Global Warming is a Global Prisoner’s Dilemma

Posted on Posted in Climate Change and Sustainability, Ethics

As I envision the future of the planet I see two very disparately different images.The first is a utopian vision of unlimited free renewable energy with a universal basic income provided to every person in every country around the world.

The second is a dystopian future where extreme climate change and ecosystem collapse destabilize governments leading to ever increasing natural disasters, draughts, floods, poverty, famine, and war.

When I think of the tremendous amount of progress of social justice movements over the past several hundred years it seems inevitable that we would eventually get to the first vision. But given the state of world’s ecosystems and looming climate change it seems clear that at our current rate of progress the utopian vision is destined to remain a utopia.

Is there any hope? I think there is.

The math of global warming is indeed terrifying. Here is an overview:

  • 2 degrees celsius (the number we need to stay below to avoid catastrophic climate change)
  • 575 gigatons of carbon dioxide – the amount of carbon dioxide we can release into the atmosphere before hitting the 2 degree mark
  • 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide – the amount of carbon dioxide contained in the proven coal, oil, and gas reserves of fossil fuel companies. This is 5x the safe amount.
If fossil fuel companies burn the fossil fuel they have in reserve it will push global climate far above 2 degrees celsius leading to truly catastrophic climate change!
I think there is hope because now for the first time every person and every country on has a self-interested reason to serious pursue halting climate change.
Technically we are now in what philosophers refer to as a prisoner’s dilemma, globally. A prisoner’s dilemma is a situation in which everyone is made worse off by the direct pursuit of their own self-interest. What this means is that we would all be better off if we cooperated but we don’t cooperate so we are all made worse off. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes first noted this phenomena, and referred to it as the state of nature. He noted that in the state of nature all persons have a self-interested reason to agree to follow certain rules. This was the beginning of social contract theory.
So, I think there is reason to be hopeful that we can essentially come up with a global social contract. This is something we have needed for quite sometime but only recently has everyone self-interested been effected to the point where it makes self-interested sense to pursue such a global social contract.
It is true that past attempts on things like a global carbon tax have failed but that was only because the stakes weren’t high enough at the time. I feel confident that as the stakes, and the oceans, rise we will come to such a global agreement.
And if we’re being really optimistic we can imagine that the shared threat of global warming and the worldwide cooperation needed to combat climate will lead not only to global agreements regarding things like carbon emissions but it will usher in a new age of global cooperation dedicated to welfare of all persons in every country around the planet.
An era in which we put an end to poverty and war and build a massive global infrastructure to provide unlimited renewable energy free to everyone on the planet.

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