The Psychological Dimension Behind Climate Negotiations



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Ahead of the climate talks in Paris, researchers stress the importance of psychological research. Studies indicate countries could walk away from a deal even if it is in their best effort to agree.

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Over the next few weeks, the U.S. and other negotiators will meet in Paris to try to finalize a huge climate deal. My colleague Steve Inskeep spoke with NPR's Shankar Vedantam on a hidden factor in those negotiations.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: The science is complex. The politics are complex and psychology adds still another layer. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam is here to talk about that. Hi, Shankar.


INSKEEP: Where does psychology come in?

VEDANTAM: Well, psychology comes in because the people sitting around the table are human beings, Steve. I was speaking with David Victor. He's at the University of California at San Diego. He studied how countries bargain over climate change. And he told me that when we think about these negotiations, we often think about states - you know, Russia and China and India and the United States - sitting around the table. What we often overlook is that these countries are represented by human beings, and human beings don't always behave rationally. Here he is.

DAVID VICTOR: A real danger for Paris - even though the overall process is moving in the right direction, there is this danger that the countries that feel most harmed by climate change and least responsible are still going to walk away because they don't think the deal is fair.

INSKEEP: Wait, wait, wait, nations that feel that they are harmed by climate change, their negotiators might walk away from a deal to address climate change?

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right, Steve. Victor and his colleagues actually recently conducted a study that sort of illustrates how this works. We've known for a very long time that if you go up to people on the street, they often prioritize what is fair over what's rational. One version of this, Steve, is called the ultimatum game. If we have to divide $100 between us, for example, and I can decide that I can divide this in any fashion and you can only either accept or reject the deal, I can offer you $1 and keep $99 for myself. And rationally, you ought to say $1 is better than nothing, so you should accept the deal. But...

INSKEEP: Absolutely not, that's unfair.

VEDANTAM: Exactly.

INSKEEP: I want more than $1, come on.

VEDANTAM: So I think most people think this way. They say I prefer to get nothing rather than get $1. Victor and his colleagues recently conducted a study where they had experienced negotiators - diplomats, former members of Congress, play the very same game. They thought the experts would only do what was national. It turned out it was exactly the opposite. If anything, the experts were even more concerned about fairness than novices, especially when they felt they were negotiating with other experts. Victor thinks that issues of fairness have been at the heart of previous breakdowns involving climate change negotiations. Here he is again.

VICTOR: Look at the last big conference on climate change in Copenhagen in 2009, where a deal was on the table. The least developed countries refused to accept that deal because they thought the deal was unfair, and they felt they had been left out of the room when the deal was negotiated. And so they were willing to walk away from something that would've been better than nothing, precisely because they thought it was unfair.

INSKEEP: But why would less-developed nations be the ones to resist a climate agreement when, in many cases, they're the ones who are most directly affected by rising sea levels and spreading deserts and other effects?

VEDANTAM: I think this goes back to the ultimatum game we just talked about, Steve, which is that countries don't always do what's in their rational self-interest if they feel the outcome is unfair. I think many poor countries feel that rich countries - such as the United States and countries in Europe - have had a century or more to industrialize and build up their economies. And as a result of doing so, they have pumped these greenhouse gases into the air that have caused climate change. And these countries feel, hang on a second; you're now telling us that we have to control greenhouse gas emissions just at the point at which we are starting to industrialize. That's not fair.

INSKEEP: And so to succeed, an agreement not only has to be rational, it has to be perceived as fair at the table.

VEDANTAM: That's right, Steve. Victor was actually on his way to Paris when I talked with him. And he said one of the things he was going to be looking for was explicit mentions of fairness in the negotiations because he fears that if fairness is not explicitly mentioned, the talks might break down.

INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam, who joins us regularly to talk about social science research and also explores how human behavior shapes public policy on the podcast Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.