Pascal's Wager and Climate Change

Every time I blog or tweet something about climate change, a raft of climate change skeptics come out of the woodwork. For example, this morning on twitter, I pointed to new White House science advisor John Holdren’s excellent talk on climate disruption and got responses like this one from Andrew Riley:
“I assume you’re passing this on in an attempt to make a case for the global warming cult.”
Chris Lockwood wrote that “global warming is a hoax spread by socialists and those who profit from it.”

To be sure, there were also people pointing to reports of global cooling in an attempt at actual debate. I started to respond to individual points, but in the end, I don’t think data will persuade anyone who is so strongly convinced that global warming is a hoax. After all, the history of science shows us that even the top scientists in a field can be wrong, and those who argue against the reality of global warming can always fall back on that premise.

In my talks I’ve argued that climate change provides us with a modern version of Pascal’s wager: if catastrophic global warming turns out not to happen, the steps we’d take to address it are still worthwhile. Given that there’s even a reasonable risk of disruptive climate change, any sensible person should decide to act. It’s insurance. The risk of your house burning down is small, yet you carry homeowner’s insurance; you don’t expect to total your car, but you know that the risk is there, and again, most people carry insurance; you don’t expect catastrophic illness to strike you down, but again, you invest in insurance.

We don’t need to be 100% sure that the worst fears of climate scientists are correct in order to act. All we need to think about are the consequences of being wrong.

Let’s assume for a moment that there is no human-caused climate change, or that the consequences are not dire, and we’ve made big investments to avert it. What’s the worst that happens? In order to deal with climate change:

  1. We’ve made major investments in renewable energy. This is an urgent issue even in the absence of global warming, as the IEA has now revised the date of “peak oil” to 2020, only 11 years from now.
  2. We’ve invested in a potent new source of jobs. This is a far better source of stimulus than some of the ideas that have been proposed.
  3. We’ve improved our national security by reducing our dependence on oil from hostile or unstable regions.
  4. We’ve mitigated the enormous “off the books” economic losses from pollution. (China recently estimated these losses as 10% of GDP.) We currently subsidize fossil fuels in dozens of ways, by allowing power companies, auto companies, and others to keep environmental costs “off the books,” by funding the infrastructure for autos at public expense while demanding that railroads build their own infrastructure, and so on.
  5. We’ve renewed our industrial base, investing in new industries rather than propping up old ones. Climate critics like Bjorn Lomborg like to cite the cost of dealing with global warming. But the costs are similar to the “costs” incurred by record companies in the switch to digital music distribution, or the costs to newspapers implicit in the rise of the web. That is, they are costs to existing industries, but ignore the opportunities for new industries that exploit the new technology. I have yet to see a convincing case made that the costs of dealing with climate change aren’t principally the costs of protecting old industries.

By contrast, let’s assume that the climate skeptics are wrong. We face the displacement of millions of people, droughts, floods and other extreme weather, species loss, and economic harm that will make us long for the good old days of the current financial industry meltdown.

It really is like Pascal’s wager. On one side, the worst outcome is that we’ve built a more robust economy. On the other side, the worst outcome really is hell. In short, we do better if we believe in climate change and act on that belief, even if we turned out to be wrong.

  • Michael Harrison

    A related argument was made by a civil engineer friend of mine a while back: is anyone willing to sell you climate change insurance? Probably not. Why not? Because they’re scared of the risk and potential cost. If no one will sell you insurance against something, you probably ought to be seriously worried about it.

  • I don’t think global warming is a hoax, I just don’t think that scientists are rationally looking at/considering enough data.

    REGARDLESS of where I stand in the global warming debate, one thing is certain: we do need to take care of the world which has been entrusted to us. Even if global warming /is/ proven to be fallacious, we are using many of our resources in so many inefficient ways, it’s sad. We choose laziness and bickering over careful thought and study and humility.

  • Amen!

    I am almost finished reading Thomas Friedman’s “The World is Hot,Flat, and Crowded” book, which is 400+ pages of interviews, facts, and intelligent dialogue on what he calls “global weirding.”

    It’s clear that the clock is ticking, especially as the world “flattens” and more countries modernize and require fuel to do so. Unfortunately, they are following in our footsteps with oil and coal dependencies. This will exponentially increase the rate of global weirding and the devastating changes and losses. We must become a model for innovation and set an example for the rest of the world.

  • Brian John

    Tim, your argument makes sense to the extent that the 5 benefits you discuss actually come to pass, and in an economic way. I think this is not a foregone conclusion, even if those calling for the changes get everything they want. I suspect many skeptics consider the plans to deal with the consequences of global warming to be a money sink, and a risky destabilization of industries that are proven to work. So it then becomes a question of: if all these benefits don’t materialize, and we damage our economy, and global warming doesn’t happen, was it really such an easy wager?

  • Peter Fleckenstein


    I’m not here to tell you or anyone else that global warming, cooling, or climate change occurs. In fact I categorically state here that climate change does occur as it has for MILLIONS of years.

    The feedback you get from others is the false notion that climate change is caused by man.

    Is man responsible as stewards and conservationists of the earth? Absolutely. However no man should have the right to impose the absurdity of MAN-made global warming on another man so as to generate profits, taxes, and oppressive restrictions due to a hoax.

    Carbon offsets is a prime example. What is it offsetting? The pollution has already occured. No man can stop it. Al Gore talks and talks but the walk he does is with his private jets, his ENORMOUS carbon footprint. His carbon offsets will do nothing to eliminate the pollution he’s already spewed into the air.

    Climate change? Yes as has always been for millions of years.

    Man-made global warming – No as has always been for millions of years.

