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It was only a few years ago that scientists shifted their language about global warming.   Saying that it is too late to fix or solve global warming, that henceforth all we can do is mitigate future warming and adapt to the situation.   Adaptation and mitigation will soon be seen as squabbling twins, like oil and water - neither really gets along with the other - but both are needed for our future.


We can face our fate of human-induced climate change in only two directions - toward adaptation (the present) and toward mitigation (the future).  These act as agents to ourselves and our posterity; the present and the future. We will learn a new daily sustainability, but if we want future survivability then we must eradicate carbon.   We will have to reverse our greatest contribution to the problem - CO2 emissions.  Despite calls for cooperation between both approaches - the schism between them widens as resources dwindle.

Adaptation: process whereby an organism becomes better suited to its habitat.

Humans will be adapting to a warming and changing climate through new agricultural practices, making sea walls, moving populations from lowlands and drought areas, and generally trying to make ourselves comfortable as we face the increasing stresses of warming.   For over 8 billion people, adaptation will mean spending tremendous energy in order to reach relative safety, get fresh water, maintain health and agriculture.  The comfort of the past will be impossible to reclaim.  But there is a valid role for business and industry in the ongoing task of adapting to climate destabilization.

Mitigation : to lessen in force or intensity, as wrath, grief, harshness, or pain; to moderate.

There is no chance we can return to the Garden of Eden.  But mitigation - doing all we can to minimize the problem and not make it worse - is scientifically possible.  It must include a radical reduction in greenhouse gases derived from carbon fuels like oil and coal.   The mitigation requirement that we remove carbon from the atmosphere is anathema to coal, gas and oil energy companies who’s businesses all have a carbon waste-product.   Avoiding a harsh future of warming requires painful sacrifices and systemic changes that we must make today.

Curtailing carbon based energy is so contrary to oil and coal interests that they will do anything, join any movement, just to secure a place in a globally warmed future.  Indeed, stockholders demand revenue for this quarter and for all future fiscal years - no matter what the climate.   So these carbon fuel industries, automotive industries, and other watermelon-green campaigns (green on the outside only) become hearty supporters of adaptation as a way for their industry to counter any call to end carbon emissions..   Why not?

Today climate change denialists begrudgingly accept global warming as fact, and even join the adaptation campaign - yet will stridently refuse to accept that man-made CO2 worsens warming.   This works to define adaptationists as an exclusionary group that refuses to co-operate with mitigation by curtailing CO2.   To help cement this notion, Exxon alone spent over $400 million in the last decade fighting the public perception of global warming.   All the major oil, gas and coal energy companies fund a strong information consortium: the American Petroleum Institute.  Theirs, along with other media blitzkrieg campaigns have rained relentless salvos of advertisements, political campaigns and funding professional skeptics, denialist and consultants.  They can boast victory in their battle for their business future, public resources and a political power base.  Their support of adaptation and consistent funding of television and newspaper ads makes news organizations financially gun-shy about challenging the wisdom of carbon sourced energy.  Watch for their ads on ‘Meet the Press’.

The economic horror is that Adapters will be annoyed and discomforted by Mitigators, and mitigation can only happen by sacrifice of adaptation interests.

Growing polarization will see each side fanatically championing its cause: adaptationists will align against the funding of mitigation - thus keeping finite resources on the adaptation side.   Oil companies, anti-government politicos will join emerging Third World industrial nations to deny co-operation with the mitigation cause - despite the predicted hardship scenarios for their baseline survival.

The mitigation cause has only science on its side - the economic interests are not part of any company or bank.  Without the challenge, we can expect stronger promotion of adaptation strategies devoid of any suggestion of constraining carbon fuel.   It will be business as usual.  So we see industry-funded sites like - which may appear positive and helpful - but which act to polarize opinion by offering everything but the one best solution - cutting CO2.   This makes the situation worse, makes contentious and divisive conflict inevitable.

For right now, without a compelling climate catastrophe, the mitigationists must rely on intangible models, predictions and scenarios.  Without a current, widespread, palpable crisis, the case for mitigation is more like a dystopian sci-fi docu-drama.   Further, as humans lose the comfort of cheap carbon, we will find it increasingly harder to pull resources away from forces of reactionary adaptation.

Our vital struggle must link efforts of both adaptation and mitigation as crucial to a future civilization.   It is the essential role of government to calm this conflict and to join and co-ordinate human endeavor.   Too soon, the inexorable increasing pain will shift the sides and equalize the conflict.

Although few climate scenarios go beyond the year 2100, the political roots of distant struggles are being set down now.   Our struggle will eventually be unified.  Today we decide whether it will be a radically reduced population that prevails.

Richard Pauli

  June 2009

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The Ultimatum Game in the Garden of Eden

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Playing the Ultimatum Game in the Garden of Eden

Behavioral economists, seeking to understand just how humans will face global warming, turn to Game Theory and the Ultimatum Game.

A deceptively simple test, the Ultimatum Game is a measure of satisfaction, trust and fairness in a simple economic transaction.  Researchers run this test and others like it to learn about human cooperation in facing the changes of global warming.

It goes like this:   The experimenter tells two subjects that he will give one of them a sum of money that they may split.   One person will decide how much to give to the other.  The other person may accept or reject the offer.   If accepted then both keep whatever money they hold.   However, if the other person thinks it unfair - then by refusing money prevents both of them from getting any cash.   Session over.   The test is given once only.

The results for the Ultimate Game show that many groups will accept a small percentage.   If the experimenter gave 100 dollars, then $5 might be shared.   The data for Western subjects measured more - 30-40%… meaning they were willing to cut off all wealth until reaching a higher fairness level.  Some even insisted on 50%.

