Tackle climate change? Try studying elephant vocalization in the Savannah. No, seriously. The U.S. claimed this as one of its assistance programs to aid developing countries in their climate response efforts, the University of Zurich’s Axel Michaelowa told us yesterday.

Maybe it was a simple typo in the bureaucratic reporting, but this raises an interesting question: just how much will nations try to free-ride international climate agreements?

University of Bern researcher Seraina Buob explained it to us in terms of Game Theory. Imagine every player at a table is endowed a dollar amount Y and are told they will win a prize if they end up with the most money. At each turn, the players contribute a percentage of their holdings to a central pool. The “pot” is then multiplied, divided evenly, and redistributed to the players. Eventually, players discover that the optional individual strategy is to contribute nothing, to free-ride, even though as a group, the table will perform better the more everyone contributes.

Now consider climate abatement. The world as a whole does best when everyone reduces greenhouse gas emissions. But for a single country, the strategy is different. Individual nations will benefit most by contributing no money to the solution and simply enjoying the fruits of others’ abatement efforts. (Mitigation will create public good, while the benefit of adaptation is usually private.)

Buob then described to us what would happen if the Northern and Southern Hemispheres were the two players, each wanting to maximize its own welfare. Because of socio-economic differences, only the North is allowed to fund development in the South, according to the game. The result: the North will have an incentive to fund climate adaptation efforts in the South only if the South then reinvests in mitigation.

How does this work for a country that contributes very few greenhouse gases (in other words, has little potential to mitigate)? Will they be turned down from adaptation assistance because they can contribute no mitigation efforts in return?