New book from Rice professor shares climate change strategy

Surveying the politics around global warming – and what we must do to slow it — hope is often lost as we doom-scroll through the dozens of stories a week about each new indicator that humans are haplessly overheating the planet.

If the world can unite to stop growing greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 and manage a 40 percent drop by 2030, we can save the world as we know it, the panel explained. A new book by Rice University professor Dan Cohan provides some ideas on how to break through the political morass.

“Confronting Climate Gridlock: How Diplomacy, Technology, and Policy Can Unlock a Clean Energy Future” dives into how the technologies that will replace fossil fuels can spur economies and boost corporate profits, and how game theory could lead to a global climate deal.

An emerging induction to cooperate on climate is the opportunity for large corporations to profit from reducing emissions. Cohan spends multiple chapters explaining clean energy technologies and whether they are economically superior to carbon dioxide-producing alternatives.

“There is this one camp that is all about R&D and all the new technologies,” he said when I interviewed Cohan in front of a live audience at Rice to celebrate the book’s release. “Then here are the people who say, we have the technologies that we need; we just need the policy, the will, to put them in place. ”

The challenge now is the shrinking timeline to avoid disaster. President Joe Biden wants to neutralize emissions by 2035, which does not allow emerging technologies like small nuclear reactors, fusion or even carbon capture to reach maturity in time.

“If we are serious about doing this quickly, and moving quickly is what we have to do, we have to move quickly to electricity,” he said.

Political scientists often use game theory to understand diplomatic negotiations. A classic game is the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

The game begins with police interviewing two co-conspirators separately, offering both a deal if they flip on their accomplice. The prisoners can stand pat and hope their ally does not confess, or they can save themselves. If both confess, neither gets a deal.

If you play the game like a tournament with many rounds, game theorists say a winning strategy emerges. Keep quiet and if you lose, then confess in the next round to win. By always doing what the other prisoner did in the previous round, a player can encourage cooperative behavior in just a few rounds of the game.

The steps to success are simple: In the first round, be nice, then retaliate, if necessary, and ultimately forgive past betrayals to foster future cooperation. If the strategy is clear, the prisoners always learn to cooperate.

Nations that have taken steps to slow climate change, though, generally do not retaliate against those that refuse. They create a free-rider problem, where some countries bear most of the burden. Cohan explains that European Union proposals to impose carbon tariffs on imports from non-complying countries are emerging as the retaliation necessary to encourage cooperation.

One of Cohan’s key observations is that successful international climate deals typically ratify existing US legislation. Conversely, presidents who cut a deal overseas first and then try to pass it at home often fail.

The Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer, for example, was signed only after the Environmental Protection Agency banned the dangerous chemicals at home. Passing climate bills through Congress then becomes the best way to make international deals that will hit emission reduction goals.

“If we ever get our act together domestically, we could have a better hope of driving things globally,” Cohan said. “And when we do act, we want to make sure everyone else comes on board.”

Unfortunately, in a deeply divided body politic, Republicans have made opposition to climate legislation a litmus test. Even the conservative clean energy advocacy groups I follow, such as the Conservative Energy Network, rarely mention climate. Instead, they call for market solutions over regulations.

The real challenge, then, is convincing Republican primary voters that mitigating climate change is necessary and economically beneficial. Unfortunately, after eight years of making this argument, I’ve seen only a slight reduction in the number of climate-change-denying messages from readers.

Cohan’s book provides an accurate assessment of the current situation and an excellent strategy for breaking the climate gridlock. He also provides a much-needed break from the climate doom-scroll.

Tomlinson writes commentary about business, economics and politics.

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