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In a fallen world climate action makes no sense. It should.

In Canada, we tend to mark the beginning of good weather with the May long weekend. The long weekend usually sparks visions of opening cottages with extended family, seeing friends, or the first warm weather festivals. In most Canadian provinces in 2020 however, we are still practicing strict social distancing and many of us did not enjoy our usual May long weekend.

The May long weekend is an excellent example of a prisoner’s dilemma.

Social distancing is hard on many people for many reasons. For me, one of the most challenging things to wrap my head around is that visiting my family or friends is unlikely to make them sick. I do not have the virus, nor do my family members (thank God!). This is likely true for most of us. If any one of us were to have a regular May long weekend, chances are that our families would probably be OK and it would be enjoyable. However, if everyone in Canada (or even just some people) participated in regular May long weekend activities, the virus would probably spread rapidly. It is better for everyone if we continue to practice social distancing and enjoy the weekend in safer, if less enjoyable, ways.

The choice of whether to participate in the May long weekend is an excellent example of what economists and philosophers call a prisoner’s dilemma. Prisoner’s dilemmas are situations where individual decision makers always have an incentive to act in ways that produce worse outcomes for themselves and others. 

Modern nations are faced with a dilemma.

In its original conception, this idea was illustrated by a thought experiment, where two bank robbers who have been captured and given a choice to either work with the authorities by disclosing part in the robbery, or stay loyal to their partner. The results of their actions are summarized below:

  • By staying loyal, a prisoner would be given either a moderate sentence of 2 years (if both remain loyal) or a harsh sentence of 10 years (if the other robber discloses).

  • If a robber chose to disclose, they would be given either 1 year (if the other remains loyal) or 5 years (if both disclose). 

In this thought experiment, it is mathematically provable that a rational robber would always choose to disclose to the authorities, because 1 year is better than 2 years, while 5 years is better than 10 years. However, by both choosing to disclose, the robbers are worse off than if they both stayed loyal.

Prisoner’s dilemmas have been used to demonstrate many economic behaviours, ranging from company pricing strategies to natural resource management. Perhaps most interesting and frightening of all examples however, is that of climate change.

Modern nations are faced with a dilemma: to act, or not act. Consider four potential scenarios that may come from these decisions:

  1. If a country acts and other countries also act, it will be very expensive in the short term but future generations will likely enjoy a similar or better quality of life as we did. 

  2. If a country acts but other countries do not act, it will be very expensive in the short term and future generations will either have a poor quality of life or suffer a fate much worse.

  3. If a country does not act but other countries act, the economy will be OK in the short term and future generations will likely enjoy a similar or better quality of life as we did.

  4. If a country does not act and other countries do not act, the economy will be OK in the short term however future generations will either have a poor quality of life or suffer a fate much worse.

Another way to summarize this is using a picture. These choices and expected outcomes are illustrated below:




Other countries


Canada (or United States)


Strong effort

Minimal action

Strong effort

Second best outcome: Expensive for our country, but future generations are OK.

Worst outcome: 

Expensive for our country and future generations will suffer.

Minimal action

Best outcome: Inexpensive for our country and future generations are OK.

Second worst outcome:

Inexpensive for our country but future generations will suffer.


Table 1: The climate dilemma, as it is normally understood

If countries were purely self-interested and expected other countries to be purely self-interested, they would clearly choose not to take action on climate change. By taking minimal action, we are guaranteed to either have the best scenario or the second worst scenario, however by acting we are guaranteed either the second best scenario or the worst scenario. In other words, by choosing not to act, economies are preserved in the short term, which is better than the alternative in both cases, even if it is ultimately worse for everyone. 

In many ways, prisoner's dilemmas illustrate the doctrine of Total Depravity. Verse 15 of the Belgic Confession states:

We believe

that by the disobedience of Adam

original sin has been spread

through the whole human race.

It is a corruption of the whole human nature—

an inherited depravity which even infects small infants

in their mother’s womb,

and the root which produces in humanity

every sort of sin.

Despite our very best efforts, humans’ rational self interest so often leads us down a path of sin and suffering. It is our nature, and is our tragedy. I can see how this thinking can lead us down a path to what many authors have started to call “climate despair,” the belief that climate change is unstoppable. In Hope in Troubled Times Christian economist Bob Goudzwaard, Mark Vander Vennen and David Van Heemst illustrate this point by asking why “specifically in a time of unprecedented prosperity, have the world’s environmental dilemmas slipped out of control?” (88).

Fortunately, there is hope, both on earth and in the kingdom to come. At the root of this paradox is the assumption of the prisoner’s dilemma: that it is desirable to maximize short term economic growth for our own glory.  If our goals instead shift to long-term growth, to care for creation, and to fairness for the world’s vulnerable, the equation changes and minimal action is no longer optimal. As Goudzwaard et al. write:

“Genuine stewardship therefore requires that we be prepared to reign in our consumption desires in such a way that all of the world’s inhabitants have a good life. ‘Economy’ in the biblical sense means first and foremost the ‘caring administration’ of all that has been entrusted to us” (184).

This is why climate action makes no sense but should-- it is the result of our fallen world. 

In other words, by putting God’s glory ahead of our own and by having hope that our actions will be used for some ultimate good, prisoners’ dilemmas can be overcome, and this manifestation of sin can be conquered. This is why climate action makes no sense but should-- it is the result of our fallen world. 

The next few years may very well be some of the most difficult that our society has faced. In the near-term I will pray that we not only focus on combating Covid-19, but also see our actions as part of a bigger whole. By adopting and living an ethic of caring for all, rather than just our present economic enrichment, we may also overcome the climate crisis and ensure a better life for generations to come.

Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash

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