Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Pascal’s Wager and the Global Warming Debate

Despite the overwhelming consensus of most climatologists around the world (including those at the United Nations, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and even the Pentagon–which rates global warming a national securiy threat potentially greater than terrorist attacks!), there are many global warming deniers.  Some, like John McCain and Sarah Palin, once were on the record arguing for prompt action to stop global warming, so their change of mind seems to be purely political–their base will punish anyone who doesn’t deny its existence–or deny that humans are causing it by dumping tons of greenhouse gasses (CO2, CO1, methane, some others ) into the atmosphere mostly via the burning of fossil fuels.  The leaked emails of a few scientists who express doubt has fueled efforts of some like Sen. Inhofe (R-OK) to claim that global warming is a giant hoax–and climatologists and their political champtions like former VP Al Gore agree that the evidence isn’t 100%.  (Science seldom deals with 100% evidence on anything.) The problem is that by the time one has nearly 100% proof, it will be too late to stop the damage to the planet.  Yet the changes needed to stop global warming are expensive and potentially very disruptive of society, so many are reluctant to make them on what they see as a gamble.

So, to those who are either global warming skeptics or unsure, I suggest that Pascal’s Wager should help our society decide in a timely fashion.  Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a Christian philosopher who agreed with skeptics that the evidence for the existence of God was not 100%. So, he argued that faith for or against God was like a gamble–but one in which the benefits of gambling on God and being wrong outweighed those of gambling against and being wrong.  I think this applies perfectly well to our necessary decisions about global warming–and I would love to see Pascal’s Wager used in debate on the floor of the U.S. Congress.

Consider:  If we gamble that the climatologists who warn of global warming and catastrophic climate change because of greenhouse gasses are right, what follows? Well, we have to spend much money and make major changes in our industrial processes and lifestyles that are potentially economically and socially disruptive. It will cost to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2050, for example. And, if the warnings were overblown this would be a negative. But, even if fears of global warming are exaggerated (something I don’t believe–I think the evidence is overwhelming that, if anything, it’s happening faster and with more severity than we believed even a few years ago), the changes made to stop it will leave us with many benefits:  Cleaner air (because greenhouse gasses are also major air pollutants) with all the benefits that makes to health in society; energy independence since every society can switch to clean, renewable sources of energy (wind, solar, biofuels, geothermal, hydroelectric, perhaps others not yet discovered); greater national security and a more stable world (since the politics of oil will not intersect the volatile countries of the Middle East and central Asia); better public transportation (high speed trains, light rail, cleaner busses, etc.) which helps business and city planning; renewed manufacturing and ‘green collar’ jobs that cannot easily be outsourced; less destruction of the natural world in the frantic search for fossil fuels (the end of “mountaintop removal” and strip mining for coal which is destroying the Appalachian mountains in KY, VA, TN, WV, and NC at an alarming rate; no catastrophic oil spills killing sea life, etc.) ; cheap, clean sources of power which can lift much of the world out of poverty; healthier lifestyles (less consumption in the rich West, more walking and bicycling; eating local foods that don’t have to be transported thousands of miles, etc.); less habitat destruction of other species in the frantic search for oil and coal.

All of these things are good to have even if the threat of global warming proves to be overblown. 

But what if we gamble that global warming is not real (a hoax, mistaken, etc.) and are wrong?  Well, we don’t spend the money or make the social changes needed to fight global warming, so, in the short term, we have less economic and social disruption, lower energy costs and taxes, etc.  But we also become more dependent on fossile fuels, especially oil from politically unstable countries, thereby increasing threats to our national security and to world peace.  We continue to pollute the air with all the health problems that follow. Energy prices rise anyway as oil and coal become harder to find and more expensive to extract.  The destruction of habitat and natural beauty in the extraction of these fuels continues.  We do not renew our manufacturing base through green jobs since the economic incentives for renewable energy, electric cars, etc. is not there without the market signals of either green taxes or a “cap and trade” system on carbon dioxide are absent and thus the green alternatives are not economically viable in the near term. We miss out on potential scientific breakthroughs in the search for alternative fuels. We don’t invest in better public transportation or more energy efficient homes, businesses, etc.

