Want to know what's going to happen with climate change? Is the world going to come together this December at the Copenhagen summit, or at some future date, and regulate away enough of the greenhouse gases that are heating up the planet to warm Al Gore's heart? I'm no climate scientist, but I've done my own calculations, and I can tell you the answer: probably not.
Despite the hoopla, the U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen is destined to fail. Here's what will happen instead: Over the next several decades, world leaders will embrace tougher emissions standards than those proposed -- and mostly ignored -- in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. But real support for tougher regulations will fall. By midcentury, the mandatory emissions standards in place will be well below those set at Kyoto, a far cry from the targets for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases set to be discussed by world leaders in Copenhagen. And by the time 2100 rolls around, the political will for tougher regulations will have dried up almost completely. The reasons are many, but come down to this: Today's emerging powerhouses like Brazil, India, and China simply won't stand for serious curbs on their emissions, and the pro-regulation crowd in the United States and Europe won't be strong enough to force their hands.
How do I know all this? Because in 1979, I learned that I could predict the future.
Don't get me wrong -- I'm no soothsayer and I have no patience for crystal-ball gazers, astrologers, or even most pundits. In my world, science, not mumbo jumbo, is the way to predict people's choices and their consequences for altering the future. I use game theory to do just that for the U.S. government, big corporations, and sometimes ordinary folks, too. In fact, I have made hundreds, even thousands, of predictions -- a great many of them in print, ready to be scrutinized by any naysayer. For instance, I can tell you right now that bribing Kim Jong Il to mothball, but not eliminate, his nuclear program is the best way to handle North Korea, that the land-for-peace formula in the Middle East won't succeed, and that it will take approximately $1.5 billion annually in U.S. aid to Pakistan to keep that country's government fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda.
There is nothing uncanny about my ability to predict. Anyone can learn to use scientific reasoning to do what I do, though I've been refining the model I use ever since I accidentally got into the prediction business back in the last days of disco.
The opportunity initially fell into my lap when a U.S. State Department official called to ask me who was likely to be India's next prime minister. At the time I was a professor of political science at the University of Rochester -- where the application of game theory to political questions originated -- and I had written my Ph.D. thesis at the University of Michigan about winning and losing strategies among India's opposition parties. So the State Department official was asking me to use my "expert" knowledge to speculate about the next Indian government.
It happened that I had just designed a mathematical model for a book I was writing about war, as well as a little computer program to make the necessary calculations. The program provided a way to simulate decision-making under stressful circumstances like those that sometimes lead to war. It calculated the probability that actors would get what they wanted if they chose one course of action (say, negotiations) or another (like war), weighting the probabilities by an estimate of how much the decision-makers valued winning, losing, or intermediate compromise outcomes. Of course, it also recognized that they had to work out how others might respond to the choices they made.