Changing Climate in the Lab

Talbot Andrews
PhD Candidate
Stony Brook University

Five years ago, Debra Javeline called climate change “the most important topic political scientists are not studying” (Javeline 2014). Despite urgent calls to action, this pattern has persisted. The latest special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emphasizes the need to keep global mean temperature rise below 1.5ºC (IPCC 2018). The report lays out the technological solutions to meet this goal, but leaves open a key question – how do we overcome the political obstacles to implement these solutions to climate change? The critical technologies required to mitigate and adapt to climate change involve difficult tradeoffs and often face strong opposition. For some of these technologies, we lack the rules and institutions necessary to govern their implementation, both locally and globally. For example, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) requires acres of crop area and may impact food security and biodiversity. Nuclear power is a consistent source of emissions free energy but is politically unpalatable. While the IPCC report presents a solution to climate change relying on technologies like BECCS and nuclear power, we now need more work from experimental social scientists to determine how we mobilize support for and govern climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Behavioral economic experiments are a promising tool to answer these key climate change questions. In economic games, participants are given real money and asked to make decisions which affect their ultimate earnings. These experiments do not use deception, so participants and experimenters have a shared understanding of the incentives in the game. We can easily measure people’s choices in these games by observing when and how they are spending real money. Furthermore, because the experimenters have full control over the decision-making environment, we can establish clear causal inference. Economic games also offer important practical advantages since they can be conducted both in the lab and online. Below, I suggest two areas of research where this method may be especially fruitful, and offer some illustrative examples of previous work in each area:

1. The emergence of international cooperation:

Climate change is a global social dilemma; emissions from any nation harm the entire world but the costs of mitigation are localized to those willing to pay (Barrett 2007). This social dilemma is further compounded by the anarchic nature of the international system where it is extremely difficult to make credible commitments. Under what circumstances will cooperation emerge which helps nations overcome the social dilemma of climate change?

This global social dilemma can be modeled using economic games. Previous work has relied on a modified public goods game – the collective risk social dilemma – where participants face a shared emissions threshold they must meet to prevent a disaster (Milinski et al. 2008). If participants collectively contribute enough money to meet the threshold, they keep their remaining money. If they fail to meet the threshold, they pay an additional penalty. Like nations deciding whether or not to invest in mitigation, participants in this game are torn between the incentive to meet the threshold to prevent additional losses and the incentive to keep their money and free ride off the prevention efforts of others. This game can be further modified to examine the institutional and environmental factors which promote or hinder the emergence of cooperation. How does inequality in both the wealth of nations and the climate change related risks they face influence cooperation (Burton-Chellew, May, and West 2013; Tavoni et al. 2011)? How does uncertainty in the costs of preventing climate change or failed prevention change the strategic nature of international mitigation agreements (Barrett and Dannenberg 2012)? How do different institutional arrangements increase commitments to mitigation (Milinski et al. 2016)? Economic games allow you as the researcher to build an environment which reflects key elements of the international system and observe which variables facilitate successful cooperation on mitigation.

2. Individual level mitigation preferences:

Climate change is an extremely polarizing issue in the United States, where Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to say they believe in and care about climate change (Brulle, Carmichael, and Jenkins 2012). Talk is cheap, but climate change mitigation is often expensive. Even those who say in surveys that they care deeply about mitigation are unlikely to engage in costly mitigation behaviors (Gifford 2011).

Economic games allow us to distinguish between partisan signaling and actual willingness to pay the costs of mitigation. Unlike survey experiments, which focus on behavioral intentions or self-reported previous behavior, economic games ask participants to make decisions with real money on the line. These games help disentangle differences in opinion and actual behavior. For example, they may be able to help uncover the root of paradoxes such as why do people report such high support for carbon taxes (Leiserowitz et al. 2018), but carbon tax legislation repeatedly fails even in liberal areas like Washington State? My own recent work, with Dr. Andrew Delton and Dr. Reuben Kline, uses economic games to better understand the relationship between the costs of mitigation and the types of mitigation strategies people prefer (Andrews, Delton, and Kline 2018). By using economic games, we could overcome the problem of controlling for heterogenous perceptions of the costs of mitigation – we built these costs into the game and shared them explicitly with the participants. Though the lab environment seems more artificial than surveys or experiments using vignettes, incentivized experiments more closely approximate real-world decision-making on climate change mitigation by asking participants to make decisions using money.

Experimental economics can also reveal the pathologies of decision making related to climate change. The nature of economic games is such that they can often be solved using formal models, revealing how a rational player should approach the situation. Running experiments adds to formal models by revealing when people deviate from equilibrium behaviors as well as what factors drive this deviation. This allows us as researchers to better understand how factors like cognitive biases, risk preferences, or temporal discounting undermine support for seemingly effective mitigation policies.

Of course, this list is not exhaustive, and there are many other potential applications of incentivized experiments to study the politics of climate change. Overall, economic games are especially useful for examining the consequences of institutional arrangements and overcoming partisan biases in survey responses about climate change. It is important to note that the biggest benefits of economic games are often cited as their biggest weaknesses. The experimental control generated by the lab environment seems to come at the cost of external validity – the lab is a far cry from the highly politicized decision environment in which people cast their votes for different environmental policies. However, the goal of economic experiments is not to capture the entirety of the complex climate change information environment, but instead to uncover important mechanisms driving behavior. These games allow us to hypothesize and test which specific aspects of the environment are consequential. Considering how these mechanisms interact with different contexts is of course important, but the mechanisms uncovered by incentivized experiments are of consequence even when uncovered in the lab environment. I am certainly not the first to call for more social science research on climate change. The IPCC has already been criticized for leaving out social scientists (Victor 2015). Furthermore, two excellent pieces were published in 2014 drawing attention to the role political scientists could play studying mitigation and adaptation (Javeline 2014; Keohane 2015). Yet, climate change continues to be one of the most important topics political scientists aren’t studying. A brief search reveals that in the past five years, only six articles published in either JOP, APSR, or AJPS mention climate change in their abstracts. Of these six articles, one used economic games. Climate change is a political problem, and moving forward should be treated as such. Behavioral economic experiments are an under-utilized tool with a lot of promise to unpack the individual, environmental, and institutional forces needed to mobilize and govern successful climate change mitigation.


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Barrett, Scott, and Astrid Dannenberg. 2012. “Climate Negotiations under Scientific Uncertainty.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109(43): 17372–76.
Brulle, Robert J., Jason Carmichael, and J. Craig Jenkins. 2012. “Shifting Public Opinion on Climate Change: An Empirical Assessment of Factors Influencing Concern over Climate Change in the U.S., 2002–2010.” Climatic Change 114(2): 169–88.
Burton-Chellew, Maxwell N., Robert M. May, and Stuart A. West. 2013. “Combined Inequality in Wealth and Risk Leads to Disaster in the Climate Change Game.” Climatic Change 120(4): 815–30.
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Milinski, Manfred et al. 2008. “The Collective-Risk Social Dilemma and the Prevention of Simulated Dangerous Climate Change.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 105(7): 2291–94.
———. 2016. “Humans Choose Representatives Who Enforce Cooperation in Social Dilemmas through Extortion.” Nature communications 7: 10915.
Tavoni, Alessandro, Astrid Dannenberg, Giorgos Kallis, and Andreas Löschel. 2011. “Inequality, Communication, and the Avoidance of Disastrous Climate Change in a Public Goods Game.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 108(29): 11825–29.
Victor, David D. 2015. “Embed the Social Sciences in Climate Policy.” Nature 520: 27–29.