Astrid Dannenberg


Astrid Dannenberg

While countries might cooperate if they were absolutely certain of the tipping point that led to catastrophe, climate science doesn’t work like that. Experiments by Professor Barrett and Astrid Dannenberg from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden have found that where there is uncertainty, free-riding becomes irresistible, cooperation breaks down and catastrophe occurs.
–  NYT: Climate Deal Badly Needs a Big Stick.

Astrid Dannenberg is Professor of Environmental and Behavioral Economics at the University of Kassel. She received her MA in economics at the University of Mannheim and her PhD at the Otto-von-Guericke-University of Magdeburg. She previously was a Research Fellow at the Centre for European Economic Research in Mannheim, the University of Gothenburg, and Columbia University in New York City. She also worked for the German Federal Environmental Agency.

In 2014, she was awarded an ERC Starting Grant by the European Research Council for her research project “Human Cooperation to Protect the Global Commons” (HUCO). Her research interests lie primarily in global collective action problems and environmental issues such as climate change. In particular, the research focuses on human behavior and decision making and how institutions can be designed to promote cooperation.

Summary presentation: Climate Change Negotiations: Game Theory and Experimental Evidence.

Research colleagues include: Scott Barrett, Alessandro Tavoni, Giorgos Kallis, Andreas Löschel, Gabriele Paolacci, Christiane Reif.

My laypersons summary conclusions as to her/their research can be summarized as:

  • When Actions required of individuals for collective change are Clear and unambiguous, trust and incentives for cooperation are strong; and the chances are greater that such change can be implemented and enforced.
  • When Actions required of individuals, groups or nations for collective change, are Vague and Ambiguous; cheating and free riding results; and the chances are low to non-existent that such change can be implemented and enforced.

as depicted in: IG’s: 17-06-10_nyt-climatedealneedsbigstick17-06-12_nyt-climatedealneedsbigstick-2; 17-06-19_timkhanstratculture-natoscosteppeline17-07-23_godscrazy-climatedealneedsbigstick-2.

SQSwans Dannenberg Reports.


Astric Dannenberg Comment:

The key insight here is that cooperation can only thrive if at least some cooperators in the population do better than the defectors. This is more likely to happen in the local setup because it allows for more variation in behavior. To provide some simple intuition, consider first the global setup. There is only one large group and it either avoids the dangerous threshold or not. In either case, defectors do better than cooperators because they don’t contribute to the avoidance of the collective damage. The only role model in this situation is defection and cooperation cannot spread. Now, suppose that there are many small groups, and some of which manage to avoid the dangerous threshold. The players in these successful groups set an example for the players in the unsuccessful groups, and so cooperation can spread. By a similar logic, local sanctioning institutions work better than a global sanctioning institution. The review by Pacheco, Vasconcelos, and Santos highlights the informational value of local institutions. The local setup allows players to experience the good and the bad, and to build upon the good. However, in reality, local institutions cannot ensure that dangerous climate thresholds are avoided. This depends on global emissions. For this reason, local efforts should not replace the efforts to reach a global agreement but complement them. Role models at the local level hopefully make others to follow suit and provide some leverage for the international climate negotiations.
» Science Direct: Dangerous climate change and collective action Comment on “Climate change governance, cooperation and self-organization” by Jorge M. Pacheco, Vítor V. Vasconcelos, and Francisco C. Santos, by Astrid Dannenberg

Re: Scott Barrett: Re: Cop21 as a Climate Change Negotiation Agreement:

The world has reached consensus: Climate change is a serious threat, and each nation can play a role in reducing fossil fuel emissions. The Paris Agreement relies on a voluntary approach for developing policies for transitioning away from fossil fuels. “The biggest challenge with voluntary agreement to limit countries’ emissions is enforcement,” explains Scott Barrett, economist and Columbia University professor, referring to free riding and an unwillingness to sacrifice if other countries are not doing the same. “Unfortunately, the international system is particularly bad at enforcement.”

….. People who cheer the Paris Agreement see it as reducing emissions relative to a forecast of “business as usual.” Critics see the agreement as being unable to achieve the collective goal of limiting climate change. But business as usual is never observed – so we can’t easily tell whether Paris will improve on what countries would have done anyway. My reading of an analysis prepared by the UNFCCC’s secretariat suggests that the only way the voluntary contributions pledged thus far could achieve the collective 2-degree goal is if a miracle occurs around 2030, some technological breakthrough forcing global emissions to plummet. Even then, the chances of staying within the 2 degree goal are no better than 50-50.

My research, especially laboratory experiments done jointly with Astrid Dannenberg of the University of Kassel in Germany, explores the behavioral effects of this kind of negotiation process. It shows that groups choose a goal that is too weak relative to what’s required to make them as well off as possible, individual pledges fall short of the group goal, and individual contributions fall short of pledges. The UNFCCC analysis assumes that countries will fulfill their voluntary pledges, but over the past 25 years, many countries have made similar promises and failed to meet them.

