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Human Cooperation to Protect the Global Commons

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - HUCO (Human Cooperation to Protect the Global Commons)

Reporting period: 2018-08-01 to 2020-01-31

Global commons are typically natural resources that are vital to humans’ wellbeing. Since there is no ‘world government,’ the protection of the global commons has to rely on voluntary cooperation of sovereign actors. Global commons are often shared by many sovereign states, or even the whole world, as it is the case for the Earth’s climate, which makes voluntary cooperation very difficult. The primary aim of the HUCO project is to understand and uncover mechanisms and institutions that foster large-scale voluntary cooperation to protect the global commons. To reach this aim, HUCO uses theoretical modeling, experiments, surveys, analysis of empirical data, and case studies.

The final objectives of the project are to inform policy makers, the scientific community, and society at large about the instruments and means that can improve over the current state and obstacles in reaching transboundary agreements in cases ranging from climate change, to marine pollution, biodiversity, and water resources.
To this end, the team has been working on the development of theoretical models, the conduction of behavioral experiments and surveys among negotiators, the analysis of case studies, and the collection of comprehensive data sets. The transboundary issues that have been covered so far in various studies and work packages include climate change, ozone depletion, pollution of the high seas by ships, water allocation in river basins between upstream and downstream states, and internationally shared water bodies like the Black Sea.

Along with the research produced, the team has also collected several unique datasets, which are currently analyzed or will be analyzed in the near future:

1. A dataset with the contact details of 19,473 climate negotiators from more than 130 countries who have been part of the international climate policy process at least from 2010 onwards.

2. A dataset with the contact details of 3,180 climate scientists who served as authors (coordination lead author, lead author, contributing author) or reviewers of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report.

3. A dataset from a survey among climate negotiators and climate scientists, containing the views of 656 individuals (459 climate negotiators and 197 climate scientists). The dataset, is openly accessible at:

4. A dataset derived from the Transboundary Freshwater Treaty Database and previous literature, containing information on 261 international river basins and lakes, 86 treaties over the allocation of the water of international water basins, and attributes of the involved states that may influence the decision to form such treaties.

5. A dataset containing the contact details of over 2,500 stakeholders involved in the regulation and management of the Black Sea (EU staff, researchers, NGOs, local and central public authorities, businesses).

To date the project has produced four publications in international peer-reviews journals and ten unpublished papers, which are either in a draft form or in the peer-review process at an international journal.

A summary of the progress is provided in Table 1 (attached to this report), by the method used, the context of application, and the status.
The previous literature studying voluntary human cooperation has focused on local cooperation problems and the importance of the behavior of those actors that are cooperative in nature. The research performed by HUCO so far shows that successful large-scale human cooperation requires, in the first step, that players recognize the rules of the game, the potential to form new institutions, and anticipate the behavior under different institutions.

Using case studies, laboratory experiments, theoretical modeling, surveys, or a combination of different methodologies, the project has investigated cooperation and the willingness and ability of individuals and groups to establish and enforce institutions. The primary goal of the studies is to, first, understand when and why cooperation is particularly difficult and, second, which approaches and instruments can be used to improve cooperation. The issues that have been considered so far include climate change, ozone depletion, pollution of the high seas, allocation of water, and international trade. An important focus of the project is to develop and study institutions that are feasible at the international level. For example, while ostracism or assortative matching of players are not possible for global cooperation problems, other institutions such as treaties, issue linkage, or increasing transparency (“naming and shaming”) are possible and may spur cooperation even at this level. The results so far suggest that, for large-scale cooperation issues, not only the cooperative inclinations if the involved agents are important but strategic considerations play a very important role as well. While the decision to cooperate appears to be an intuitive decision, that often correlates with an individual’s pro-sociality, strategic decisions require more reasoning and learning through repeated interactions, information about the available strategies and other players.

Another focus of the project is on the differences between individual and group decision-making. Our results so far confirm previous findings that groups are more payoff-oriented, more competitive, and less influenced by behavioral biases, cognitive limitations, fairness considerations, and moral emotions like shame or guilt. This does not necessarily mean that groups cooperate less than individuals. On the contrary, in a repeated public goods game, groups contribute more overall than individuals because they are better able to identify the strategy that pays off most handsomely. However, the potential to increase cooperation through higher transparency (“naming and shaming”) is much lower for groups that for individuals because groups are less sensitive to others approval or disapproval. While the previous literature has already shown that group decision-making differs from individual decision-making, it is still not clear why this is. For example, it is not clear whether “being in a group” or “playing against a group” is the more important factor. These questions are currently investigated in two studies on group behavior.
In all of our experimental and empirical studies, we investigate the role of socio-economic and other personal characteristics on decision-making. These factors are particularly important in our cross-country surveys in which participants come from different countries and cultures and have a very diverse background. In addition, as our study on the assessment of the climate negotiations has shown, an important factor for the assessment is how involved an individual has been in the negotiation process, indicating a complex interaction between optimism, the willingness to enter and remain in the negotiation process, and the assessment of the resulting outcomes.

The impact of HUCO at society level is to provide input into the development of strategies for international negotiations. For instance, the finding that incentive structures other than those provided by the prisoners’ dilemma setting are not fully recognized by the actors involved, calls for formulating alternative instruments that can help players improve their choices. The next goals of the project are to investigate such instruments.
In the research that is planned for the next period, we broaden our approach of international cooperation issues to include more environmental agreements that are not related to climate. Using case studies on marine pollution, biodiversity loss, and endangered species, we hope to show that the success of transboundary cooperation in real life stands on the nature of the micro flow of information among the relevant actors. Moreover, using case studies and field data on existing agreements, we plan to account for the political factors that influence their successful implementation.