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What if a behavioural scientist redesigned climate negotiations?

  • Blog
  • 28th Jul 2021

In this blog post, we outline a few creative ways behavioural insights could be applied to COP26 in Glasgow – from lead-up, to opening day, to delivery of the conference itself. This is a tongue-in-cheek manifesto of how the conference would look if overzealous behavioural scientists helped organise it.

This autumn, decision-makers from all over the world will arrive in Glasgow for COP26 – the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties. Each will bring with them varying desires and demands surrounding environmental policy but all will carry the same decision making software: the human brain. 

Each decision-maker will be influenced by the same quirks, biases and fundamentals of human behaviour as any other person. It therefore pays to think about the conference through a behavioural lens. 

Since starting in 1995, the COP has been the main lever for multilateral climate change action – culminating in breakthroughs in climate change mitigation such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. However the conference has also been the object of intense frustration amongst environmentalists due to the non-binding nature of the accords. 

COP is no stranger to behavioural insights

The Paris Agreement is itself an exercise in leveraging the ‘softer’ behavioural insights in light of the inability of countries to arrive at a legally binding agreement. It involves countries making pledges – ‘nationally determined contributions’, in the formal lingo. Public pledges are a powerful tool. Once someone makes a public pledge, their pride, desire to avoid embarrassment associated with failure, and public accountability increase the chance that they will follow through. 

Meanwhile, the fact that almost every country in the world has created their own nationally determined contributions creates a social norm in favour of at least some emissions mitigation policy. The hope is that the social norm creates a ratchet effect of increasingly ambitious goals. Indeed, ratcheting up the ambition of these pledges is the focus of COP26 in Glasgow

So, climate negotiators are already applying behavioural science to fight climate change. But we wondered what would happen if we supercharged the application of behavioural science at COP26?  We think it would look a lot like this:

Green from the get go! 

While politicians must conform to short-term incentives, citizens’ assemblies can crowd-source desires for the long-term good. Even before you arrive at the conference in Glasgow, deliberative forums and citizens’ assemblies would have taken place throughout 2021 across all inhabited continents – culminating in ‘people’s pledges’ which would create political capital for more ambitious nationally determined contributions.

Arriving in Glasgow

When you land in Glasgow, whether by sailboat or a fuel-guzzling jet, your next ride is a smart EV, setting the tone for the meeting to come. 

At the Scottish Event Campus, you and all the other delegates contribute to a conference-wide ‘planetary pre-mortem’. Pre-mortems make it safe for people who are knowledgeable about an undertaking – but worried about its weaknesses – to speak up. BIT recommends them as a tool to mitigate planning biases such as groupthink. Together, you imagine all the different ways failing to mitigate climate change would look in 2050. You anonymously brainstorm the factors leading to those failures. 

After the pre-mortem, you feel concerned about the dangers of making insufficient progress – but encouraged that other delegates are also aware of the challenges, and focused on potential solutions.  

For the second activity, you walk across the River Clyde to the Glasgow Science Centre IMAX. Just as the first ‘blue dot’ images of Earth from outer space catalysed the modern environmental movement, here an inspirational film of global progress and collaboration inspires you towards environmental optimism. The film whimsically shows fictional yet realistic scenes of post-conference jubilation, followed by a future Nobel Prize ceremony awarding COP26 attendees (jointly) for their success in mitigating climate change.

Studies show that interacting with realistic computer renderings of one’s future self using virtual reality tools show an increased tendency to save money for retirement. Similar visceral visualisations of the future motivate COP26 attendees, helping them overcome present bias and heightening their aspirations. 

Finally, you play a quick version of a classic cooperation game where you (and everyone else) are given a choice of keeping a donation of trees for yourself, or contributing them towards a global pot, whereby the sum of donated trees contributed is doubled, and shared back out equally to all. Conscious of the world watching, you contribute all your trees to the global pot, and to your pleasant surprise, so does everyone else – leaving everyone double the amount of trees to plant. 

Let’s make a deal 

COP organisers have created a variety of comfortable, private spaces where negotiators can be candid and transparent with each other – perhaps replicating the breakthrough backroom deal that saved COP15 in Copenhagen. Behavioural scientists (and ‘negotiation geniuses) Deepak Malhotra and Max Bazerman have elegantly summarised evidence suggesting that people systematically overestimate the value of withholding information. Negotiators who are open with their aims and reasoning create more win-win settlements instead of haggling over zero-sum outcomes (finding ways to increase the ‘size of the pie’ instead of arguing for a ‘larger slice of the pie’). 

On the third day of the conference, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announces a new Nobel Memorial Prize for Climate Change Mitigation. This is a strong incentive for those delegates and leaders who are motivated by personal and national status. The prize could go to any individual or group, but a sense of inevitability, momentum, and buzz grows at the Scotish Event Campus – the first Nobel Memorial Prize for Climate Change Mitigation might go to the delegates who radically ratchet up the Paris Climate Accord goals. 

In summary

Negotiators may come up short at COP26 for a variety or reasons. They may be insufficiently ambitious due to present bias; over-optimistic about the world’s ability to mitigate climate change without ambitious international collaboration; distrustful of the motives of other negotiators. 

Pluralistic ignorance occurs when individuals privately reject a social norm or belief but comply with it due to a mistaken belief that most other people endorse the norm. In climate negotiations, countries – and their negotiators – may underestimate the ambition of other countries (despite feeling ambitious themselves). It is crucial to make ambition transparent. 

At the same time, countries should be honest about what is holding them back from being ambitious, and what they need to ’get to yes’. Withholding information is an overrated negotiation tactic. 

The foundation of successful climate negotiation is in practicing good climate science, but policymakers and event organisers will benefit from practicing good behavioural science, too.