Trapped in the Climate dilemma
A girl sits and strikes on the sidewalk after the Summer holidays and shows the world that she is fed up. Her future goes to waste because we do nothing about climate change. Just a news flash from August of last year. Ah, no one will talk about it tomorrow, most will have thought. At the COP24 in Katowice she was on fire. Her performance at the billionaire party of the World Economic Forum was even fiercer. Students take the streets by thousands. The wave of youth resistance has arrived. At breakfast my 14-year-old son asked if he could go to the ‘climate meeting’ in The Hague. The climate dilemma was literally on my dish.
Is the climate dilemma splitting our society?
What the youth blames us is apathy: “knowing that the world is on fire, you could expect that everyone start to try to extinguish the fire. But that doesn’t happen. “There is no more time” shouts Greta and thousands of other children with her. At the same time there is a counter movement, who rather want a status quo, based on a mix of sheer conservatism and hyper-individualism. Nobody tells these people what they should or should not do. Freedom, happiness, we don’t care. Certainly with the hundreds of measures coming from the national climate agreement, this camp is crying out loud with twitter as a welcome outlet. Is this discussion about the climate action the definitive split in society? Young against old, left against right, poor against rich, climate knights against climate barbarians? What is happening here and why is Dutch society no longer able to unite behind a joint future?
This problem cannot be easily explained let alone solved. Let us try to explain what is going on and why we cannot or do not want to switch that button to ‘zero emissions and zero waste’ in the Netherlands. First a bit of theory. We are dealing with so-called social dilemmas. This phenomenon can be traced to the Prisoner’s dilemma, an elementary example of game theory, dating back to the 1950s. A short explanation reads as follows: where two prisoners choose self-interest, this is at the expense of the common and most favorable result. These prisoners are, as it were, trapped in their own reasoning. Both distrust the other for fear that the other will harm him, which means that cooperation is the last thing they both think of. So they both go in for a longer period of time than if they were to work together  .
We are prisoners of our own perception
What happens in this example is also what is going on with the climate agreement in the Netherlands. In fact, we are all prisoners of our own perception and we feel confronted with choosing a camp in this social dilemma. Are we willing to give up our lazy lives and divide the costs of damage, emissions and waste in a transparent way and settle them in the goods and services that we consume? Or do we opt for the opposite? What is the point if 17 million people are concerned about the environmental damage that we inflict on this very small piece of Earth?
The climate issue is of course more complex than the dilemma faced by the two prisoners. Social dilemmas also involve situations where a non-cooperation strategy is dominant and leads to short-term (individual) gain. What plays a role in social dilemmas is the time factor. In the short term nothing seems to be wrong, but in the longer term the result is negative for everyone. Consider the risk of flooding and raising your own house with sandbags, compared to jointly strengthening the dikes and installing pumping stations around a polder. We saw the consequences of this approach in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy flooded large parts of New York and the surrounding area and, in particular, turned the expensive suburbs and cities along the coast into a disaster area.
The fire is fuelled up by politicians and journalists
An additional problem is that the fire will be fuelled up even more during election time. The climate dilemma is conveniently used by politicians, who steer the debate with (sometimes) improper arguments to get large groups of doubters into their camp in the hope of being elected and rule the country. In that regard, the climate tables could not have chosen a worse time to present their draft agreement. Gun powder for professional politicians on left and right. An additional problem is also the hordes of journalists who have to fight for the poor existence of their newspaper, but fortunately can address their own audience via twitter. They are using every attempt of armistice approach by a politicians towards the opponent as a sign of weakness. A politician does not bow, it bursts.
What strategy does a politician still have in election time? Back to the old positions seems a safe option. Then at least you have the loyal electorate behind you. That new sound then will have to wait. Or push it through: forging the iron when it’s still hot. That is the tactic currently being practiced on the left. The fact that a few environmental organizations ran away from the climate tables prematurely is ‘collateral damage’, but with the finish in sight are taking that for granted. The golden mean is a third alternative, but then you are considered by both parties as a crazy lunatic, who knowingly wants to pay more taxes. That role is reserved for, among others, the new leader of social liberals.
What is lacking is a lack of courage and cooperation also of bystanders — journalists, administrators and public opinion — to praise that desire for cooperation instead of criticize it on social media. Today’s leaders would do well to face the urgency that climate change is a fact, not to deny it. This change cannot be stopped, not in the street, not in the courtroom, not on twitter and therefore not in the House of Representatives. Delay tactics only undermine society even more, lead to ambiguity without calling on the creative capacity of people.
The youth will ask if the leaders of this country can give them a future
To find a way out of the labyrinth of dilemmas, a strategy is needed that is focused on cooperation and a positive image of the future, not on a negotiating agreement. The youth are asking today’s leaders to give them a future, or whether they will have to face the ruins in that future, which they can clean up — at much higher costs — because we were not prepared to strengthen the proverbial dikes when it was still possible. It is a sign on the wall that today’s youth runs away with visionary people such as Elon Musk. These kids would love to drive a sun-powered car themselves later and join companies and universities that want to bring about a positive change. Use that creative, progressive generation and sketch a picture of the future in which they can use their creative spirit and energy. Give that new technological innovation a place in education and let the new generation be part of that innovation. Universities have already started, vocational training courses are experimenting with test labs for innovative craftsmanship. A red carpet for companies indeed.
A random outsider will be surprised at this Dutch discussion: surely the happiest people in the world behind the dikes must be able to solve this dilemma together? But in many administrative circles, the spirit of the 20th century is still around, because we are trapped in our democratic institutions, our fossil energy supply and neo-liberal economic system. Due to the small scale, high density, knowledge intensity and long tradition of cooperation, the Netherlands is the country par excellence where the transition to a new era can be realized. We are already lagging behind, but nevertheless have a more than good starting position.
What was the answer to my teenage son’s question? Of course you can go to the demonstration in The Hague. Young people have the future, we should not think lightly about this.
 This example describes how two prisoners, each individually, are tempted to give a testimony that the other has committed the crime. With such a testimony, prisoner A can clear himself, but prisoner B goes to jail for 3 years. If they betray each other, they both go to jail for 2 years. The best outcome for both prisoners is if they both remain silent, because then they both go to jail for 1 year (based on a less heavy burden of proof). By confronting prisoners with this dilemma, the prisoner is more likely to choose for his own interest and therefore issue an incriminating statement instead of cooperating.