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.

December 12, 2009 Posted by | ecology | 13 Comments