  • I wish investments were always so harmless. Consider this story from very recent history:

    1. There is huge pressure to invest in renewable energy sources that avoid fossil carbon emissions.

    2. Many U.S. states legislate a minimum ethanol content in gasoline.

    3. The U.S. government implements subsidies and trade protection to encourage domestic ethanol production.

    4. Farmers switch from human food crops to corn for ethanol, increasing the monoculture tendencies of U.S. agriculture.

    5. World food prices shoot up, causing serious hunger and food riots in developing countries.

    6. When the first studies come in, they show that producing and distributing ethanol in the U.S. actually puts more carbon (from fossil sources) into the atmosphere than simply burning fossil fuels in their place (that doesn’t apply to ethanol from Brazil, but then there’s that trade-barrier thing).

    Fortunately, food prices have died down a bit with the recession, but here’s a real, recent example where well-intentioned environmental investments actually made things much, much worse in every sense. There are other similar examples, such as hybrid cars or refillable bottles, which sometimes cause more environmental damage than they prevent.

    There is no such thing as a risk-free investment anywhere, even in the environment. And by the way, Pascal was wrong about his wager: what if there is a god, but he chose to believe in the wrong one?

  • Joe Bella

    I’ve made this argument before on various forums, and unsurprisingly it never seems to sway climate change skeptics. I’ve come to the conclusion that, especially on the internet where every nutball has the ability to kick up a lot of dust, it’s not worth trying to convince them with any kind of logic. It’s like the people who insist that Obama was not born in the United States despite the fact that

    – he posted his copy of the certificate of live birth on the his web site, and went to his campaign office and verified it has all the characteristics of an authentic document.,

    – the secretrary of vital statics in Hawaii verified they had the original birth certificate and that it was authentic.

    – A newspaper clipping announcing his birth in a local hospital was found, ironically by someone who was trying to prove his foreign birth.

    The standard of reasonable proof has been met and exceeded, and yet it’s not too difficult to find people that are willing to believe the most outlandish theories to discount the proof. (Obama’s grandparents knew he might want to run for president so they bought the birth announcement in a local hawaii paper)

    If you can’t convince people of validity of a well documented birth, how are we ever going to convince them of something as complex as global climate change?

    I take comfort in the fact that the majority of the people are not so unreasonable, and it is not necessary to convince everyone.

  • I agree and would add:

    – improves our trade balance by reducing oil imports

    – provides a more decentralized power generation system that is less prone to problems, failures or tampering

    – spurs innovation likely resulting in long term energy cost reductions (costs go up in the short term)

    – results in more small businesses, which are the drivers of employment and economic growth

  • Finally, someone who makes sense of how or should I say what a response to global warming on how it would affect the proverbial Main St.

    What your post says makes a perfect win-win situation. We must reduce our dependence on foreign and domestic oil. There is only a finite supply of oil and we are getting closer and closer to the end of that supply, whether it is in 10,20 or 50 years, it is coming.

    The stimulus package is going to include environmental/energy proposals that will help to decrease this dependence.

    This is something that the next administration plans to do anyway, so if it helps our environment it only helps us. But if we do nothing and keep doing what we are doing, even if we are wrong about global warming, our Country will be facing even worse economic and social woes.

    So go for the win-win solution, it won’t cost us anymore than what we are doing today.


  • Tim, excellent post.

    I’ve found it most valuable in recent years to stop talking about global warming or climate change, and instead talk about the other, more direct and observable impacts of our carbon economy.

    Our transportation, agriculture, and material consumption (plastics) are utterly dependent on sucking oil out of the ground, processing it, and burning it. That oil is finite, increasingly scarce, and also increasingly in demand. Domestically, we have a relatively small amount of it (optimistically, enough to meet our needs for 10 years or so) buried below our coastlines, so going after that is like spending all your emergency savings. Even turning on those drills would barely dent our $300B+ annual transfer to foreign countries (some of which sponsor terrorism or neo-communism) for their oil.

    Additionally, our energy production is highly dependent on coal, a highly abundant mineral whose processing takes an enormous environmental toll. (See the recent coal ash spill in Tennessee, or mountaintop removal in WV.)

    Regardless of whether you think carbon emissions are enabling or expediting climate change, we should all agree that moving beyond hydrocarbons will benefit us in the long run. What we spend “on the books” should be more than offset by savings from less pollution and less borrowing.

  • mahboud

    It will probably come as no surprise that those who oppose action on the matter of Global Climate Change, seem to have no problem with billions spent on wars or weapons, or the fact that funded opposition to the facts of Global Climate Change comes from industries who don’t want to clean up their act in order to preserve their not-so-modest profits.

    And yet, it’s ironic when they utter “global warming is a hoax spread by socialists and those who profit from it.” If anything, the hoax being spread by the naysayers is meant to preserve the outrageous profits that are being enjoyed by industries that are raping the Earth of its resources.

    It shouldn’t be hard to see that working to prevent or stall Global Climate Change, does not profit individuals (monetarily), in the same way the defense or oil industries profit from damaging the ecosystem. While some industries will have to burden a higher cost in order to keep our environment live-able, that only seems fair, as they inflict the biggest negative impact on the environment. And of course, the biggest windfall of working to halt Climate Change is increased employment, which is a good thing, unless our conservative and naysaying friend would rather have employment be a privilege reserved for the very rich – after all, if everyone had a job, it must be socialism, no?

  • R James

    There are other things happen. For example :

    Developed countries will reduce CO2 emission at great cost, destroying their economy, while industry is forced to re-locate to China and India where efficiency is lower. The net result is an increase in CO2 emissions. Unless all nations, and particularly the high population nations – India and China – work to the same standards, there will be no progress.

    The real damage risk for the future is exponential population growth.

