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Pascal’s Wager on Climate

Published on July 11, 2012 by: in: Society

Climate changes are dependent on many different factors that are beyond our control, it is impossible to formulate any predictions and especially to project any climate changes. We have no influence on long-term trends and looking at this problem from our human perspective – thus shortened to just a few hundred years concerns us greatly. Regardless of all the doubts, however, I see the point in trying to reduce CO2 emissions and in paying greater attention to the environment. Perhaps we overestimate the negative consequences of global warming caused by the global economy, but the price of making the mistake, in the event of complete failure at applying any protective measures, would be incredibly high. This is reminiscent of the famous Pascal’s wager on the existence of God.

When you want to think seriously about the problem of global warming, you should begin with a real doubt. It is not about what science has already found – empirically proven increase in the emission of carbon dioxide and our contribution to its alarmingly high concentration in the atmosphere. This is certainly true since the times of the Industrial Revolution. If you look closely at the long-run results of climatological studies, the assessment of the current situation, however, will depend on the chosen time scale. The climate is dynamic and over thousands of years has changed independently of human activity. The history of climate change seems to be a big sine wave, which illustrates an interweaving of the periods of high and low temperatures. The same applies to the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. Research in the areas of current glaciation shows a history of periods of high CO2 concentration completely independent from the anthropogenic impact. We do not know at what place of the sine wave we are now. However, our impact on the climate evolution is limited. Climate changes are in fact dependent on many different factors that are beyond our control, it is impossible to formulate any predictions and especially to project climate changes. We have no influence on long-term trends and looking at this problem from our human perspective – thus shortened to just a few hundred years concerns us greatly.

picture: Philippe 2009

Regardless of all the doubts, however, I see the point in attempts to reduce the emission of CO2 and in greater attention for the environment. Perhaps we overestimate the negative consequences of global warming that are caused by the global economy, but the price of making this mistake, in the event of complete failure at applying any protective measures, would be incredibly high. This is reminiscent of the famous Pascal’s wager on the existence of God. When one wants to transform that model of thinking onto the problems of climate change, he should bear something in mind: if our efforts to reduce the effects of climate change are only visible in the short term, it is also worth trying to hold back processes which effects appear to be highly undesirable. Climate change scientists have specific knowledge of the consequences of global warming, which are primarily the loss of land, desertification and imbalance in many ecosystems.

It should be noted that in spite of the common opinion, changes caused by global warming are not exclusively negative. Some places such as Bangladesh – may be flooded, which creates a dramatic situation where millions of poor people will have to move somewhere else. On the other hand, areas like Canada and Siberia could be used for agricultural purposes. Therefore, one needs to talk about striking a balance and if, however, it seems to be negative, it is because the costs of adjustment to dramatically changing environment in a relatively short time were unacceptably high. Changes cost, especially if they are suddenly forced by environmental, social and economic factors. Therefore, we must trust Pascal and remember that although some preventive measures costs may be questionable, they probably will not be as high as the costs associated with the losses and disasters that happen if we stop fighting against climate changes caused by the human activity.

The problem of money is less clear than it might seem. First, the image issue should be taken into account – among citizens, as well as the international community. It is now in good taste to care about the environment and in the spirit of sustainable development, care not only for the welfare of its citizens but also for the welfare of humanity and even future generations. Most of the world’s countries – with the exception of superpowers such as the United States and China – must take that into consideration. European Union countries are at the forefront of ‘political correctness’ in the field of environmental protection. The issue of image seems to be too trivial to devote it too much attention and money. The second aspect of the costs of the environmental protection, including the actions against climate change is worth mentioning here. The richest European countries like Germany do not work altruistically. Their actions are the result of cold calculation: frugal energy exploitation leads to increased efficiency and productivity of the economy and it is objectively beneficial for socio-economic development. The relationship between low greenhouse gas emissions and energy savings is obvious. Thus, the actions that bring about the transformation of energy market are a major step towards modernization of the economy. The improved, cost-effective and efficient economy will allow countries like Germany to gain competitive advantage over other countries in the international market.

