There goes the COP circus again

November 29th, 2012 atam Posted in Climate change, Earth, General, Greenwash | No Comments »

There’s an age-old behavioural experiment originally designed to prove our capacity for self-interest but ended up showing our capacity for empathy too.

In it, one person is offered a sum of money, say $10, and left to decide whether or not to share it with a second person. If the second person refuses what the first person proposes to share, both would end up with nothing.

So how much do people share? You’d expect most of those with the money to share would offer the least amount that the other person can reasonably be expected to accept, but in fact most of them offer almost half the money to the second person. Even when the first person is given the power to dictate how much the second person gets, like it or not, the amount shared still tends to be high.

The “rational self-interest” the experimenters look for only rears its head following a final tweak: when the two persons are put in separate rooms. When the first person cannot see or talk to the second person face-to-face, all sense of generosity goes out the door: they offer as little as they can get away with. Empathy wins out when the partners in the experiment can directly interact with each other, but disappears when the second person becomes an abstract quantity.

We all know this at a certain level. That’s why local news occupies a more prominent position in newspapers than international news – we care more about what’s happening close to us than events happening in some remote places. That’s why when we’re really affected by something, we say it’s really “hit home”.

Now somewhere out there in a city called Doha, hundreds of delegates have gathered to resume climate change talks at COP18, trying to hammer out a deal while shut inside the meeting rooms of some ornate conference facility, far away from the men, women and children whose lives will be heavily affected by the outcome of those talks.

What do you think the outcome will be? These delegates are armed with tons of information, some of which, like the amount of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, they will share and debate; some, like the number of coal-fired power plants their countries plan to build, they will try their best to hide or ignore.

When officials accustomed to flying business if not first class and staying in five-star hotels get together to talk somewhere far away from the ordinary people whose plight they can neither see with their own eyes nor are ever likely to suffer, the chance is they will bargain based on the abstract numbers that protect their jobs.

At the same time, climate change is too abstract a concept for the ordinary people whose lives are more directly affected by increases in electricity tariff. Try telling them increases are inevitable due to the need to switch to more expensive fuel that generates less carbon dioxide.

According to the World Resources Institute, there are some 1,200 coal-fired power plants with a total capacity of about 1,400 GW being planned across 59 countries, with the majority of them in India (455 plants) and China (363). Is it any surprise neither country wants to commit to emissions reduction anytime soon enough to avoid catastrophic climate change? After all, the negotiators aren’t the ones on the street where floodwater washes away hundreds and displaces millions when it’s done; all they see are the GDP figures on the pieces of paper their overlords provide as a reminder that no commitment that jeopardises the growth rate must be made.

Something that suits the negotiators may be agreed, but like the second person in what has come to be known as the “dictator game”, who is kept in a separate room and has no power even to decide whether or not to accept whatever’s offered, the public at large can expect little that will save them, and the planet, from runaway global warming.

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