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Do individuals care about fairness in burden sharing for climate change mitigation? Evidence from a lab experiment

Abstract

One of the reasons for deadlock in global climate policy is countries’ disagreement on how to share the mitigation burden. Normative theory suggests various fairness criteria for structuring burden sharing, most prominently, historical responsibility for emissions, economic capacity, and vulnerability to climate change. Governments have taken up these criteria in their rhetoric at UNFCCC negotiations. I examine whether normative criteria influence individual burden sharing preferences. This bottom-up perspective is important for two reasons. First, it is unknown if governments’ fairness rhetoric matches citizens’ actual preferences. Second, international climate agreements directly affect individuals through domestic policy measures (e.g. energy taxes), and therefore require domestic public support for successful implementation. I conducted two laboratory experiments where participants have to agree on how to share climate change mitigation costs in an ultimatum game. Treatment conditions include differences between proposer and responder in capacity, vulnerability (experiment 1), and historical emissions (experiment 2). Historical emissions are endogenously determined in a prior game. Capacity inequality strongly affects burden sharing, with richer players ending up paying more, and poorer players less. Vulnerability differences reduce the influence of fairness, leading to suggested cost distributions more unfavorable to vulnerable players. However, vulnerable responders still reject many “unfair” offers. Differences in historical responsibility result in cost distributions strongly correlated with players’ relative contributions to climate change. The results suggest that more nuanced consideration of fairness criteria in burden sharing could make ambitious climate agreements more acceptable for reluctant countries and their citizens.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    This is a variation of the ultimatum game. In its simplest form the proposer suggests how to split an amount of money between him and the responder. If the responder accepts, money is paid out accordingly, if she rejects, none of them receive any money.

  2. 2.

    Public goods games are often used for studying diverse aspects of global climate governance in the lab (Milinski et al. 2008; Sturm and Weimann 2006). However, I consider the ultimatum game setting more useful in my case, as offers and acceptance/rejection in a one-shot game should more directly reflect basic underlying preferences.

  3. 3.

    In the existing treatment conditions, this strategy always implies a higher expected payoff for the proposer than if he makes an offer the responder should rationally reject.

  4. 4.

    Controlling for participant characteristics and preferences (measured in the post-experiment questionnaire) could increase estimates’ efficiency, as those variables might influence the offer. Omitting them does however not bias the estimates, since all independent variables depend on choices of both proposer and responder and are therefore unlikely to correlate with personal characteristics of the proposer.

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Acknowledgments

The research for this article was funded by the ERC Advanced Grant ‘Sources of Legitimacy in Global Environmental Governance’ (Grant: 295456). I wish to thank three anonymous reviewers, Thomas Bernauer, Jérémy Bouillet, Michel Bourban, Malcolm Fairbrother, Andreas Fischlin, Federica Genovese, Elisabeth Gsottbauer, Aya Kachi, Vally Koubi, Karine Nyborg, Christopher Weber, and Haibin Zhang for helpful comments on earlier versions of the paper. Brilé Anderson provided valuable research assistance, and Stefan Wehrli technical lab support.

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Correspondence to Robert Gampfer.

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Gampfer, R. Do individuals care about fairness in burden sharing for climate change mitigation? Evidence from a lab experiment. Climatic Change 124, 65–77 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-014-1091-6

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Keywords

  • Ultimatum Game
  • Climate Risk
  • Historical Responsibility
  • Burden Sharing
  • Fairness Criterion