So I was taking a browse through RationalWiki, something I occasionally like to do for the editors’ humorous takes on philosophy, and I found an angle on the old concept of Pascal’s Wager about which I’d not previously heard: it’s can be used in an environmental, rather than religious context. Specifically, that it has been modified as an argument for why we should bet that global warming is real and that such a position is one we need to act on.
This post is not about the philosophical or religious implications behind the wager’s original, religious application, so let’s set the arguments for or against aside. What I’m more interested in, is the question
“Does Pascal’s wager have any practical or logical use in the context of global warming?”
For those not familiar with Pascal’s wager, the short story is that hedging your bets on belief in the existence of God is a logically better option, whether or not it actually turns out to be true. Pascal’s rationale was that if you believe and God does not exist, you lose nothing, disbelieve falsely, and you lose everything.
There are many sources online explaining why this is not a good argument when put in religious terms, but if we spin it from the global warming angle, do we get good use out of it? Let’s consider the discourse on the subject. In light of umm, I don’t know, reality, there is little to no doubt that we are undergoing a potentially catastrophic series of geological and meteorological changes. If there are any global warming deniers reading this, please write me so I can spend the day showing you all the evidence you need to eat your words, regurgitate, and eat the cud that were previously such words You are denying hard science.
The only debate among scientifically literate, reasonably educated people can be “What approach should we take towards the problem?” Some say we should let the free market do its magic (you read that right, as belief in the efficiency of the free market is just about akin to the belief that such is magic). Others use it as a proxy for pushing socialism. I, as a self-identified socialist, would admittedly caution against the second approach, as much as the first. Both solutions are too simple. Simple solutions to complex problems rarely, if ever, work.
But this post does not aim even to discuss what type of middle ground policy approach would confront global warming best. What we’re discussing here, again, is whether the evidence for global warming justifies placing a bet on the premise that it is happening.
Here’s some interesting information I stumbled upon while reading The Long Thaw (2010), by David Archer. It’s a great read, the information easily to retain, by someone who knows what he’s talking about. I’d certainly recommend it as an entry level reading into the topic, even if you find you don’t agree with any of it. From Chapter 8:
“Scientists in Arrhenius’ day also assumed that the oceans would take up any extra CO2 quickly. The oceans cover 70% of the Earth’s surface. The ocean is physically thinner than the atmosphere, 4 kilometers compared to the scale height of the atmosphere, which is about 8 kilometers. Water also flows around a lot, at least more than the land surface does. Its makes sense to naively expect that the oceans would interact with the atmosphere pretty quickly.” (p. 108)
Archer continues that predicting the effects of rising CO2 levels we now know to be happening today would be dismissed as “alarmist” in Arrhenius’ time (which, interestingly, contemporary conservatives apply as a blanket label to climate change science), in large part based on the previous overestimation of the ocean’s’ ability to interact with CO2. The oceans do help filter out atmospheric CO2, but not nearly at the rate once assumed. The scale of this process is more to the tune of centuries, rather than years or even decades.
And oceans do react to CO2 in the atmosphere, in a chemical process (and I’ll spare you the precise element details Archer provides) in which we get bicarbonate. This too, only goes so far, as Archer shows the ways in which more of this reaction slows down the ocean’s ability to take in more CO2 (p. 111).
In the end, what we’re left with is another of many examples that the Earth’s corrective processes fail to filter out the effects of CO2 emissions in a manner conducive to our benefit. Make no mistake that the planet will correct itself, probably long after human civilization is gone. To borrow from George Carlin, “The planet is fine”. But without the right actions, we will produce a climate too extreme for humans to tolerate long before those natural processes take place.
Bottom line, what are we dealing with here? Pascal’s wager applied to global warming tells us:
- (positive) We do something about global warming, and it turns out to be true, we will have secured our survival, at least for the time being.
- (positive) We do something about global warming, and it turns out to be false, we will have established a world with more sustainable development, better energy efficiency, and a cleaner environment.
- (negative) We do nothing about global warming, it turns out to be true, we can no longer sustain ourselves
- (negative) We do nothing about global warming, it turns out to be false, we continue to suffer from rising income inequalities and geopolitical strife associated with unstable energy markets.
This is what we’re dealing with. Don’t be so quick to dismiss Pascal’s wager when it can be applied usefully to areas other than religion.