Escaping the Prisoner’s Dilemma: China, the United States, and Global Warming

Open Access
Smyth, Michelle
Area of Honors:
International Politics
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Dr Denis Simon, Thesis Supervisor
  • Denis Simon, Thesis Supervisor
  • Gretchen Casper, Honors Advisor
  • United States
  • China
  • Sino-U.S. relations
  • climate change
  • prisoner's dilemma
Global warming is one of the greatest threats to our world today. This challenge grows more and more urgent each day and requires an increased amount of attention from the international community. In order to combat the numerous effects of this global environmental issue, cooperation from nations big and small, and rich and poor alike is essential. Due to their position as the greatest emitters of greenhouse gases, the United States and China must be central to the solution in reversing the harmful effects of global warming. The U.S. and China have a long history of mistrust and misperceptions that have made cooperation seem impossible. Nevertheless, they have found common ground on some of the most divisive issues proving the relationship is capable of moving forward. Currently, the Sino-U.S. relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the international arena. There is arguably no challenge facing the world today that can be solved without the engagement of both of these nations. As climate change is at the forefront, it is crucial that we understand what it is that hinders cooperation between the United States and China. With the use of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, I take a look at historical encounters between the United States and China and determine whether or not they cooperated or defected. In analyzing four cases I draw conclusions as to what circumstances or characteristics encourage or discourage successful agreements. After establishing these results, I take a look at the United States and China as currently defecting on the question of climate change. Based on historical data, I argue that international security issues will lead the Chinese to be more likely to cooperate with the United States while domestic conflict in China leads to less cooperation between these two nations. In closing, I provide policy suggestions for crafting the climate challenge into one that emphasizes the international security aspect. Additionally, I provide ideas for small cooperative agreements over a long period of time in order to bolster a more ambitious, bilateral climate policy agreements in the future between the United States and China, which this world so desperately needs.