Schelling interview, Part II: The importance of specificity in international commitments

One interesting part of Conor Clarke's Thomas Schelling interview was Schelling's take on the nature of international cooperation on climate change. The man won the Nobel Prize for game theory, so it's worth paying attention:
CC: What do you think of Waxman-Markey bill, the American Clean Energy and Security Act? It sets a cap on emissions, but as I understand it the real value is in the effect it might have at Copenhagen.

TS: Well let me first respond about Copenhagen. I don't think anything's going to be accomplished at Copenhagen. But they might agree that they will cap the global temperature increases at 2 degrees Celsius -- that's one of these useless things that people love to talk about. Or they might come up with an agreement that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere should not exceed 450 parts per million. Again, that's no commitment because it's just setting a goal that's supposed to be aspirational.

CC: And you say that because there's no enforcement mechanism?

TS: Not just because there's no enforcement mechanism. I don't worry much about enforcement. I think that if the major countries reach an agreement they'll do their best to do what they said they would do. But if you say what you're going to do is get emissions down by 15% in 20 years, none of them knows what that means. That's not a commitment to something they're going to do; that's a commitment to some vague aspirational goal or something.
Schelling is very emphatic on the importance of committing to specific, measurable actions, and cites NATO as a successful example:
TS: [In NATO], their commitments were not, "How much will we reduce the likelihood of a Soviet attack?" or, "How much will we slow down a soviet attack?" The commitments were about how many young men they would draft into their armed forces. About how much they would spend on guns and ammunition and vehicles. How much real estate they would provide for military housing and pipelines and military maneuvers. They were all commitments to things they could do. So you could look and see that the French were doing what they said they would do. And the French themselves would know if they were dong what they said they would do.
So in Schelling's view, the importance of having American climate legislation in place by Copenhagen is less in showing global leadership (something at best neutral and at worst detrimental in a standard game theory framework) and more in having something concrete around which to negotiate, rather than meaningless emissions targets. This differs from (and I believe complements well) the standard argument for urgency on the Senate climate bill.

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