ideas to try to stop some of the worst future effects of climate change, hopefully in ways that could fit some bipartisan sensibilities. In this case, what’s the equivalent of nuclear disarmament in climate policy and how can the costs and benefits be balanced?

So here’s the reason I’m writing this note: I think it would be interesting to work with readers and experts to provide a nuanced game-theory-based understanding of climate policy. Generally, journalists keep their ideas quiet and call up big-name experts until a workable article arrives. But that often leads them to talk to the same narrow cast of experts, even if other academics are doing more interesting work. And the fields of game theory and decision theory are full of enthusiastic basement forecasters—and I’d like to get their input, too.

Here’s the ask: If you are working on game-theory-based climate policy forecasting, if you're involved in the field and have ideas, or if you’re simply intrigued and have any input or questions, send me an email. Let me know what you’re working on, show me your models if you have any, send me resources that might be useful, or just ask questions!

I’ll provide updates and share input from contributors in Notes as the project coalesces. Thanks, y’all!