  • Frank Ch. Eigler

    Tim, your theory may be more convincing
    if it were to avoid the broken window
    fallacy (of assuming that “investment”
    mandated by statute comes without the
    opportunity cost of that capital spent
    voluntarily elsewhere).

  • Frank Ch. Eigler –

    I’m not sure I see your “investment mandated by statute” in play here, or at least not more than:

    * gas taxes mandated to pay for roads, thus creating a hidden subsidy for the automobile vs mass transit like railroads

    * deductibility of home mortgages subsidizing the building industry

    * low capital gains taxes on passive investments favoring the financial economy over the hands-on economy

    * virtually free oil and gas leases subsidizing oil companies, helping to make a non-renewable resource appear nearly “free” to those consuming it.

    etc. We’re already making distortive subsidies. The question is whether we can do better.

    FWIW, there’s an awful lot of voluntary capital going towards cleantech. But there are some major areas where govt investment (or taxes that reflect the true costs of the existing energy system) can make a difference in usage patterns.

  • Tim: I agree with you on a lot of those subsidies — more examples of how dangerous it is for governments to use investments for social engineering.

    As far as capital gains are concerned, however, you do have to consider double taxation — the companies get taxed on their earnings first, indirectly taxing the shareholders who own it, then the shareholders get taxed directly a second time if those retained earnings increase the value of the company. It’s only fair that the capital gains tax rate be a bit lower, to compensate.

    As for “passive economy” vs “hands-on economy”, you know yourself that many people (often the majority) at a software company don’t actually make anything at all — think management, support staff, sales, marketing, accounting, etc. — while any developer at Reuters or Bloomberg would take huge offense at being called “passive”, with the kinds of mind-boggling systems they build and manage. “Passive” or “hands-on” is a function of the job, not the industry.

  • Tim, this is the best reason I’ve seen for believing in global warming. I wouldn’t say that I’m a skeptic but I do get nervous anytime I see everyone jumping onto the same bus. It either means that it’s almost certainly right…or wrong.

    But you’re right: the downside is that we have fuel-efficient cars, better mass transit, etc. Not much of a downside.

    However, the downside to the argument is that there are many, many things that fit this Pascal’s Wager argument. I’m Christian, but perhaps at the risk of ‘burning in hell’ I should convert to Judaism? Not much downside there, either. :-)

    In short, I think it’s a good argument and I buy your rationale. But I think that same rationale can be widely applied, and probably not for causes or in ways that you’d recommend.

  • TA

    It’s an argument I have seen before. “What’s wrong with a little hyperbole, as long as the outcome is positive”? A believe a Canadian official recently said the same thing. It’s the same kind of thinking that Bush used when he pitched the Iraq war. “Freeing” the Iraqi people was a positive ambition and all he had to do was massage the truth a bit.

    Before you jump on me and say that the downside of the Iraq war was death and radically altering the lifestyles of millions. I too say the potential results of this is the death of thousands and radically changing the lives of millions of people.

    By encouraging areas of the world (and regions of certain countries) to not engage in industry is to deny them the ability to survive when (not if) disaster strikes. History has shown that the poorest countries/areas suffer the largest amount of casualties when weather conditions change (and they still will .. no matter how much less carbon we expel). When we start paying poor governments (local, state, national) to trade their share of “carbon allotment” you are essentially discouraging them to grow and build. We’ve seen the debilitating effects of welfare (both personal and corporate) and what it does to the motivation of human beings and this will be no different.

    You pretend as if America has not made significant strides in enviromental protection, recycling and alternative fuels in the past 3 decades. All of that went on without this bogeyman that Hansen and Gore have created.

    Just because someone is not convinced that we have enough understanding of the planets climate to determine if a small window of 50 years indicates a definite “trend”. Just because someone bristles at people that tell you “There is no other side” or that we have “4 years left to do something”. Doesn’t mean they are an enemy of science or the environment. In fact, I would say those are the people you should pay closer attention to.

    Those are the kind of people that could have prevented us from going to war in Iraq or handing 700 billion dollars over to banks in the course of 4 days.

  • This is the problem with Pascal’s wager: not only are the climate “skeptics” dead wrong about the greenhouse gas effect and global warming (the science of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere serving as a greenhouse gas was well established by Svante Arrhenius in 1896, so there is no valid argument that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere does not cause global warming), but:

    “We underestimated the risks … we underestimated the damage associated with temperature increases … and we underestimated the probabilities of temperature increases.” — Sir Nicholas Stern, author of “The Stern Report,” April 17, 2008

    In other words, the wager is being mispercieved as an argument between global warming yes or no, instead of how sensative the climate is to elevated greenhouse gas levels. If a person with the resources of Sir Stern underestimated the risks, how can we expect politicians to understand how dire the situation really is?

    “Few seem to realise that the present IPCC models predict almost unanimously that by 2040 the average summer in Europe will be as hot as the summer of 2003 when over 30,000 died from heat. By then we may cool ourselves with air conditioning and learn to live in a climate no worse than that of Baghdad now. But without extensive irrigation the plants will die and both farming and natural ecosystems will be replaced by scrub and desert. What will there be to eat? The same dire changes will affect the rest of the world and I can envisage Americans migrating into Canada and the Chinese into Siberia but there may be little food for any of them.” –Dr James Lovelock’s lecture to the Royal Society, 29 Oct. ’07

    “Ultimately, responding to global warming is a political issue.” –Lorrie Goldstein, Sun, 16 March 2008

    “What I learned in the past few years is that politicians often adopt convenient policies that can be shown to be inconsistent with long-term success, given readily available scientific data and empirical information on policy impacts.” –Dr Jim Hansen, NASA

  • Suppose we buy into the Pascal’s wager argument and decide to take steps to minimize the risk of catastrophic global warming. My question is how can you take steps to avoid WHAT WE HAVE ALREADY DONE?

