‘Predictioneers’ forecast Paris climate talks outcome with game theory

What will countries agree to at this December’s critical UN summit? Researchers are mapping the likely outcome

Which path to Paris? It's all to play for (Pic: Flickr/Justin Brown)

What path will an climate agreement go down? (Pic: Flickr/Justin Brown)

By Alex Pashley

Envoys from almost 200 countries will gather in France’s capital in late November in a bid to strike a global warming agreement.

But might their negotiating positions be so ingrained that the nature of a deal can be predicted before a single air mile is accumulated?

That is the question a team of academics is trying to answer, using an economics model based on game theory.

One method anticipates the bargaining positions of all main actors and blocs, from the United States, European Union to the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS).

How salient is the issue of loss and damage – or climate compensation – for cyclone-menaced AOSIS, for example? How flexible can it be on the issue’s inclusion in a final pact? And what clout can it exert over other countries?

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Those variables, deduced by researchers’ scanning of official UN submissions as well as conversations with negotiators, award a value for each “actor”.

A second method is an ongoing survey posted to 100 experts, including negotiators, NGO chiefs and journalists.

Its 13 questions break down issues like climate finance, review cycles to deepen emissions cuts and differentiation between the responsibilities of rich and poor countries.

A screenshot of one of the survey questions

A screenshot of one of the survey questions

“The idea is to use the same questions and alternatives in the survey and in the models that make it as comparable as possible,” says Hakon Saelen, a coordinator at Oslo-based research institute CICERO. “We need quite detailed inputs.”

The team, which includes members from universities in the Netherlands, Germany and Scotland, will reveal its predictions shortly before the Paris begins.

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It includes two individuals who made notable forecasts before the ill-starred Copenhagen summit in 2009, which failed to secure a binding agreement.

Frans Stokman at the University of Groningen, predicted a weak, voluntary agreement which slightly deepened pledges made for the Kyoto Protocol, and pledged a limited adaptation fund.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a self-styled “predictioneer” favouring science over punditry, too predicted the Danish summit would be a “bust”.

“Sacrificing self-interest for the greater good just doesn’t happen very often. Governments don’t throw themselves on hand grenades,” he wrote in a Foreign Policy article in October 2009.

Collective action was doomed, but cheapening renewable technology could replace fossil fuels.

Both were vindicated in the aftermath of the summit which ended in bitter acrimony between developed and developing countries.

Officials are scrambling to avoid a repeat of Copenhagen this time around. Key announcements by the US and China, and a flurry of nationally determined pledges give cause for hope.

This sense of “political momentum” is left out of the model. It assumes that countries purely act in their self-interest.

“There are many good examples of the mood in the room shifting due to events, but these are impossible to capture in the models,” says Saelen.

The political scientist is schooled in the pessimism of zero-sum interactions.

But he is intrigued how a small group of actors can incentivise others to co-opt others into effective cooperation.

“It would require some of the biggest emitters to go ahead and lead, but it shows one or two actors can achieve a lot, and set up a process that ends up with substantial participation.”

A few more days remain before their survey ends. Only after two weeks of tense negotiations we will be able to say if their model was close.

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