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Sensitivity of collective action to uncertainty about climate tipping points

Nature Climate Change volume 4, pages 3639 (2014) | Download Citation

Abstract

Despite more than two decades of diplomatic effort, concentrations of greenhouse gases continue to trend upwards, creating the risk that we may someday cross a threshold for ‘dangerous’ climate change1,2,3. Although climate thresholds are very uncertain, new research is trying to devise ‘early warning signals’ of an approaching tipping point4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11. This research offers a tantalizing promise: whereas collective action fails when threshold uncertainty is large, reductions in this uncertainty may bring about the behavioural change needed to avert a climate ‘catastrophe’5. Here we present the results of an experiment, rooted in a game-theoretic model, showing that behaviour differs markedly either side of a dividing line for threshold uncertainty. On one side of the dividing line, where threshold uncertainty is relatively large, free riding proves irresistible and trust illusive, making it virtually inevitable that the tipping point will be crossed. On the other side, where threshold uncertainty is small, the incentive to coordinate is strong and trust more robust, often leading the players to avoid crossing the tipping point. Our results show that uncertainty must be reduced to this ‘good’ side of the dividing line to stimulate the behavioural shift needed to avoid ‘dangerous’ climate change.

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Acknowledgements

We thank J. Rising for programming our ‘spinning wheel’, the MaXLab team at Magdeburg University for use of their laboratory and the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies research community on Communicating Uncertainty: Science, Institutions, and Ethics in the Politics of Global Climate Change for financially supporting our experiments.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Earth Institute and School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, New York, New York 10027, USA

    • Scott Barrett
  2. Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08544, USA

    • Scott Barrett
  3. Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York, New York 10027, USA

    • Astrid Dannenberg
  4. University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg 405 30, Sweden

    • Astrid Dannenberg

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Contributions

S.B. and A.D. contributed equally to this work. They both designed and performed the research and analysed the data and wrote the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Scott Barrett.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2059

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