The Man Who Predicted the Failure of the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit

Predictioneer one who uses maths, science and the logic of brazen self-interest to see and shape the future, by Bruce Bueno De Mesquita, Bodley Head, London, 2009; 248 pages; ISBN 978-1-847-92067-6. £17 stg.

Mesquita is a professor of political science at New York University, described by Foreign Policy magazine as “the foreign-policy world’s leading predictioneer.” According to a declassified CIA assessment, the predictions for which he has been responsible over the years have had a 90% accuracy rate. He uses the concept of game-theory, which evaluates systematically how people will respond to the decisions or actions taken by others,using a complex mathematical computer model, and one or two simple beliefs about politics and people, to arrive at his predictions.

He learnt many years ago that politics is predictable and if one assumes that people do what they think is best for them, then you can get accurate predictions, even if using widely available input information. He works, making predictions, for the US government, big corporations (particularly in major lawsuits), and for ordinary individuals too. He has made hundreds of predictions – many of them in print, so you can check his success rate to date. One example : in 1990 he predicted the future actions of Yassir Arafat as follows: “if Arafat does choose to moderate his stance, this suggests that he is willing to sacrifice both the Palestinian cause and his opponents at the altar of his personal political welfare.” Unfortunately that subsequently proved to be the case.

His prediction, made much earlier this year, was that the Copenhagen summit on climate change
would effectively fail, in fact it had to! Here is why. “To get people to sign a universal agreement and not cheat, the deal must not ask them to change their behaviour much from whatever they are already doing. It is a race to the bottom, to the lowest common denominator. More demanding agreements weed out prospective members or encourage lies. The previous Kyoto agreement demands weeded out the US, ensuring that it could not succeed… Sacrificing self-interest for the greater good just doesn’t happen very often. Governments don’t throw themselves on hand grenades.”

“There is a natural division between the rich countries whose prosperity does not depend so much on toasting our planet and poor countries that really have no affordable alternative (yet) to fossil fuels and carbon emissions. They have an incentive to do whatever it takes to improve the quality of life of the people they govern. The rich have an incentive to encourage the fast-growing poor to be greener, but the fast-growing poor have little incentive to listen as long as there are still poor.” Add to this the expectation that the rhetoric for tough standards on emissions will increase over the next 10-20 years but support for tougher regulation will fall (again because of self-interest) and you see why real success from such widely drafted agreements is not an option!

The book contains a lengthy explanation of how he pulls his predictions together, and a very interesting analysis on the likelihood of peace, and how it could be structured, in the Middle East (land for peace just cannot work, he says), why arms control may be bad, the rationality of irrationality, fraud warning signals, the North Korean nuclear issue and how to solve it, surprising but likely developments in Iran, how Pakistan could be encouraged to really crack down on militants in its tribal areas, and much more . He also cogently and clearly explains where corruption is so pervasive, particularly in undemocratic countries and why the “death tolls from cataclysmic natural events are vastly higher in countries run by dictators than in democracies.” On a more practical level he shows how to get the cheapest price for your new car, if you are cold-blooded enough and not concerned about “extras” and service.

He proceeds always from a detailed evaluation of self-interest. For that reason alone his book should be read by all those who now understand that much of the “Tir na nOg” thinking in Ireland over the last five years has led us all badly astray. At the very least you will more than recover the cost of this book if you are lucky enough to be buying a new car after reading it.

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