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Simulating Environmental Diplomacy

By Saleem H. Ali, Markus M. Mueller | June 23, 2010

CREDIT: Seema K K (CC).

Environmental policy issues are often framed in terms of resource scarcity, spurring a scramble for that last blade of grass or last drop of water in a "tragedy of the commons." Yet human perceptions of access to resources can be shifted from a mindset of competitive conflict to one of cooperative relationships. The psychological aspects of such a transformation are often best illustrated through simulations.

For example, a distributive conflict premised on resource quantity can be reframed to highlight cooperation in maintaining resource quality. Lakes present a classic example where it is easy to show how a common resource will be degraded for all users. A similar case is harder to make in river simulations where upstream parties have far greater power and much less to lose as a result of pollution or scarcity downstream.

Lessons from these simulation techniques are under-utilized in international diplomacy. Not only can simulations be useful in changing the narrative of environmental conflicts, but environmental issues can be useful in changing the tone of political conflicts. For example, if two countries distrust each other over religious or ethnic differences, environmental cooperation may present a neutral means of building bridges.

Building a Methodology

A simulation can also be useful as an experimental tool to further evaluate the efficacy of environmental factors in conflict resolution. What would such a methodology look like? We might start by using vignettes that describe conflicts between stakeholders from neighboring nations—with students, border military guards, and political activists as participants in the simulation. The inclusion of environmental issues in the conflict descriptions would be the main independent variable. The level of severity would also vary in the vignettes, as would its impact on vested interests. The conflicts could range from environmental threats as a common aversion (like the scarcity of water or other resources), to nature as an end in itself that should be protected (perhaps a transboundary protected area without important natural resources), to situations without environmental issues.

In order to separate the effect of environmental issues from the effect of cooperative discussion itself, a control group could be told that the two countries are cooperating over trade talks. We expect the inclusion of environmental issues to affect the willingness of the two parties to positively cooperate, given some initial research from the field of conservation psychology.

In a typical vignette, participants might read about an incident between two neighboring countries in which citizens of one country were accidentally killed when military exercises by the other country mistakenly shelled the wrong target. (For student participants, this would be presented as a real incident. For the senior diplomats, who are better informed, we would merely ask them to treat this as a hypothetical incident.) Some of the participants will also be told that the two countries are engaged in cooperative discussions over how to protect a shared environmentally sensitive area. Others will be told that the two countries are engaged in discussions over how to allocate shared, and contested, water resources. A third group will be told that the two countries are engaged in cooperative trade talks, and a last group will not be told about any discussions between the two countries. The exact mechanics of the simulation would be worked out after a series of consultations with experts on behavioral methodologies and the running of test groups.

Dependent variable measures for the vignettes as well as the ensuing studies will include resource allocation between groups, stereotyping of the "other," moral exclusion of the other, perceived justice, as well as the willingness to employ different strategies of negotiation. Assessment of one party's willingness to interact with the other group will be adapted for each vignette from the Transgression-Related Interpersonal Motivations Inventory, a widely used method in psychology. This technique has previously been adapted for similar use to assess attitudes about appropriate relations between nations. Sample items would be: "Country A should continue to cooperate with country B," "Country A should avoid involvement with Country B," "Country A should forgive Country B," "Country A should fear future aggressive actions by Country B" (scaled 1–5, strongly disagree to strongly agree).

In other words, people do not have to choose between identifying with the original group or identifying with the larger collective; they can identify with both. When groups cooperate, they develop trust in each other as well as a perception of shared characteristics. Working together to protect a shared ecosystem may allow nations to experience the same effects: Trust that is established through work on one project may generalize to a greater level of trust on other issues; perceived similarity in value for nature may help to overcome tendencies toward stereotyping and moral exclusion.

The Horizon of Cooperation

Yet another potential mechanism of the psychological impact of peace parks is in encouraging a reduction of temporal discounting. Although this work is still in the preliminary stages, there is some evidence that consideration of environmental issues promotes a longer time horizon compared to some other issues. Robert Axelrod empirically showed in his classic work The Evolution of Cooperation that increasing the "shadow of the future" (the likelihood and importance of future interaction) promotes cooperation. If we can frame environmental issues in the context of longer-term interactions between humans and the planet, there are likely to be derivative cooperative benefits from this mechanism.

Such an approach would blend the use of simulations in collaborative planning with psychological techniques—potentially offering a mechanism for "ecological cooperation." In August 2010, the American Psychological Association is hosting a special session on environment, peace, and conflict at which we intend to discuss the prospects for engaging in research to test this hypothesis with actual stakeholders in a conflict situation. In the meantime, scholars, practitioners, and students can consider testing this proposition on their own, experimenting with different ecological vignettes. There can also be variations in the simulation before and after environmental education programs to evaluate the effectiveness of ecoliteracy programs.

Environmental awareness, coupled with strong leadership in using ecological variables in diplomacy, may well provide us with a new policy innovation for dealing with intractable conflicts.

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Read More: Communication, Conservation, Culture, Diplomacy, Education, Environment, Ethics, Governance, Peace, Religion, Security, Sustainability, Trade, Global

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