And, since we gambled that global warming is false and lost, we get the massive climate catastrophes that come with global warming:  increased and stronger hurricanes, rising seas drowning several island nations and half of Bangladesh (with the resultant refugee problems and humanitarian and political crises), fish die offs due to rising sea temperatures, famines due to increased desertification in arid lands, etc.  And, the economic dislocation is greater than that which would have happened if we had decided to make the massive changes to prevent global warming.

So, it seems to me that the smart wager would be that global warming is real, really caused by greenhouse gasses, and can and should be prevented or minimized through massive efforts cut greenhouse gas emissions and develop green energy alternatives. The potential gains to be made even if this is wrong and the potential costs if it is right and we do nothing (or not enough) seem clear to me.

I am also puzzled as to why conservatives (self-declared) are so opposed to efforts to stop global warming. After all, to be conservative is, by definition, to be cautious. So, if something is potentially disastrous, but not all the evidence is in, the cautious, conservative thing to do is to stop the potentially bad behavior causing it while investigating further.  If I am speeding in a car toward what looks like  a cliff or wall, but could be only a mirage, the conservative  thing would be to slow down or stop while investigating further–not to step on the gas pedal in a potentially suicidal manner. But the latter is what so-called conservatives are doing regarding global warming.  It’s just not rational. It’s reckless–as conservatives always claim liberals to be.

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December 12, 2009 - Posted by | ecology


  1. I agree that human-caused global warming is too big to ignore. But I think Pascal’s wager is a poor comparison. The evidence for human-caused global warming, unlike the evidence for the existence of deity, is obvious and overwhelming.

    Comment by E Kent | December 12, 2009

  2. E., it seems to me that you’re right. I’ve been reading the science and checking out the evidence (second hand and in person) since the 1970s. But I am trying to talk to people who are living in denial–for whom nothing less than 100% evidence (which science never provides for ANYTHING–not even gravity or that light comes in waves, etc.) means that it’s a guess or a liberal plot!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 12, 2009

  3. I appreciate your comments, but I think that you are misunderstanding conservatism. Chuck Klosterman, one of my favorite authors, once defined conservatism (I parphrase) as a preference for a flawed present over a solution which has within it an even greater potential flaw. This is exactly what we observe happening in the current global warming debate.

    It is a mischaracterization for anyone to say (and I’m not assuming that this is what you are saying) that conservatives as a whole (or even as a majority) are against environmental protection and regulation. I am at least one conservative who believes that clear air and water and equitable use of resources is a good thing – not only for us but especially for those in the developing world. Many of us simply remain unconvinced by the breathless and “groupthink” arguments made about the problem and the solution. (Another tendency of most conservatives I know is a healthy skepticism about the government’s ability to effective deal with many of our problems.) For instance, for all of the hand-wringing over Kyoto and our government’s failure to embrace it, it is a wildly expensive endeavor with very little projected pay-off. Many conservatives hold the same skepticism about the ability of any cap and trade system to do any substantive good while costing billions of dollars to implement and enforce.

    Anyway, you’ve heard all of these arguments before (made much more articulately), so I won’t take up any more of your time. I just thought I’d give you a glimpse of where conservatives are coming from.

    Comment by rags | December 16, 2009

  4. Okay, so let’s say that global warming is not real and we don’t do anything to stop global warming. You say that we will become more energy dependent on unstable countries. This is not necessarily true. If oil and gas companies are allowed to drill more in the U.S. and offshore we will have energy supplies for a long time to come. Furthermore, who is to say that green energy types will be used once global warming is debunked. If innovation and creativity are used less polluting energy sources can become as cost efficient as the non-renewable resources. I also find it troubling that you brush aside the negative consequences of trying to avoid global warming. There seem to be major consequences for developing countries, as well as serious consequences for the poorest in our own country. Not to mention people’s livilihood being at stake (Yes people that work for oil companies have families and wish to provide for them). If you want cleaner air, energy independence, greater national securtity and a more stable world, better public transportation, renewed public transportation, green collar jobs, less destruction of natural world (I contend that not all of these are going to be the result of a fight for carbon reduction) then fight for these on their own merit. Do not champion them in the guise of global warming. The issue at hand is global warming and carbon’s affects to the atmosphere, which I might add is far less than water vapor.