Economists prefer to think of humans as rational actors who would logically choose the best deal in any situation. Rational actions are easier to formulate and model.  The irrational choice of cutting off all money and ending play is harder to understand.   Was it the sense of fairness?   Shared suffering?   One can see how this game may apply to the economics of global warming.

Our civilization is in the midst of a real-world experimental play of the Ultimatum Game.   One player distributes the great carbon energy wealth pulled from the earth, and the other player receives the benefit of that offer.   Our incredibly cheap carbon fuel energy from coal, oil, and natural gas combustion all release CO2 into the atmosphere.  CO2 reacts slowly, but eventually triggers greenhouse heating in the atmosphere.  The effects of CO2, not obvious at first, is very real - a major greenhouse gas that slowly heats and destabilizes our climate .  It is directly caused by burning carbon fuels.   We are killing ourselves.

“The related fields of behavioral economics, game theory, and neuroscience have confirmed that human behavior is other regarding, and that people exhibit systematic patterns of decision-making that are “irrational” … the standard economic approach to climate change policy, with its almost exclusive emphasis on rational responses to monetary incentives, is seriously flawed. In fact, monetary incentives may actually be counter-productive. Humans are unique among animal species in their ability to cooperate across cultures, geographical space and generations. Tapping into this uniquely human attribute, and understanding how cooperation is enforced, holds the key to limiting the potentially calamitous effects of global climate change.”
            — John M. Gowdy   2007

A related experiment is the Dictator Game where the player with cash keeps as much as they wish whether or not an offer to share is accepted.   Predictably, dictators make far less equal offers, keeping a larger share of the cash.   With really no choice, the second player always accepts unequal money.

In the commercial marketplace we can see a privileged holder of energy wealth, sharing or selling to a less privileged player.   The less privileged ones may constantly accept this marketplace deal, until the deal changes unacceptably; perhaps the privileged one goes too far in crossing a clearly defined line - perhaps deceit, manipulation, denial, ethical transgression or realizing the bad ramifications of the deal.  In the real world this might be like seeing billion dollar bailouts go to banks - and suddenly realizing it will raise taxes and condemn our future to horrible debt.

Both the Ultimatum and the Dictator games seem to mimic the market play of Big Coal and Big Oil in our economy.   Carbon fuel industries - with a monopolistic lock on the market - sell energy - and heavily promote and market to consumers to consume all they can deliver.   But carbon consumption kills our future.   As our understanding of the CO2 mechanism grows ever more grim, we re-evaluate the structure of the carbon fuel game as something that crosses the line.

Just like games played with economics researchers - always with real cash - one can imagine a great experimenter freely bestowing vast wealth to humans in the form of a lush planet, yielding forests, ocean harvests, mining mineral ores, oil and coal.  Humans are Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden - all has been essentially free, given like money in the Ultimate Game experiment.  And we get just one play.   The first line of carbon fuel recipients consistently redistribute a portion of the wealth to others: employees, clients, stock holders and directly to consumers.   In the Ultimate Game of carbon based fuels, what percentage of wealth is shared?   ExxonMobil brought in yearly profit stockholders nearly $40 billion, so the ratio of owner wealth to consumer benefit must be a very high ratio.   If we played this as a laboratory version of Ultimate Game, we would see a small fractional award, perhaps less than 1%.  We do not know.   Students in economics will write many papers defining the percentage of this carbon energy wealth that makes it to the consumer   Only then to ponder what percentage of this wealth is lost to a degrading future.

Whether the game is Ultimatum or Dictator - the carbon fuel privileged player derives vast wealth, vast power by giving the recipient player generations of cheap power, cheap electricity leading to cheap manufacturing and then to cheap mortgages, a rising value of real estate, easy credit, rising stocks, etc.  The Trickle Down wealth runoff to the recipient is a very small fraction of the vast wealth retained by the primary player.  And now with a crumbling economy and growing desperation, the satisfaction evaporates and the game becomes desperate or ruthless.

The implicit rule of a real-life Ultimatum Game is this must be a safe transaction, with an honest description of the terms and true costs of the deal.   Plentiful coal is dug and sold cheaply, and we get warm electricity.   But the value of the uncounted soot, CO2 and ash ponds poisoning life itself and then our 30% share (or whatever percentage we want) is now gone - ruining what we thought was a good deal.   We less than nothing with the promise of a damaged future.  What is the new value of any transaction that dooms our future?

So the largess of a Dictator or Ultimate player now goes to recipients that are now beginning to awaken and sense the trap.   Our carbon fuels are not cheap at any cost.   The bounteous carbon warmth today will only hasten CO2 greenhouse doom tomorrow.   Carbon fuel companies have reduced our cost of oil, coal and gas; all cheapened so as to increase the percentage of wealth delivered to the other game players.   As energy consumers, we blindly accept this; we keep driving and heating and carbon burning in order to stay engaged in the game.

The real life game player, whether a rational and/or irrational actor will doubt, delay and eventually call a halt to this play - demanding for a new agreement.

Change itself changes.  An increasing rate of climate destabilization multiplied by a sinking economy nurtures and defines a new, higher-stakes game - essentially a survival game.   The terms of this new survival game will constantly change as our environment and economy changes.   Except for behavioral economists, this does not bode well.

After more than a century of a high carbon industrial output we are accounting for the true cost to our economy and future.   In our precarious state, any further industrial CO2 output increases the problem and moves our demise closer.   The desperate tactic of setting an ultra-low cost to carbon energy now - as a player payoff - means nothing if no one survives.  

The argument now is whether we abandon our carbon game immediately or play it out any further.

Behavioral economics gives us a new way of looking at our situation. Those who adopt the dictator stance of economic transaction will be rudely shocked to discover that C02 and atmospheric science does not negotiate with economists.

Richard Pauli

January 2009

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