    Here is what Climate Code Red says:

    –Human emissions have so far produced a global average temperature increase of 0.8 degree C.

    –There is another 0.6 degree C. to come due to “thermal inertia”, or lags in the system, taking the total long-term global warming induced by human emissions so far to 1.4 degree C.

    –If human total emissions continue as they are to 2030 (and don’t increase 60% as projected) this would likely add more than 0.4 degrees C. to the system in the next two decades, taking the long-term effect by 2030 to at least 1.7 degrees C. (A 0.3 degree C. increase is predicted for the period 2004-2014 alone by Smith, Cusack et al, 2007).

    –Then add the 0.3 degree C. albedo flip effect from the now imminent loss of the Arctic sea ice, and the rise in the system by 2030 is at least 2 degree. C, assuming very optimistically that emissions don’t increase at all above their present annual rate! When we consider the potential permafrost releases and the effect of carbon sinks losing capacity, we are on the road to a hellish future, not for what we will do, but WHAT WE HAVE ALREADY DONE.

    By the way, (according to the IPCC) the average temperature has been increasing at the rate of 0.2 C/decade for the last two decades:

    ‘Leemans and Eickhout (2004) found that adaptive capacity decreases rapidly with an increasing rate of climate change. Their study finds that five percent of all ecosystems cannot adapt more quickly than 0.1 C per decade over time. Forests will be among the ecosystems to experience problems first because their ability to migrate to stay within the climate zone they are adapted to is limited. If the rate is 0.3 C per decade, 15 percent of ecosystems will not be able to adapt. If the rate should exceed 0.4 C per decade, all ecosystems will be quickly destroyed, opportunistic species will dominate, and the breakdown of biological material will lead to even greater emissions of CO2. This will in turn increase the rate of warming’ –Leemans and Eickhout (2004), ‘Another reason for concern: regional and global impacts on ecosystems for different levels of climate change,’ Global Environmental Change 14, 219–228

    ‘There is no linear predictability in terms of how ecosystems respond. The phenomena of collapse is one that we have under-appreciated, partly because of the feed-back mechanisms that we are still trying to understand.’ –Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Programme, Oct. ’07

    “The alternative (to geoengineering) is the acceptance of a massive natural cull of humanity and a return to an Earth that freely regulates itself but in the hot state.” –Dr James Lovelock, August 2008

  • @R James: With oil prices and cost of power so high in India, we’ve evolved to be stingy on their use, relatively speaking. Also, middle class consumption in India doesn’t scale as much as it does in the US with economic growth.

  • R James

    Sundar – what about population growth? We’ll never get on top of emissions while population keeps increasing.

  • Tim: excellent post. The essence of weather and climate “intelligence.”

    Assuming the hundreds (thousands?) of researchers and millions of $ spent over the past 30+ years were working in good faith (and not part of some “warmist” cabal)it makes logical sense to develop strategies and policies that are in alignment with the predictions.

    All forecasts are built on a foundation of uncertainty. Future plans that are based on predictions need to be probability/scenario-based knowing there is always a risk the predictions may be completely wrong.

    Your point is spot on: what is the greater risk, taking affirmative action to reduce the carbon footprint and being wrong on climate change; or, doing nothing and being right.


    Paul Walsh
    G2 Weather Intelligence

  • jerome

    yesterday, i watched the 12 Angry Men; it really is interesting how it echoes with facing the choice of believing or not in global climate change.

    also: reading things such as “global warming is a hoax spread by socialists and those who profit from it.” could provoke incredible laughs if it wasn’t that sad…

  • There’s a vast global mindset not to fall for the sky is falling theory.

  • Frank Ch. Eigler

    @ Matt Asay [01.19.09 08:36 PM]

    But you’re right: the downside is that we have fuel-efficient cars, better mass transit, etc. Not much of a downside.

    But that’s not the downside. The downside is the dislocation of capital from where it would otherwise go. All that “green investment” has to come from greater taxes and control over all sorts of things. Now, it may still make sense to do some of it (especially if it can be unrolled quickly if the AGW theory crumbles), but one can’t pretend it’s pain-free.

  • First, the qualification of a modern version of Pascal’s Wager is a rabbit in the hat. I trust that means you are heading off to mass today. Pascal’s Wager is insurance for the soul. But what is the economic insurance package for climate change? Any sane person would agree that reducing our negative impact on the planet is an awesome thing. Yesterday I used two paper towels to dry my hands. Then since they were still wet in rubbed them against my shirt. Ok I made a difference. Then when I finished a box of cereal, I felt terribly guilty b/c the pkg’ing was over-sized so I broke it down inside my recycling bin. I felt a little better. Then I loaded my kids bikes in the back of my non-hybrid SUV to ride down at the beach. So I felt guilty again. Every day when I get in the shower, I actually jump while the water is still cold so I don’t waste it b/c I know it’ll warm up soon enough and the shock will do me good. I try to stay in the nice/relaxing hot shower for only a few min’s b/c I don’t deserve any of it (and Barack says we shouldn’t take our hot showers for granted — I don’t). All of these really means that — that I agree with Tim. Pascal’s Wager says whereever we stand (whether climate change is man-made or not), we need to try to mitigate our impact. We’ll never be a closed ecosystem, but it doesn’t mean we don’t try. Today with the inauguration is a great example that we have to never stop trying to improve in our family, locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. That’s the hope.

    Jebb Dykstra

  • Falafulu Fisi

    Tim said…
    anyone who is so strongly convinced that global warming is a hoax

    The debate is about whether global warming is man-made or not and not about if global warming is taking place.