    Comment by J Elwell | December 16, 2009

  5. The response to the climate Pascal’s wager (and Tom Friedman’s):


    You are ignoring the opportunity costs of not having the wealth that you would use on addressing climate change in the event that you were wrong. Basically the IPCC’s estimated costs of the damage if left unaddressed is not as high the cost of proposed mitigation right now.

    You see only upside, but that’s because you can’t envision being wrong about the negative climate outcomes or the positive benefits of addressing climate change anyway. Pascal’s wager always hides these risks by not imagining that being wrong might get you punished by another God who wasn’t happy with your choice.

    There are risks all around and they must be intelligently weighed. Less wealth means less food for the global poor. They can’t afford Pascal’s gambling habit like affluent first worlder’s can.

    Comment by stan | December 18, 2009

  6. Rags, conservatives fought the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act under the same arguments that you enter–and they were furious with Nixon for signing those acts.

    You project the conservative argument against cap and trade and other attempts to curb or stop catastrophic climate change as a variation of the medical code, “first, do no harm–above all, don’t make the patient worse.” But failure to stop dumping greenhouse gasses in the air is NOT such a conservatism–it is recklessly continuing the same actions. Stopping while further investigation is done would be the cautious response.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 18, 2009

  7. It’s true that allowing more oil drilling in the U.S. would slow dependence on Middle East oil, but not stop it. The projected amount available in, for instance, the protected Alaskan Wilderness, is about 5 years worth. Meanwhile, the other negatives increase.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 18, 2009

  8. Rich nations clearly have to help poor nations cope, Stan, and that is being pressed at Copenhagen. But this article is wrong. The IPCC’s costs for damage if left undone is only near term, the damage keeps mounting.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 18, 2009

  9. For instance, for all of the hand-wringing over Kyoto and our government’s failure to embrace it, it is a wildly expensive endeavor with very little projected pay-off.

    I think Michael has presented the evidence of a GREAT DEAL of projected pay-off. Becoming energy independent (or moreso) is a HUGE benefit with far-reaching implications. Putting less pollution in the air is a HUGE benefit with great savings in many areas (cleaner air = improved health = healthcare savings… fewer cars/more mass transit/walking/biking = improved health = healthcare savings, etc).

    I think our problem is that we have been pushing an unpaid bill off to be paid by Others, Somewhere, Sometime and we have gotten use to not factoring in those costs into the way we do things. If and when we start factoring these costs in, then these “costs” we’re talking about here start looking more reasonable. Seems to me.

    Also, where Stan said…

    Less wealth means less food for the global poor.

    I’m not at all sure that this is true. I think it would depend upon the circumstances. It MAY be true that there are fewer charitable dollars in this scenario (MAYBE, I’m not convinced of that, but possibly so), but if it results in a more just world, then the poorer nations may not need our charity. In general, I favor justice-oriented solutions for the poor over charity-based ones.

    Comment by Dan Trabue | December 24, 2009

  10. Merry Christmas, Michael.

    Comment by Dan Trabue | December 24, 2009

  11. Merry Christmas, Everyone.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 25, 2009

  12. Of not is the recent admission by Dr. Murari Lal that the unsubstantiated Himalayan glacier data was purposely included in the IPCC 2007 report to pressure governments around the world.

    The IPCC, the U.N. and the whole man-induced global warming theory is objectively suspect.

    Comment by Chuck | January 26, 2010

  13. Of note, not “not.”


    Comment by Chuck | January 26, 2010

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