Climatic Change

, Volume 120, Issue 4, pp 815–830 | Cite as

Combined inequality in wealth and risk leads to disaster in the climate change game

  • Maxwell N. Burton-Chellew
  • Robert M. May
  • Stuart A. West


It is generally agreed that the risk of catastrophic climate change can only be reduced if agents cooperate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the course of the 21st Century. Previous economic experiments have suggested that sufficient cooperation can often be achieved providing individuals are adequately and convincingly informed of the consequences of their actions and the stakes involved. However, this previous work, has not allowed for the fact that in the real world agents vary in both: (1) their resources to mitigate climate change, and (2) the consequences that they face from climate change. We develop and expand the protocol of previous economic experiments to investigate the introduction of such combined asymmetries. We find that when inequality in resources is combined with a greater relative risk for poorer members, cooperation collapses, with tragic consequences. This is because the rich invest proportionally less into preventing climate change when they are less at risk. We also find, through the use of a post-game questionnaire, that those individuals who were more skeptical about climate change in the real world cooperated less in our games. Insofar as such experiments can be trusted as a guide to either people’s everyday behaviour or the interactions of nation states, these results suggest that voluntary cooperation to avoid climate catastrophe in the real world is likely to be hard to achieve.


Public Good Game Intermediate Target Cooperative Outcome Fairness Norm Severe Climate Change 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



We thank: L. Miller from the Nuffield Centre for Experimental Social Sciences for hosting our experiments and recruiting our participants; AS Griffin, CK Cornwallis & TC Scott-Phillips for comments; the European Research Council for funding.

Supplementary material

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Online Resource 1 (PDF 1165 kb)
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Online Resource 2 (PDF 1702 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Maxwell N. Burton-Chellew
    • 1
    • 2
  • Robert M. May
    • 1
  • Stuart A. West
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of ZoologyUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK
  2. 2.Nuffield CollegeOxfordUK

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