Pascal's Wager, Climate Change And Peak Oil  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

The Edge has their annual "question" series of articles up, with tech publisher Tim O'Reilly looking at climate change through the prism of "Pascal's Wager" - Pascal's Wager.

In 1661 or 1162, in his Pensees, philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal articulated what would come to be known as Pascal's Wager, the question of whether or not to believe in God, in the face of the failure of reason and science to provide a definitive answer.

"You must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then?...You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is."

While this proposition of Pascal's is clothed in obscure religious language and on a religious topic, it is a significant and early expression of decision theory. And, stripped of its particulars, it provides a simple and effective way to reason about contemporary problems like climate change.

We don't need to be 100% sure that the worst fears of climate scientists are correct in order to act. All we need to think about are the consequences of being wrong.

Let's assume for a moment that there is no human-caused climate change, or that the consequences are not dire, and we've made big investments to avert it. What's the worst that happens? In order to deal with climate change:

1. We've made major investments in renewable energy. This is an urgent issue even in the absence of global warming, as the IEA has now revised the date of "peak oil" to 2020, only 11 years from now.

2. We've invested in a potent new source of jobs.

3. We've improved our national security by reducing our dependence on oil from hostile or unstable regions.

4. We've mitigated the enormous "off the books" economic losses from pollution. (China recently estimated these losses as 10% of GDP.) We currently subsidize fossil fuels in dozens of ways, by allowing power companies, auto companies, and others to keep environmental costs "off the books," by funding the infrastructure for autos at public expense while demanding that railroads build their own infrastructure, and so on.

5. We've renewed our industrial base, investing in new industries rather than propping up old ones. Climate critics like Bjorn Lomborg like to cite the cost of dealing with global warming. But the costs are similar to the "costs" incurred by record companies in the switch to digital music distribution, or the costs to newspapers implicit in the rise of the web. That is, they are costs to existing industries, but ignore the opportunities for new industries that exploit the new technology. I have yet to see a convincing case made that the costs of dealing with climate change aren't principally the costs of protecting old industries.

By contrast, let's assume that the climate skeptics are wrong. We face the displacement of millions of people, droughts, floods and other extreme weather, species loss, and economic harm that will make us long for the good old days of the current financial industry meltdown.

Climate change really is a modern version of Pascal's wager. On one side, the worst outcome is that we've built a more robust economy. On the other side, the worst outcome really is hell. In short, we do better if we believe in climate change and act on that belief, even if we turned out to be wrong.

But I digress. The illustration has become the entire argument. Pascal's wager is not just for mathematicians, nor for the religiously inclined. It is a useful tool for any thinking person.

6 comments

Some activists last year were already saying it's too late to do anything about climate change:
http://theartofannihilation.com/category/eyes-wide-shut-sleeping-with-the-enemy-tcktcktck-expose/
(scroll down a bit, it's there)
Granted, this group and their fellow site, NGO watch, are rather conspirital.

Okay, hang on, here's a better link-course the goddamn site keeps going down almost every other minute:
http://climatesoscanada.org/blog/2011/02/17/expose-the-2%C2%BA-death-dance-the-1%C2%BA-cover-up-part-1/

This is actually a great way to look at it, kind of like a hedge. If we - the rational majority:) - are wrong about global warming being man made, we at least have invested in creating an entire new sector of green jobs in renewable energy. And if it does turn out to be man made, than we are all doing the right thing after all. Its like an atheist who suddenly decides he will hedge his bets by establishing a relationship with the almighty. An inexact analogy to be sure, but I think the point is made.

My simple take is that Pascal does not necessarily ask for "faith"... but to at least act as if the argument is true. Nothing is lost.

The wikipedia section on the arguments context is interesting;
"much of his notes are geared toward attacking absolute certainty"

Thus the measures proposed by climate scientists are a version of Pascals argument or as it is now probably known, the precautionary principle.

This is exactly how it should be sold (minus that Pascal philosophy bit). So why isn't it?

I've seen Jamais Cascio argue this line before (without the Pascal stuff) - not sure why it doesn't happen more frequently (actually I think Rupert Murdoch may have said something similar once - its a shame his media machine doesn't do so as well).

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