Sustainability Science

, Volume 13, Issue 1, pp 109–118 | Cite as

Cultural multilevel selection suggests neither large or small cooperative agreements are likely to solve climate change without changing the game

  • Matthew R. ZeffermanEmail author
Special Feature: Original Article Applying Cultural Evolution to Sustainability Challenges
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Special Feature: Applying Cultural Evolution to Sustainability Challenges


Global climate change, one of the most formidable sustainability problems facing humanity, is a particularly challenging collective action problem, because it is global, requiring the cooperation of all or most countries. Efforts to foster global cooperation on mitigating climate change have centered on large international agreements, with limited success. As a consequence, some have suggested that the problem could be better solved through a “building blocks” approach, where smaller numbers of states form multiple cooperative agreements, called “climate clubs”. Recently, sustainability scientists have applied a Cultural Multilevel Selection (CMLS) Framework to a variety of sustainability problems. The CMLS Framework suggests that sustainability problems requiring collective action can often be solved through competition at a higher level of organization. For example, collective action problems arising within a fishing village could be solved through competition between villages. Here, I apply the CMLS Framework to global climate change. I show that, while higher level selection may solve smaller scale sustainability problems, it cannot solve truly global problems like climate change. I also show that multilevel selection based on climate clubs is unlikely to foster cooperation in the way that some existing models suggest. I also suggest that a potential solution to climate change may be eliminating the collective action problem altogether through investment in technological innovation that might make fossil fuels costlier than their alternatives.


Cultural multilevel selection Climate clubs Climate change Cultural evolution 



This work was conducted as a part of the Evolutionary Approaches to Sustainability Working Group at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, sponsored by NSF Award #DBI-1300426, with additional support from University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I thank Emily Zefferman, Tim Waring, Cristina Moya, and Phillip Hannam for conversations about the topics in this paper, two anonymous reviewers for their invaluable comments, and Scott Barrett’s two excellent books on global public goods.


  1. Axelrod R (1986) An evolutionary approach to norms. Am Politic Sci Rev 80(4):1095–1111CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Barrett S (2003) Environment and statecraft: the strategy of environmental treaty making. Oxford University Press, OxfordCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Barrett S (2007) Why cooperate?: the incentive to supply global public goods. Oxford University Press, OxfordCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Boyd R, Richerson PJ (1992) Punishment allows the evolution of cooperation (or anything else) in sizable groups. Ethol Sociobiol 13(3):171–195CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Carraro C, Siniscalco D (1993) Strategies for the international protection of the environment. J Publ Econ 52(3):309–328CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Carraro C, Siniscalco D (1995) R&D cooperation and the stability of international environmental agreements. Technical report, CEPR Discussion PapersGoogle Scholar
  7. Chander P, Tulkens H (1992) Theoretical foundations of negotiations and cost sharing in transfrontier pollution problems. Eur Econ Rev 36(2–3):388–399CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. El Mouden C, André JB, Morin O, Nettle D (2014) Cultural transmission and the evolution of human behaviour: a general approach based on the Price equation. J Evolut Biol 27(2):231–241CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Frank SA (1995) George Price’s contributions to evolutionary genetics. J Theor Biol 175(3):373–388CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Grafen A (1985) A geometric view of relatedness. Oxf Surv Evolut Biol 2(2):28–89Google Scholar
  11. Grundig F (2006) Patterns of international cooperation and the explanatory power of relative gains: an analysis of cooperation on global climate change, ozone depletion, and international trade. Int Stud Q 50(4):781–801CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Hannam PM, Vasconcelos VV, Simon AL, Jorge MP (2015) Incomplete cooperation and co-benefits: deepening climate cooperation with a proliferation of small agreements. Climat Change 144(1):1–15Google Scholar
  13. Henrich J (2004) Cultural group selection, coevolutionary processes and large-scale cooperation. J Econ Behav Organ 53(1):3–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Hoel M (1992) International environment conventions: the case of uniform reductions of emissions. Environ Resour Econ 2(2):141–159Google Scholar
  15. Hovi J, Sprinz DF, Sælen H, Underdal A (2016) Climate change mitigation: a role for climate clubs? Palgrave Commun 2:16020CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Hovi J, Ward H, Grundig F (2015) Hope or despair? Formal models of climate cooperation. Environ Resour Econ 62(4):665–688CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Keohane N, Petsonk A, Hanafi A (2015) Toward a club of carbon markets. Climat Change 144(1):1–15Google Scholar
  18. Murdoch JC, Todd S (1997) The voluntary provision of a pure public good: the case of reduced CFC emissions and the Montreal Protocol. J Publ Econ 63(3):331–349CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Price GR (1970) Selection and covariance. Nature 227(5257):520–521CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Price GR (1972) Extension of covariance selection mathematics. Ann Hum Genet 35(4):485–490CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Richerson P, Baldini R, Bell AV, Demps K, Frost K, Hillis V, Mathew S et al (2016) Cultural group selection plays an essential role in explaining human cooperation: a sketch of the evidence. Behav Brain Sci 39:e30CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Safarzyńska K, van den Bergh JCJM (2010) Evolving power and environmental policy: explaining institutional change with group selection. Ecol Econ 69(4):743–752CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Santos FC, Vasconcelos VV, Santos MD, Neves PNB, Pacheco JM (2012) Evolutionary dynamics of climate change under collective-risk dilemmas. Math Models Methods Appl Sci 22(supp01):1140004CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Santos FC, Pacheco JM (2011) Risk of collective failure provides an escape from the tragedy of the commons. Proceed Natl Acad Sci 108(26):10421–10425CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Stewart RB, Oppenheimer M, Rudyk B (2013) A new strategy for global climate protection. Climat change 120(1–2):1–12CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Waltz KN (1979) Theory international of politics. McGraw-Hill, New York, NYGoogle Scholar
  27. Waring TM, Goff SH, Smaldino PE (2017) The coevolution of economic institutions and sustainable consumption via cultural group selection. Ecol Econ 131:524–532CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Waring TM, Kline MA, Brooks JS, Goff SH, Gowdy J, Janssen MA, Smaldino PE, Jacquet J (2015) A multilevel evolutionary framework for sustainability analysis. Ecol Soc 20(2):34CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Zefferman MR, Mathew S (2015) An evolutionary theory of large-scale human warfare: group-structured cultural selection. Evolut Anthropol Issues News Rev 24(2):50–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Japan KK 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Human OriginsArizona State University TempeUSA

Personalised recommendations