Climate change as Pascal’s wager

Posted in climate change, environment, politics by thenextwavefutures on 8 December, 2009

Blaise Pascal’s ‘wager’ was a pragmatic response to arguments about religious belief: if you believed and God didn’t exist, you hadn’t lost much, save your Sunday mornings. If you didn’t believe, and God did exist, you would burn in hell. Now there are obvious differences between this and climate change; we simply don’t know if God exists or not, but there is an overwhelming body of science which suggests that climate change is real (and which doesn’t vanish at the stroke of a hacker’s keyboard). But in the face of people who continue to assert that the science is flawed or even the product of conspiracy, the wager seems a good model.

So, with two choices and two outcomes, the matrix looks like this (click to enlarge):

Climate change sceptics usually portray the costs of taking action as being excessive, and (logically from their sceptical position) having no benefit. But this isn’t right. Most of the actions taken to reduce emission also reduce energy demand, so have financial pay-offs in the short-term, and reduce the problems caused by increasingly tight energy resources over the medium term.

As a result, the pay-offs from the matrix of doing something are always better than doing nothing. Of course, as a 2×2, the matrix implies that it’s as likely that the climate science is right as it is wrong, and also that we’re as likely to do something as not to. Neither of these is true. The likelihood of the climate change science being right is at least 95%, and probably higher; the likelihood of us doing something effective is probably no more than 40%, and that’s probably optimistic, judging by the politicking about Copenhagen and elsewhere. So the chances of ending up in the top right quadrant – with the rapid warming of the planet and all the grim consequences that follow from it – is comfortably more than half.

Thanks to Maree Conway for the prompt. The picture of Pascal is from Wikimedia Commons and is used under a Creative Commons licence,

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3 Responses

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  1. jonolan said, on 8 December, 2009 at 9:15 pm

    You’ve got part of it wrong. The costs of doing what seems to be wanted by the Warmists is staggering to the populations of every developed nation.

    Even, if the planet is warming and even if Man is a significant cause of it, the methods of supposed remediation are ridiculously costly and are often not based upon any rational model.

  2. thenextwavefutures said, on 8 December, 2009 at 9:53 pm


    The Stern Review’s original estimate was 1% of GDP per year, and was later raised to 2% per year on the basis that climate change was accelerating. But that investment is not all cost to the economy, since it would increase resilience and reduce exposure of economies to swings in oil prices. We won’t have a sense of how valuable that is until we know how tight the oil markets will be, or how limited reserves actually are (but the overwhelming view is that reserves are tighter than has generally been thought). And there is quite a high likelihood that this investment will create new forms of innovation. Do you have other data or evidence?


  3. jonolan said, on 9 December, 2009 at 1:51 am

    I can look at the required loss of jobs in the current energy sector – not the direct job loss, but the infrastructural job loss. Think of the loss of the coal miners for a start.

    Think of the increased energy costs and how that will effect both business – especially small business (80% of the American job market) and consumerism. Then ask yourself how much more of a hit in those areas can our economy accommodate.

    You see there’s more to the costs involved than just the raw GDP figures. There’s what segments of the economy will be hit by those costs and what the “ripple effects” will likely be.

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