Collective Action to Avoid Catastrophe: When Countries Succeed, When They Fail, and Why

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This article is concerned with situations in which avoiding a catastrophic outcome requires collective action. Using the logic of simple game theory, I identify circumstances that would cause rational players to act so as to guarantee that a catastrophe occurs, even when it is in their collective interests to avoid such an outcome – and when these players have the means at their disposal to ensure that such an outcome is avoided. I also identify circumstances that would cause rational players to act in concert to avert a catastrophe, and explain why other circumstances that might seem relevant to explaining these outcomes may be entirely inconsequential. Most of my discussion focuses on climate change. However, I also explain the relevance of the approach to three other areas: the millennium bug, drug resistance and nuclear arms control. In the final sections I discuss whether and how institutions might be designed to overcome, or at least reduce the likelihood of, catastrophic collective-action failures at the international level.

Policy Implications

  • The ability of countries to organize to avoid catastrophes depends critically on uncertainty about the threshold, or tipping point, for catastrophic change.
  • When this uncertainty is small, avoiding catastrophe requires coordination – something countries are very good at doing.
  • When this uncertainty is large, collective action requires enforcement of a cooperative agreement – something countries are very bad at doing.
  • Enforcement can be enhanced by countries ceding some sovereignty – and yet, historically, countries have been unwilling to do this without having first experienced a catastrophic outcome.
  • In some cases it may be possible to devise strategies that transform a collective-action problem into a coordination game.
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