    I have read quite a number of peer review papers in climate numerical modeling (since numerical computing is my domain) from various journals and from what I see, is that it is premature for the UN IPCC to jump into conclusion that man is the culprit. There is increasing number of papers that are being published in the climate science literatures which points out that real observations are inconsistent (by much) with the computer model projections from the IPCC report. In other words, the computer models (ie, its claims) are dodgy.

    There are lot of tech people out there that jump the bandwagon of saving the earth by developing green technologies. In fact there are suckers everywhere who endorse green technologies.

  • I too am concerned that the “Pascal’s Wager” meme is a little too close to “The ends justifies the means”. It is not a forgone conclusion that the development of alternative energy technologies will result in a net benefit. We’ve already seen what a bad choice corn ethanol was in this regard. I also think that this is also in danger of becoming a secular religion – with a hot climate mapping to the Christian hell as a big stick to enforce desired behavior. This isn’t the first time alternative energies have been promoted to support some desired outcome, averting global warming being the latest. We should be well aware that even if we were to generate all our energy from the sun, just the more efficient trapping of energy and converting it to heat via useful work, our atmosphere would heat up if our economic expansion continued on its exponential growth. Alternative energies thus give us a breathing space to plan a “sustainable” economic path.

    Having said that, I have always been hugely tickled by the cleverness of Ray Bradbury’s “The Toynbee Convector”. In that story, a time traveler makes one journey into the future and reports that the future is bright, that the earth’s environmental problems have been solved. As the news media gather to witness his arrival at the appointed time, the traveler admits the his journey was faked. He did it so that people would have hope and as a result the world did make the very bright future they were living in.

  • Lots of non-alarming graphs are here:

  • Richard Nichols

    OK, is the climate warming? I don’t know and having seen the results from the climate models neither does anyone else.

    Should we manage and regulate green house emissions, yes we should.

    My problem with the current dialog is most people turn into screaming fanatics and ignore thoughtful discussion of any ideas that are different from their own. This is on BOTH sides of the argument.

    What worries me is that Cap and Trade/Carbon Credits and going to put a terrible burden on most the the worlds population and allow a few “rich” people to pay a few bucks and keep polluting at the level they always have.

    And then there are the people that have arranged these schemes so they and their friends can get rich.

    So control the emissions, make a system where everyone suffers equally and no one can “offset” their polluting ways and pretend they care. A system that is fair to all is the only system that will actually work.

  • Ronaldo

    I have to agree with those who have cited the perverse consequences of subsidies to biofuels. For more information, see the in-depth reports (which can be freely downloaded) from the Global Subsidies Initiative:

  • steps we’d take to address it are still worthwhile.

    Not if the costs to businesses drive more jobs overseas.

    Not if the costs of it prevent Americans from saving for college and retirement.

    Not if the costs of it are going to solutions that don’t solve it (ie, windmills and solar panels).

    Check the global warming tags on the Orange Punch blog. (Just google for the site link).

  • muckdog –

    Those are awfully big “ifs” with little or no data to support them.

    * Raising fuel taxes by a huge amount would still leave us one of the countries with the lowest transportation fuel costs in the world

    * If Americans wanted to save for retirement, we might well have thought about that before encouraging them to consume, consume, consume.

    * Wind is becoming extremely competitive; solar is getting there.


    I didn’t see anything but hot air on the Orange Punch blog. Not a lot of substantial data to support your assertions.

  • Ronaldo –

    Virtually everyone I know in energy thinks that corn-based ethanol was totally a disaster. Cellulosic ethanol from waste makes more sense, if we can get it to work.

    The key point is that the government seems to have made a quick recovery from that mistake.

    From conversations I’ve had with transition staffers, the Obama administration is pretty clear that biofuels is not the way forward.

    In any event, debating specific approaches isn’t the point. The point is to stop distortive subsidies for carbon-based technologies, which make them appear cheaper than they actually are. Then let the marketplace decide what to replace them with, when they are showing their true costs.

  • Tim, This type of argument is often called minimizing regret.

    For example, in scenario planning as described in this SALT talk by RAND’s James Dewar (scroll down to Feb 02004).

    And in the report “Climate Adaptation: Risk, Uncertainty and Decision-making” (pdf) from the UK Climate Impacts Program.

  • Ronaldo

    The key point is that the government seems to have made a quick recovery from that mistake.

    Huh? come again? In December 2007 Congress (including Obama, I believe) voted to substantially increase the so-called Renewable Fuels Standard, doubling by 2015 (to 15 billion gallons a year) the previous mandated maximum level of corn ethanol. And the mandate calls for that level to continue through at least 2022. That does not sound to me like the government “making a quick recovery from that mistake.”

    Currently, the corn-ethanol industry, facing the double squeeze of low gasoline prices and high corn prices, is bleeding red ink. It has asked for a $1 billion in short-term assistance from the federal government, and $50 billion in loan guarantees, so that it can keep on expanding. Judging from the performance of the Senate over the last 30 years (recall that at least 38 preside over corn-growing states), we can expect that the special pleading of the ethnol industry will be heard by sympathetic ears.

    I hope you are write and that “the Obama administration is pretty clear that biofuels is not the way forward.” That would be very surprising indeed, given his Cabinet appointments, many of which have been enthusiastic ethanol boosters.

  • Ronaldo

    Cellulosic ethanol makes more sense if we can get it to work

    Well, we’ve been working on it for several decades. And, even now, it is struggling to get started, despite government grants and loan guarantees for the construction of new plants, the prospect of a $1.01 per gallon federal tax credit on the ethanol it produces (not to mention mandates, and various state-level subsidies), and a $0.54 per gallon import tariff to protect it from cheaper Brazilian ethanol.

