Research & Insights

Even In Lopsided Climate Change Negotiations, Both Sides Can Win

For years, the question of how to equitably share the economic and social costs of reducing carbon dioxide emissions has dogged international climate negotiations. Facing the challenge of trying to sell a deal to their citizens that would have one country accepting higher costs than the other, makes leaders reluctant to agree.

But one study suggests it is possible to reach a deal even when it’s more costly to one side than the other. The key is if leaders of that country are convinced they can sell their citizens on it because they can make the case that the overall benefits are fair, especially in light of the cost of inaction and the possibility future catastrophe.

Writing in the journal Climatic Change, Robert Gampfer describes a series of game-like experiments in which players conducted mock negotiations with the goal of reaching agreements to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

In the game, participants started out with credits whose value corresponded to real-world money. They were told that the money each would have left at the end would depend on the agreements they reached. Another factor affecting how much money they would leave with included the cost to their respective countries from a potential environmental catastrophe.

During negotiations, players on one side would offer a deal that the other side could accept or reject. Factors influencing their decisions included such things as whether one country has greater resources than the other and thus can afford to shoulder more of the costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Another factor was whether one player’s country was more “vulnerable” to damage caused by climate change, making the costs of not reaching agreement even higher.

Another consideration was whether a country that had been a bigger contributor to carbon dioxide emissions over the years feels some obligation to pay a larger share of the cost to reduce greenhouse gases in the future.

Gampfer found that the ability to pay the costs associated with reducing carbon dioxide emissions positively influenced the outcome of negotiations.  Players representing poor countries were likely to agree when presented deals that would have resulted in their richer counterparts paying more of the costs associated with reducing emissions.

Likewise, players whose countries had produced more greenhouse gases over time offered to bear higher costs for implementing proposed solutions than those who were less responsible for global warming.

When negotiations revolved around which was the more vulnerable party, players representing nations that were both poor and vulnerable voluntarily offered deals that were more favorable to their richer, less vulnerable partners. However, when richer less vulnerable countries offered deals that put their poorer, vulnerable partners at a disadvantage, they were rejected.


To Gampfer, the likely reason was the perception that the poorer countries, instead of acting out of self-interest, were being forced to accept a deal that would have been a hard sell back home.

Commenting on his findings later, Gampfer told one interviewer, “Proposals that are perceived as very unfair are likely to meet public resistance, and governments will therefore be unlikely to agree to them in the international negotiations. But the experiment also showed that participants who were richer or more responsible for climate change often acted rather fairly, even if this meant higher costs for them. This is quite a far-reaching conclusion, but maybe governments of developed countries could actually sell costly climate agreements to their citizens if they perceive some fairness obligation to accept them.”

Climatic Change, May 2014

Robert Gampfer, Center for Comparative and International Studies and Institute for Environmental Decisions

Posted: August 16, 2014
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