11/02/2010 11:45 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Small Birds Solve Global Warming


The nations of the world are like small birds threatened by a hawk: global warming. Up to now, the birds have cowered alone cherishing the ridiculous fantasy that the hawk will come only for their luckless neighbors, leaving them unharmed.

In the real world, small birds do not sit cowering in the leaves. They launch a determined joint attack known as "mobbing" that can send the hawk packing. Their cooperation offers some fairly inspirational ideas for framing a workable climate control treaty.

Over the past couple of years, I have been studying such uncanny examples of animal teamwork. Its main interest is that it is not supposed to occur in the dog-eat-dog world of Darwinian competition.

For small birds, a united front creates the shared benefit of defense against predators. How did they ever come up with such a clever solution to pesky hawks? The answer, of course, is that the birds did not solve the problem for themselves. It was solved for them by evolution acting over many generations. The secret is that joint defense creates public goods: the collective benefits of mobbers exceeds their joint costs.

The public good that the nations of the world seek is reduced net emissions of carbon that is ultimately more beneficial than its costs. We do not have the luxury of dickering over solutions for many generations, so we need to pay attention to the lessons from animal teamwork.

When birds launch their joint attack on the predator, their action is unanimous, It is unhesitating and enthusiastic. It does not quit until the problem is solved.

After many failed climate control treaties that made minimal progress since Kyoto (in 1997), we have not really begun, so the persistence issue is moot. So how do we get unanimity and enthusiasm? The answer is that the nations of the world need to be as smart as a flock of sparrows, which is a lot smarter than existing climate control treaties.

Is Teamwork Even Possible? This seems like a strange question. If it is possible for sparrows, surely humans can succeed as well. We know that the entire world community is capable of coming together to solve climate problems because we did so in banning aerosol propellants (CFCs) that ate away at the ozone layer.

As to unanimity, a mobbing attack would never work if some birds hid in the foliage as if saying "I know that my brave neighbors will take care of that scary old hawk!" Yet, Kyoto supplied a laundry list of moral excuses for inaction that is perpetuated in each of its successors. "I am a developing nation, I need to pollute to grow and lift my people out of poverty." "Developed countries are responsible for this mess, why should I clean it up for them." "If I reduce carbon output, I need to get paid."

The folly of letting developing nations off the hook is illustrated by two telling statistics. First, China, a developing nation, is the leading emitter of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels. (China committed to substantial greenhouse gas reductions under the Copenhagen agreement of 2009). Second, in 2008 developed nations reduced their carbon emissions by 2% whereas developing nations increased theirs by 6% resulting in a substantial overall increase.

For an effective climate agreement, we need to distribute the costs, not "fairly" (based on the tortured logic of who did what in the distant past) but universally. Some of the poorest countries actually have the greatest contribution to make towards reduction of global warming by conserving forest habitat and other green spaces. They also stand to lose the most from climate change induced by global warming.

If global warming is like the hawk threatening the entire community of nations, then the only way for us to protect ourselves is through concerted, and unanimous, action. Small birds have no trouble taking on the larger predator because they will be supported by all of the other adult birds in the nesting community. A climate control treaty can work only if it begins with similar unanimity. All nations must agree to do their part, and more, because their efforts are for the common good and because failure to act would prove catastrophic.

So why have humans with their enormous brains failed in a logical problem mastered by sparrows? How do we summon up the unanimity and enthusiasm that are needed. This is the topic of a future post.