    But will there be the biomass there to feed all those bright, shiny cellulosic ethanol plants? Some analysts think there has been some double-counting, with both the biomass-electricity industry and the budding wood-fueled cellulosic ethanol industry laying claim to the same feedstocks. See the the recent report by RISI:

  • December 2007 is an era away…

  • ttrygve

    “the history of science shows us that even the top scientists in a field can be wrong, and those who argue against the reality of global warming can always fall back on that premise.”

    Sure, but that in no way helps their argument. That a large group of disparate people are *capable* of being wrong is obvious. But it, of course, doesn’t follow that they *are* wrong, let alone that certain opponents of theirs are right.

    And to the deniers that argue it’s not human caused: so what? Asteroid impacts aren’t typically human caused either, but they’re still a huge potential threat.

  • Ronaldo

    December 2007 is an era away…

    Ah, come on, Tim. That’s a cop-out line. You claim that Congress — which is the body that matters — has turned its back on (corn) ethanol. Having made that claim, you have to provide some evidence … something more than a “feeling”. Otherwise, 30 years of Congressional support for ethanol trumps any hunch you might have.

  • leonard

    Hi Muck, from a euro perspective:

    Not if the costs to businesses drive more jobs overseas.
    – Because business is doing real well at the moment? The jobs will be going overseas – to countries that are ahead of the US on the energy efficiency.

    Not if the costs of it prevent Americans from saving for college and retirement. Retire to what?

    Not if the costs of it are going to solutions that don’t solve it (ie, windmills and solar panels).
    Some EU countries can already produce 30% of their energy needs from renewables.

    Keep buying that A-rab oil and eating you burgers now, y’all hear?

  • “The debate is about whether global warming is man-made or not and not about if global warming is taking place.”

    Forgive me for asking but why so? Why is it not a problem if the climate change is a natural phenomena? Surely climate change will be no less devastating if it occurs naturally.

    So, is the argument that the carbon emissions have no impact on climate change and reducing it will not help? Or is it the case that climate change skeptics don’t agree that there is any change that is a threat man-made or otherwise?

    Should we not frame the discussion whether or not there is a threat and if there is one, what we can do about it, rather than arguing about who’s to blame. What am I missing?

    Also, what is the climate change skeptics argument to minimize the dependency on oil, which is clearly a problem independent of climate change argument. Is the oil dependency argument not enough even by itself to invest in alternative energy sources (as stated by many)?

    Green investment has several independent benefit tracks. If there is an argument against it, the argument also needs to address each of these tracks (what the alternative is). I can find arguments against each of the tracks individually but cannot find a more unified alternative policy/philosophy to “going green”. What is the alternative? Any pointers would be much appreciated.

  • @R James: That’s a valid point. But, do you imply that the rate of population growth will increase in India and China, if we take the measures advocated by Tim? If not, isn’t that besides the point? And, I think there’s significant deceleration in population growth rate in India. I believe you’d appreciate the fact that population growth rate shouldn’t come down drastically lest it will cause an increase in dependency ration ( See and )

  • Falafulu Fisi

    Berkay said…
    So, is the argument that the carbon emissions have no impact on climate change and reducing it will not help.

    Reducing carbon emissions will help reduce the dirty air in our atmosphere, however if global warming is natural and not man-made (where the published scientific evidence of this in recent time is mounting), man can’t do a damn thing to stop the warming and the pending disasters. We might as well get prepared for the disasters that we will face in the future according to the dire projections made by the IPCC in its report.

    My point is, we should concentrate of how we can adapt to that dire predictions of global warming in the future, because those scenarios are going to happen with or without any restrictions of our current CO2 emissions.

  • Reedo

    Pascal’s Wager isn’t a convincing argument. There are plenty of worthwhile actions we could take that have an unsure primary benefit and sure secondary benefits. But those actions still don’t necessarily offer better value than the alternatives.

    Consider whole vs. term life insurance. I’ve heard people say that regardless of whether they obtain the primary benefit of “winning the bet” (i.e., dying!), whole-life’s secondary benefit of accumulating equity through the forced investment of premium payments makes it preferable. But that’s only presuming that you couldn’t get a better investment return by paying term insurance and investing the cost savings yourself…

    Or consider the LHC. Does the fact that nobody can know for sure, ahead of time, what the experiments will do, make it a case of Pascal’s Wager? (I know that most experts don’t predict drastic consequences. I’m trying to show examples of the Wager being flawed.)

    I trust the scientific community’s consensus conclusions on climate change. And I think taking action to halt and reverse it should be based on that…in which case there’s no question of probability involved and no need to talk of a wager.

  • Man-made Global Warming is a hoax that threatens our future and the future of our children. Václav Klaus, who just assumed the presidency of the European Union, is right when he states that “environmentalism is the new communism and climate change is a dangerous myth.”

    In agreement with Klaus, more than 650 international scientists dissent over the man-made global warming claims. They are more than 12 times the number of UN scientists (52) who authored the media-hyped IPCC 2007 Summary for Policymakers.

    Additionally, more than 31,000 American scientists have signed onto a petition that states, “There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate…”

    “Progressive” (communist) politicians like Obama seem determined to force us to swallow the man-made global warming scam. We need to defend ourselves from the UN and these politicians, who threaten our future and the future of our children. Based on a lie, they have already wasted millions and plan to increase taxes, limit development, and enslave us.

    If not stopped, the global warming scam will enrich the scammers (Gore and Obama’ Wall Street friends), increase the power of the U.N. and communists like Obama, and multiply poverty and servitude for the rest of us.