Far from representing a radical break from the past, the Paris Agreement embodies the same approach tried again and again – setting targets and timetables for emission limits at the national level. The approach has problems: One is that countries haven’t adopted policies that limit their emissions directly. Instead, they have adopted policies like carbon taxes and renewable energy targets that cause emissions to be limited indirectly. Another problem: The emissions of individual countries don’t matter; only global emissions matter. Because of globalization, when one country acts to limit emissions, prices for commodities like fossil fuels change, usually causing other countries’ emissions to increase. It’s easy for an agreement structured this way to move emissions around rather than limit emissions overall.

…. The biggest challenge with agreements to limit countries’ emissions is enforcement. This is not only because countries are tempted to free ride. It’s also because each country may be unwilling to reduce emissions without assurances that other countries will do likewise. Only global emissions will determine whether the collective goal of limiting climate change is achieved.

Unfortunately, the international system is particularly bad at enforcement. It is sometimes argued that an agreement must be “legally binding” to be effective, but the Kyoto Protocol was “legally binding,” and that didn’t stop the United States from declining to participate or Canada from withdrawing once its compliance was in doubt. Sovereignty finds ways to wrangle out of legally binding obligations. To be effective, enforcement provisions must be built into an agreement.
Yale Global: Global Consensus on Climate Change is a Good Start.


Sensitivity of collective action to uncertainty about climate tipping points:

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.
» Nature: Sensitivity of collective action to uncertainty about climate tipping points; SSRN.


On the Provision of Public Goods with Probabilistic and Ambiguous Thresholds:

Many natural systems involve thresholds that, once triggered, imply irreversible damages for the users. Although the existence of such thresholds is undisputed, their location is highly uncertain. We explore experimentally how threshold uncertainty affects collective action in a series of threshold public goods games. Whereas the public good is always provided when the exact value of the threshold is known, threshold uncertainty is generally detrimental for the public good provision as contributions become more erratic. The negative effect of threshold uncertainty is particularly severe when it takes the form of ambiguity, i.e. when players are not only unaware of the value of the threshold, but also of its probability distribution. Early and credible commitment helps groups to cope with uncertainty.
» Springer: On the Provision of Public Goods with Probabilistic and Ambiguous Thresholds.


Inequality, communication, and the avoidance of disastrous climate change in a public goods game:

International efforts to provide global public goods often face the challenges of coordinating national contributions and distributing costs equitably in the face of uncertainty, inequality, and free-riding incentives. In an experimental setting, we distribute endowments unequally among a group of people who can reach a fixed target sum through successive money contributions, knowing that if they fail, they will lose all their remaining money with 50% probability. In some treatments, we give players the option to communicate intended contributions. We find that inequality reduces the prospects of reaching the target but that communication increases success dramatically. Successful groups tend to eliminate inequality over the course of the game, with rich players signaling willingness to redistribute early on. Our results suggest that coordination-promoting institutions and early redistribution from richer to poorer nations are both decisive for the avoidance of global calamities, such as disruptive climate change.
» PNAS: Inequality, communication, and the avoidance of disastrous climate change in a public goods game.


Coordination under threshold uncertainty in a public goods game

Working Paper 64 Abstract: We explored experimentally how threshold uncertainty affects coordination success in a threshold public goods game.

Whereas all groups succeeded in providing the public good when the exact value of the threshold was known, uncertainty was generally detrimental for the public good provision.

The negative effect of threshold uncertainty was particularly severe when it took the form of ambiguity, ie when players were not only unaware of the value of the threshold but also of its probability distribution.

Early signalling of willingness to contribute and share the burden equitably helped groups in coping with threshold uncertainty.
» CCCEP: Coordination under threshold uncertainty in a public goods game.


Climate negotiators’ and scientists’ assessments of the climate negotiations

Abstract: Climate negotiation outcomes are difficult to evaluate objectively because there are no clear reference scenarios. Subjective assessments from those directly involved in the negotiations are particularly important, as this may influence strategy and future negotiation participation. Here we analyse the perceived success of the climate negotiations in a sample of 656 experts involved in international climate policy. Respondents were pessimistic when asked for specific assessments of the current approach centred on voluntary pledges, but were more optimistic when asked for general assessments of the outcomes and usefulness of the climate negotiations. Individuals who were more involved in the negotiation process tended to be more optimistic, especially in terms of general assessments. Our results indicate that two reinforcing effects are at work: a high degree of involvement changes individuals’ perceptions and more optimistic individuals are more inclined to remain involved in the negotiations.
» CCCEP: Climate negotiators’ and scientists’ assessments of the climate negotiations.