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Taylor Kish, climate change, and Pascal’s Wager: It all starts local

February 22nd, 2017 · No Comments

Date: Mon, 20 Feb 2017 12:31:16 -0500
From: Pat Cabe
Subject: Taylor Kish, climate change, and Pascal’s Wager: It all starts local

So, the vitriolic Taylor Kish (whoever he, she, it, or they may be) erupts once again, this time railing against the Chatham climate change committee.

Part of his (or her or its or their) argument is that the entire issue of climate change is false, and that either no such change is occurring or any such changes are outside human intervention. Therefore, he (or she or it or they) concludes that the Chatham climate change panel is a waste of time, effort, and money.

Kish’s argument reminds me of Pascal’s famous wager with respect to belief in god (generic; it doesn’t matter which version of god you prefer). Pascal’s Wager goes something like this (admittedly oversimplified):

God may or may not exist; there is no way to decide the issue on the basis of earthly evidence. Consequently, one must face the prospect of how to manage one’s earthly life with respect to the possibilities that god either does, or does not, exist.

If god exists and one acts in accord with a belief that god exists, one gives up some earthly pleasure (a small cost, yet with some earthly benefits to oneself and others), for the prospect of gaining eternal heavenly reward (that is, an infinitely large pay-off).

If god exists, but one acts in accord with the belief that god does not exist, one may enjoy some additional earthly pleasures (perhaps sinful; a small gain), but with the prospect of eternal damnation (that is, an infinite cost).

If god does not exist, belief and non-belief yield the same eternal consequences (that is, neither infinite loss nor infinite benefit, only nothingness). Pascal concludes that believing affords better prospects than not believing.

Whether you like Pascal’s argument or not, the climate change argument has some of its flavor. Man-made climate change may or may not exist; the evidence, at best, is a matter of probabilities.

If climate change does exist and we act as if it exists (intervening, for example, by pursuing alternative forms of sustainable energy), there are some comparatively small, and comparatively near-term, costs. However, there are major long-term benefits for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren, indeed, for all life on the planet. If climate change exists and we act as if it does not, there are long-term, and highly negative, consequences, while the benefits are comparatively small, are comparatively short-term (less than a lifetime), and affect a comparatively small segment of the population (most likely, investors).

If climate change does not exist, and we act as if it does, we stand to gain the same long-term benefits of believing and acting as if it does. If climate change does not exist, and we act as if it does not, we continue down the path we are now on, with clear costs in environmental quality and impacts on human health.

Argue all you want to about the quality of the evidence for and against man-made climate change; indeed, it is a game of probabilities. The bottom line still comes to the costs and benefits, both short-term and long-term, that we are willing to accept as a society and as inhabitants of the planet. In ways that seem reasonably parallel to Pascal’s analysis, the safer bet is that man-made climate change exists and continues and that we should therefore act accordingly.

The first element of Pascal’s Wager is that, categorically and without exception, one cannot avoid making the bet. Because we all, categorically and without exception, must live with climate, we cannot avoid making the bet on climate change. Action to forestall, and possibly reverse, it seems clearly to be the safer and more productive choice. Inaction, like it or not, also is making a bet.

Pat Cabe

Tags: Musings · Politics

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