  • Antonio –

    I don’t want to get into a debate, since your mind is made up. But I can’t help but be amused by the fact that the very article you cited in your comments says:

    “Michael Nobel, executive director for Fresh Energy, a St. Paul-based policy think tank that focuses on energy solutions and also chairman of the Nobel Charitable Trust, said the petition holds little merit to those who study global warming.

    “It’s a sad and odd little voice shouting that there is no global warming,” he said of the institute. “Many people have apparently fallen for it.”

    Nobel said among those who study global warming, most agree that it is a human-driven phenomenon.

    “It’s a curious little cultural artifact,” he said of the petition. “It’s like people talk about Sasquatch or alien abductions.”

    The whole thing about “31,000 scientists, 9,000 of them with PhDs” should tip you off to the non-seriousness of this petition. Anyone who ever took a science class, in other words. Versus people who actually study climate as their profession.

    I could put together a petition of 31,000 “scientists” by that definition, who believe in absolutely anything.

    There is pretty clear scientific consensus that global warming is human caused. That consensus could be wrong, but the consequences of it being right are extremely high. Hence my invocation of Pascal’s Wager (though as someone noted in a comment on another post, “the principle of least regret” may be a better term.)

  • Kurt Cagle

    I’m coming around to the belief that solar magnetic activity (as well as the interactions of the sun’s magnetic fields with that of Jupiter) may actually play a fairly significant part in determining weather patterns. If that theory is correct (and the recent hard-cold winter’s tie-in with the unusually long solar-cycle minimum this year is suggestive) then it’s possible that we may be entering into a time (for about the next seventy years or so) of cooler than normal temperatures, at least at temperate climes.

    Even if that’s the case (and its a theory only), I think that anthropogenic warming is a very real phenomenon, though one that should be seen in the light of larger forces. My suspicion is that anthropogenic warming will likely disguise the generally cooling trend – we’ll have a period of slightly colder winters and summer temperatures may get a little warmer, rather than dramatically cooler winters and moderately cooler summers. However, when that cycle shifts back (in 2080 or so) to a broader global warming pattern, then the temperatures will likely jump dramatically – 3 to 4 degrees C over the course of a decade – as forces that had been cancelling one another out shift to reinforcing one another … and the stresses involved on the biosphere when that happens are likely to be devastating.

    Unfortunately, I think the weather moderation will give the naysayers considerable ammunition in the short term. This is one of the reasons that I’ve begun questioning whether in fact trying to make the case for global warming is that wise a strategy. Reducing air pollution and carbon dependency by itself has obvious benefits, especially in light of likely nearer term shocks due to oil price instability.

    Moreover, the Earth’s climate system is extremely complex, and like most such complex systems, can undergo local (and even global) phase transitions that can make passionate speakers on both sides of the argument look like fools.

    Reducing our carbon footprint makes sense by itself, from a national security standpoint, from an ecological standpoint, from an economic standpoint. However, invoking the spectre of Global Warming may serve to politically undo many of these more rational reasons on the basis of two or three seriously cold winters.

  • Anonymous

    Problems lie with ridiculously biased/controlled media coverage–there are zilch news articles in the mass media on the scientist and scientific data supporting that it is a natural phenomenon, and the control source of other planets–weather on mars. The other problem is the government source of money and power derived from this.

    The results: the mass media manipulating the public to electing a president who may not even be a u.s. citizen who fought tooth and nail to keep sealed his original birth certificate….apparently the last place to look for reliable news is any major news source.

  • anonymous,

    I think your assertion of the widely debunked urban legend about Obama’s birth certificate says it all: political affiliation as a proxy for position on global warming.

    Data about weather on mars is interesting, and if more evidence turns up, I’m sure it will in fact get a hearing in the scientific community. There’s lots of good evidence that over time, the scientific community changes its opinion in response to new data. (Consider the case of asteroid impacts and mass extinction, or, for that matter, the many years of accumulating data that led to the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change.)

    If new data comes in, it will eventually be factored in. But you, and all the other people who want to argue whether or not climate change is human caused, miss the point of this post: the investments we’d make in order to deal with climate change are good investments. The investments we make by pretending it isn’t an issue are bad investments EVEN IF CLIMATE CHANGE IS NOT HUMAN-CAUSED.

    I’d love opponents to explain on the negative economic consequences (if any) of:

    * raising the price of gasoline via taxes to reflect its real cost to society (e.g. the cost of overseas wars to protect our access to this diminishing resource) while using the proceeds to fund investment in new energy technologies that use renewable resources

    * making oil companies pay substantial royalties for resources they extract, rather than letting them pretend those resources are free, creating enormous profits for a few while short-changing the people who actually own those resources (the public)

    * making coal plants accountable for the cost of environmental cleanup.

    * investing in public transportation

    * reducing waste in packaging

    etc. etc.

    Most of the arguments advanced seem to fall into the following camps:

    1. Anything the government does to distort the market is bad (ignoring the fact that much of our carbon economy’s apparent economic advantages are actually the result of government distortions such as tax advantages, ignoring full costs etc.)

    2. We’ll be at a competitive disadvantage vis a vis other countries. Again, dubious, given that other countries are ahead of us in recognizing both the dangers of the current course and the advantages of investing in the future.

    Meanwhile, the real point of Pascal’s Wager is that the consequences of climate change are really bad. We’re playing with a loaded gun. Given loaded gun on one hand, vs. even equivocal economic tradeoffs on the other, choice seems pretty obvious to me.

  • Ronaldo

    OK, I’ll take on your challenge, Tim:

    * raise the price of gasoline via taxes to reflect its real cost to society … while using the proceeds to fund investment in new energy technologies that use renewable resources

    I agree with the first half, but not with the second. If there is a good rationale for government to investment in new energy technologies (I would say “support R&D in low-carbon technologies”, rather than renewable, as “renewable” can also mean food crops), then the government should do it (subject to whatever budget constraint it faces). But it would be only pure coincidence that the optimal level of investment in new energy technologies in any given year will be exactly equal to the revenues from the gasoline tax. And don’t forget, part of the current tax is already hypothecated to the Highway Trust Fund.

