Thursday, June 28, 2012

Pascal’s Wager (Climate Change Edition)

Hmm. I wrote this a few weeks ago and just noted that I never actually posted it… Anyway, with the temperature expected to his 105° today, it seems the perfect time…

Back in the 17th Century, philosopher Blaise Pascal posited the notion that there was more to be gained by wagering on the existence of G-d. He concluded that a rational person should live life as if G-d exists. Essentially, the premises was that if G-d exists and you live your life accordingly, then you will reap rewards in the afterlife. If G-d does not exist, there will be no downside to having lived a good life. On the other hand, if you were to live a “bad” life, again there would be no downside if G-d doesn’t exist but there would (so the theory goes) be a huge downside if G-d did exist.

Of course, there are some tremendous logical problems with Pascal’s Wager (as this argument has come to be known), but that isn’t the point of this post.

Instead, I want to suggest a similar premise but in the realm of climate change. And yes, I know that I’m not the first to have tied these two concepts together.

So let’s start by looking at the possibilities: First, either the climate is changing … or it isn’t. And second, we either try to do something about it … or we don’t. Whether you “believe” in climate change or not really isn’t the question; rather, the question is what you (we) choose to do that matters.

To analyze the interplay of these possibilities, let’s start with the premise that climate change is, indeed, a great big hoax. In that case, the choice to do nothing will obviously have no negative consequences. If I make no effort to prevent something that isn’t going to occur anyway, then my failure won’t make that event that wasn’t going to occur suddenly become real.

What if we decide to do something about climate change, even though it’s a hoax? Well, then I guess it’s possible that we’ll waste lots of resources and money trying to find solutions to a non-existent problem, although it does stand to reason that at last some of those resources expenditures will result in beneficial developments (more fuel efficiency, for example). So it seems that the only real downside to trying to prevent this “hoax” from coming true would be an drain on resources and capital. (And as an aside, to those who suggest we shouldn’t do something about a non-existent problem, I’d ask them about their support for laws to prevent non-existent voter fraud…)

But what if climate change isn’t a hoax? What if it’s real and the consequences that the scientific community have been warning about are real, too? Well, if we put those resources and expenditures into trying to stop climate change (or reduce its effects), then perhaps we’ll succeed; perhaps we’ll actually be able to prevent climate change that will alter the planet in potentially irreversible ways. And that would certainly be good, wouldn’t it?

Finally, what if climate change is real … and we decide to do nothing. What if the planet really does warm significantly and sea levels rise? If, in 100 years, the east and west coasts are both under water, how much money would it, in hindsight, have been worth spending to stop that result? If the change in temperatures turned the American breadbasket into infertile, hostile soil such that we had to become an food importer, would we be kicking ourselves at not having had the foresight to try to prevent that situation from coming to pass? If more and more severe storm systems begin to cause more and more significant damage to both people and infrastructure, would we bemoan that we hadn’t tried to do something to prevent changes to our planet?

As I see it, if we do nothing and climate change is a hoax, then everything’s just peachy. If we do something and climate change is a hoax, then we’ve (maybe) wasted resources. But if we do something and climate change is real, then perhaps we can prevent catastrophe. If we do nothing and climate change is real, then catastrophe is almost certain.

You pick. Are you willing to take the risk that climate change is a hoax and therefore elect for us to do nothing? That’s fine … if you’re right. But if you’re wrong, if climate change is real, then where will that leave us? Where will that leave our children and our grandchildren? Are you so certain that climate change is a hoax that you’re willing to do nothing at the possible risk to the lifestyle — or even life! — of your children and grandchildren?

For a similar analysis, please take a few minutes and watch this video explanation:

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