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Published on September 7th, 2012 | by Tina Casey


Mitt Romney’s 17th Century Position on Global Warming

September 7th, 2012 by  

Take it from presidential candidate Mitt Romney, global warming is real. In an online debate hosted by Scientific American earlier this week, Mr. Romney stated that “my best assessment of the data is that the world is getting warmer, that human activity contributes to that warming, and that policymakers should therefore consider the risk of negative consequences.”

If this seems like a rather radical position for a Republican candidate… well, read the rest of his statement, and you’ll see the roots of a mathematical formulation that goes all the way back to the 1600’s. Whether that applies to real life in the 21st century is another story altogether.

Romney endorses climate change

Climate Change is Real… Not!

Look at the full statement that Romney provided to sciencedebate.org in answer to a question #2, about climate change. While he starts out with an unqualified assertion about global warming, in the very next sentence he undercuts his own words:

“However, there remains a lack of scientific consensus on the issue — on the extent of the warming, the extent of the human contribution, and the severity of the risk….”

Having arrived at the conclusion that the world may or may not warm to a significant degree, which may or may not result in any particular harm, Romney has put himself in position to adopt an argument that will be familiar to any first-year student of philosophy: the famous wager over the existence of God proposed by the 17th century French (yes, French!) scientist and mathematician, Blaise Pascal.

Pascal’s Wager

Pascal’s argument is incredibly nuanced, but for our purposes we can boil it down to a few basic propositions. Keep in mind that Pascal was a prodigy who lived during a time when a great deal of public energy was giddily focused on celebrating the human capacity for rational thinking.

In that context, Pascal conceded that God’s existence cannot be proved directly by reason, at least not in the 17th century understanding of reason and certainty.

However, he proposed that belief is still possible without abandoning reason altogether. There is still a rational platform on which to base faith, because you can make a rational calculation about the consequences of belief versus disbelief.

Belief gets you the possibility of infinite rewards, while it costs you nothing. On top of that, you get the benefits of living a virtuous life, which is presumable healthier and happier.

Disbelief gets you, at best, zippo. At worst, well, you could find yourself frying in hell if God really does exist but you failed to believe.

Given those choices, any rational person would bet on God.

Betting on Global Warming

That brings us right around to the Romney position on global warming, which he somewhat inelegantly expresses at sciencedebate.org as the “No Regrets” policy:

“So I believe we should pursue what I call a ‘No Regrets’ policy — steps that will lead to lower emissions, but that will benefit America regardless of whether the risks of global warming materialize and regardless of whether other nations take effective action.”

Sub in “whether God exists,” and there’s your 2012 version of Pascal’s Wager. Whether or not climate change actually exists, it is beneficial to act as if it does.


Steps That Will Lead to Lower Emissions… or Not

To Romney’s credit, some of the steps leading to lower emissions that he proposes are right in line with President Obama’s energy policies, including a strong emphasis on federal funding for new energy technologies.

However, a Romney administration could soon find itself in hot water if the global market for fossil fuels continues to undercut emerging alternatives on price.

In that case, under the energy policies Romney spells out at science.org in answer to question #6, those new technologies would languish in the laboratory and those federal dollars would go to waste, leaving his administration with a financial debacle on its hands that would make the Solyndra bankruptcy look like chump change.

The missing piece in Romney’s wager is a regulatory framework, tax policies, and government subsidies that provide secure, reliable economic incentives for the private sector to invest in new low-emission technology. Without that qualifier, the No Regrets policy falls apart.

No doubt, Pascal would agree.

Image: Heat. Some rights reserved by DBduo Photography.

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey. 


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About the Author

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. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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