Secretary of State John Kerry gave a barn-burner of a speech about climate change at National Geographic’s Ross Sea Conservation reception earlier this week, in which he renewed his calls to “respond to what the science and the facts are telling us.” Oddly enough, though, he hung the meat of his speech on the same hook that former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney deployed last year. It’s an old argument that dates back to the 17th century and we kind of made fun of Romney over that, so it’s only fair that we take a closer look at what Secretary Kerry said, too.
Pascal’s Wager for Climate Change
Both Romney and Kerry adopt a variation of Pascal’s Wager, an argument devised by 17th century scientist and mathematician Blaise Pascal. In the context of a newly enlightened society that was practically giddy over the potentials of scientific discovery, Pascal came up with an ingenious rationalization for the existence of God. Or, at least, for living a life that assumes the existence of God.
The basic idea is that it makes common sense to bet on the existence of God, even if there is nothing in science that could count as proof. The benefits of living a “good” life are many and the costs are nil, so you come out ahead even if it turns out that there is no God.
On the flip side, living a not-so-good life could cost you plenty, not only while you’re here on Earth but also after you die, if it turns out that you were wrong and God really does exist after all.
Apply that to climate change and you get the basic argument that, whether or not you accept the science in support of an urgent global warming management strategy, the benefits of adopting a low-carbon approach are many in terms of improved environmental and public health, which more than makes up for the cost of developing a new clean energy infrastructure, especially if you factor in the creation of new green jobs.
Mitt Romney and Climate Change
During last year’s campaign, We noticed that Mitt Romney had reformulated Pascal’s Wager into his “No Regrets” policy.
Romney articulated No Regrets in an online discussion hosted by sciencedebate.org. It works like this: You accept that a warming trend is occurring but the causes have not been identified, and the long term impacts might not be that bad. However, regardless of all that, reducing emissions is still a good thing, so it’s still worthwhile to invest federal dollars in researching new energy technologies.
That’s all well and good, but when you poke around in No Regrets, there’s really not much there in terms of actual public policy leading to reduced emissions. Sure, you can research all you want, but without financial incentives and a vigorous technology transfer program, all that research is going to languish in the laboratory.
John Kerry and Climate Change
Though he uses the flip side of Pascal’s Wager, which he restates as “What’s the worst that can happen?” Kerry adopts the same basic argument in his Ross Sea speech, in which he makes the case against climate change skeptics:
“What if the other people are wrong and we are right; what’s the worst that can happen? The destruction of the ecosystem as we live with it today.”
Given that choice, as a matter of public responsibility it makes common sense to configure public policy around the available science and adopt a vigorous plan to reduce carbon emissions. And if it turns out that all that scientific evidence was wrong, here’s the worst that could happen:
“Well, the worst that can happen to you if you would employ a lot of people in alternative and renewable and clean energy; you would have less hospitalizations, cleaner air, more children with less asthma; and you would create an enormous number of jobs by moving to those new energy possibilities and policies and infrastructure. That’s the worst that can happen to you.”
Do You “Believe” In Climate Change?
That brings us to the whole idea that climate change is something that you either “believe in” or not, as if there was anything soulful, spiritual, emotional or otherwise non-sciency argument going on here.
Climate change is science, and the useful thing about Pascal’s Wager is that it takes belief out of the equation and replaces it with a bet. That focuses public policy attention where it belongs, on the available evidence here and now, not on some other, hidden state of reality.
So yes, we were a little unfair to Romney when we got on his case for using Pascal’s Wager to argue for a federal role in climate change policy, but in light of Kerry’s speech (and Kerry’s climate change position overall), our only regret is that Mr. Romney didn’t carry the argument far enough.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.