IPE Views: Is Pascal the solution to climate change?

IPE contributing editor Joseph Mariathasan applies Pascal’s Wager to the climate change debate

As an ex-physicist, I am always interested to read about the scientific basis for global warming. But I must admit, once you remove the dogmatists who argue either for or against the phenomenon on the basis of emotions rather than facts, it can be difficult to get absolute certainty either way. Since I read that the majority of climate scientists believes the evidence for global warming is strong, then I have to accept that is likely to be the case. Personally, I am happy to accept this logic, but even if I were not, I always think of the French mathematician Blaise Pascal’s arguments for behaviour in the absence of definitive proof for the existence of God. The same arguments can be made for climate change.

Pascal’s Wager can be expressed as a set of outcomes arising from living your life in different ways: If you live your life in accordance with the belief God does exist, and you are right, you will be rewarded with eternal life in Heaven and thus an infinite gain. If you live your life with the view God does not exist, when in fact there is a God, you will be condemned forever in the afterlife and hence suffer an infinite loss.

On the other hand, if you live your life with the belief there is a God, and in fact God does not exist, there will be no reward and, as a result, a finite loss in terms of presumably illicit pleasures foregone. Finally, if you live your life with the view God does not exist, and you are proved right, you would have just a finite gain through your life but no infinite gain or infinite punishment. More simply, if one behaved as though there were no God, but it turned out to be wrong, then for the sake of just a finite cost, you have missed out on eternal happiness.

If you replace God with the idea of climate change in Pascal’s Wager, the argument is clear. If climate change does not exist, and humanity acts as though it does, there will be a cost entailed, but it is finite and can be absorbed relatively easily. If, on the other hand, climate change does exist, and humanity behaves as though it does not, then the temperature rise will lead to global calamity and possibly an infinite loss, which could have been averted for a modest cost.

The issue then moves away from any requirement to obtaining absolute certainty there is climate change arising from increased carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. Instead, there can be an acceptance that absolute certainty may never be achieved, as in proving the existence of God. In which case, the issue is how should mankind respond in the face of the pay-off profiles for action and for inaction as described. Clearly, if a modest cost can avert a possibly infinite loss, that should be the path chosen.

The real issues, then, revolve around the implications of adopting strategies that would reduce climate change effects. For example, what should poor countries such as those in sub-Saharan Africa do for energy if they have abundant fossil fuels that are now being demonised? Alternatives such as wind, solar and hydro-electric are expensive and currently do not have the capacity to produce the energy required to generate the GDP growth that could, as in Asia, lift them out of poverty. 

Whilst the extreme wing of the climate change warriors may argue it is the idea of economic growth that is at fault, and therefore growth expectations should be reduced if they are based on carbon dioxide-producing energy sources, the populations of countries still struggling to lift themselves out of poverty are unlikely to agree. 

Unfortunately, Pascal does not appear to have an answer to the question of how GDP growth could be increased in poor countries without increasing global warming. Instead, the solution may be a combination of lower-cost alternative energy sources such as photo-voltaic solar cells combined with cheaper and more effective industrial-scale batteries. If that combination were ever able to transform the energy supplies in the sunbelts of the tropics, it would truly be a miracle, although even Pascal may agree it would not prove the existence of God.

Joseph Mariathasan is a contributing editor at IPE

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