Modernization changes are not carried out ​​at low cost. Not without meaning is the time and internal (level of economic development) and external circumstances (state of the world economy). Therefore, when it comes to the Polish veto on the costs connected with the climate policy, I can understand it, although I have serious doubts about the real motivation of decision makers. Poland is trying to defend its own interests, because we do not accept the rate and method of changing the energy market by reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases. We are not pleased with the pace and scale of projects suggested by subsequent international agreements. It seems that those commitments are written for the economies richer and more advanced than ours, which forces our country to pay relatively higher costs. Indeed the majority of post-communist countries of the ‘new’ European Union are in a similar situation. All those countries bore considerable expenses so as to meet the environmental standards of the European Union. Apparently, someone in the Polish government came to the conclusion that from our point of view, devoting significant funds that could be otherwise used, to the environmental aspects of climate, is too burdensome for us. Arguments of this kind may be a subject of a scientific debate. Nevertheless, I would be disappointed if the veto was motivated by opposition just for the sake of it or rejecting the proposal on the principle: does it even matter if we limit our emissions, since others (China or the U.S.) will not do that, and our effort will not lead to achievement of the effects on a global scale.

The justification built on the futility of money spent on reducing the emissions by a group of ambitious countries cannot withstand a confrontation with what has been said about the modernization of the economy. It is inaccurate and naive, because, in part, it would suggest that countries such as Germany make large-scale changes in the energy sector, with a large use of renewable energy, just to please the ‘green’ voters. To me their ambitions go further and are an expression of strategic thinking. They have chosen such a development model that will allow them to be the strongest player in the global economy. Modernized, low-energy technologies that use renewable energy sources will increase energy efficiency and independence from the external sources. The environmental protection, including the global climate, attracts quite a group of voters and it also builds a positive image of the country on the international arena, but it is also in fact somewhat more positive side effect of strategic modernization of the economy and it raises its competitiveness.

The modernization of the economy in terms of energy efficiency improvement is not the leading topic in Poland. You can even get the impression that people go for shortcuts. They speak more often about nuclear power plants. The problem with the debate around that issue lies in the fact that the positions ‘for’ and ‘against’ are very often strongly dogmatized. Personally I would understand an expert that would start  the discussion with a question: whether we already used all the energy reserves – insulating homes, improving the transmission network and generally speaking minimizing energy losses from the point of energy production to sending it up to its use in households and businesses. If the expert would be able to convince me that these reserves have been exhausted and it is certain that in the coming decades, the economy will continue to develop dynamically, which after all requires extra energy, then I would see the sense in a dialogue on building nuclear power plants. I regret that the social debate is negligible and the arguments associated with the risk, location and cost move away  the basic question: are we sure that in the near future, the balance between energy and energy security has no alternative and the construction of the nuclear power plant in our country is necessary?

In summary, adaptation is the key today – a fashionable word that is increasingly used in international debates on the issue of climate change. On the one hand, it is an adaptation to climate anomalies and their effects, which we are not able to shape according to our will. I have mentioned Pascal’s logic suggests that just in case it is better to assume that within a short period we have some impact on global warming and to behave better so that we do not have to pay for the unfavorable changes in the environment. On the other hand, adaptation can also be understood as a rational and purposeful use of funds in the field of climate policy to encourage innovation in technology, modernization of the economy and to raise its competitiveness. It is important to remind our partners in the European Union, whose economies are developing with the use of other energy sources than ours, that in formulating the requirements of the ambitious climate policy, they must take into account our conditions resulting from economic development and traditionally exploited stocks of coal.

Translation: Martyna Kozik

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About Jerzy Sleszynski

An associate professor in the Division of Information Systems and Economic Analysis of the Department of Economic Sciences at the University of Warsaw.

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