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One of the fascinating sessions at the Davos world economic forum last week was a persuasive demonstration, using game theory, of why we are unlikely to reach a centralized international treaty on climate change, like the one that was hoped for at Copenhagen.

The participants were not politicians or ordinary folk – they were an extraordinary group of the world’s most brilliant and sophisticated. They were divided into four equal groups. Each group was given 20 minutes to develop a (purely artificial) national identity, with national values, a flag, national symbol etc.; then they were to explain themselves to the other groups. The transparent purpose of this exercise was to get the participants to identify with their new groups, as deeply as possible in 20 minutes. An “all-powerful alien” then announced that all humans would be killed unless all participants could agree, within one hour, to join any one of the existing groups. They were permitted three rounds of public, multi-stakeholder negotiations.

They failed to agree.

This should have been an easy negotiation, infinitely easier than the climate crisis. It was only an exercise, with no real-world consequences. There were only four groups, they were of equal size, they had only 20 minutes’ investment in their separate identities, and their claimed “values” were almost the same. They did not need to justify their decisions to anyone who was not at the table. Despite that, at least one group refused to to give up its separate existence, even at the price of certain death for all.

Many other analyses have come to similar conclusions. In the highly praised book, “Why We Disagree about Climate Change”, Mike Hulme describes the attempt to reach a universal agreement on energy (meaning wealth and status) as as ambitious and as doomed as the Tower of Babel.

Are they right? And, if so, what is the alternative? How can we prevent, adapt to and cope with climate change, without a Copenhagen-type treaty? Can we avoid Gwyn Dyers’ Climate Wars?

Should we then be surprised by the feeble results of the Copenhagen Accord? Canada is now promising 17% reductions from 2005 by 2020, the same as the US, and even less than our previous feeble target of 20% from 2005 by 2020. This falls far short of the reductions that scientists (and economists) tell us are necessary.

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