    * making oil companies pay substantial royalties for resources they extract, rather than letting them pretend those resources are free, creating enormous profits for a few while short-changing the people who actually own those resources (the public)

    They already pay substantial royalties in many cases, and in very few cases get access to oil for free. (Actually, I cannot think of any cases.) If you are arguing, instead, that the public needs to make sure it gets a good deal in the future when it auctions leases, fine.

    * making coal plants accountable for the cost of environmental cleanup.

    Do you mean coal mines or coal-fired power plants? Coal mines in the west, at least, have to post bonds sufficient to restore lands disturbed by surface mining. If you mean coal-fired power plants, I’d phrase it as charging them for the marginal social damage (soot, acid rain, CO2 emissions).

  • ngamoko

    Hi Tim,
    Have been reading youre blog for sometime but never make a comment.Where I live there are signs that climate change is upon us. However,I feel us humans are speeding up the process but is it going to happen no matter what we do. I saw on youtube a song and video slide show called “where we going to go” it really drives home the climate change story. Not a bad song.Guitar and voice only.Its good we have debates but sometime the arguments come from the emotions not reality.I live in the mountains and it is definitely getting warmer . The sun in summer seems to burn the skin in a shorter time than 50 years ago. Maybe my skin is thinner and burns easier.

  • R James

    Ngamoko – don’t get too carried away. We’re only talking about a temperature increase of 0.7 degC over the past 160 years. If there was any significant shift in the intensity of the sun, you wouldn’t be noticing it.
    The whole theory of anthropogenic warming is not that there’s more energy from the sun, but less transmitted back into space.

    Even if the small amount of heating is due to changes in the intensity of the sun (which is very possible) it’s not so big that you will notice it directly.

  • Lola LB

    Before you get all hyped up about alternate energy, read this:

    He states the criteria that alternate energy has to meet in order to succeed:

    1. It has to be huge (in terms of both energy and power)
    2. It has to be reliable (not intermittent or unschedulable)
    3. It has to be concentrated (not diffuse)
    4. It has to be possible to utilize it efficiently
    5. The capital investment and operating cost to utilize it has to be comparable to existing energy sources (per gigawatt, and per terajoule).

    For further research, check his USS Clueless archives. No, he’s not going to answer further questions, because, see his archives.

    It’s all very well to get excited about alternate energy, but it has to match and surpass our level of energy usage for a successful switchover.

  • Adam Steevens


    Thanks for this article! I cited this article in a facebook note yesterday(I hope that’s alright!), and have received 30+ comments on it already. You’re right when you say that this issue really brings out the animosity. I mean read some of these opinions that got thrown my way.

    ‘sorry, just don’t buy it.’

    ‘I don’t mind helping the envirnment but a global crisis can’t be solved my one counrty,everyone has to be involved. places like China are not going to cap their industries; that would take a global law-you don’t want that or do you?’

    ‘I am an American and I very proud of that fact. Let’s be innovative and not shove things down people’s throats. Let’s be reasonable with our solutions and not having the gov tell me how much i can drive.’

    ‘don’t think there is a legitimate way to tell if it is a warming cycle or actual planet warming, because of our lack of weather records in years past’

    Please keep up the good work, it was a great read!

  • ngamoko

    Hi R James,
    Sorry R but if you live in the mountains of New Zealand like I do the sun is more “burny” than yesteryear.We are told by those who know that the “hole” above us (next stop the South Pole) is getting larger. Mate,I am a retired engineer and like all engineers we know everything.What we don’t know can be written on the back of a postage stamp.
    PS If you don’t believe me come on down and see for yourself.To give you an idea how hot it get these days. When you hook a trout it comes out of the water fully cooked.If that is not an indication of climate change tell me what is.

  • Sam Penrose


    Went to Saul’s talk @ Long Now; it was inspiring and gave me some engineering ideas. But it gave me no political ideas and we’re facing a real political crisis: is one geeky political initiative; we need more. Ideas? Pointers?

  • R James


    I’m also a retired engineer, so I’m pleased to be within your classification. I’ve never fished, but I’m pretty sure if I did here in Australia, they would still need cooking. Still, I could be wrong – there’s a first time for everything.

    I spent some time in the NZ south island recently, and a month in Antarctica – didn’t get sunburnt.

    More seriously, I’ve checked the weather patterns in Australia for the past 100 years or so. No change in rainfall cycles and the normal 0.6 degC increase as we creep out of the Maunder period, but no change in the past 10 years. Sea level in Sydney hasn’t changed for the past 2 years, and increased 8mm in the 20 years before that. Nothing to get excited about.

  • ngamoko

    Hi R James,
    Firstly if your christian name is Rick I probably know you. How can one get sunburnt near the south pole you have so many cloths on the sun can’t get near the body.I agree with what you say and understand where you are coming from.From what I read
    there were very hot times in europe around 1350 till 1550. Also I have seen photos of the Murray river dry in parts in the late 1800.Then there was in Australia a very dry period in the 30s and early 50s.I believe climate change will come whether us humans change our ways or not, we probably are speeding it up a little.Sure there is much nashing of gums from both sides of the debate but one thing who is right or who is wrong has very little to do with what will happen to our planet in the future.The up side is that new industries will emerge and just think what fun the Government will have finding new ways to tax us poor citizens.R I still stand by my claim that the sun up in these mountain is more burny than 20 years ago. Also,if you want more proof…I tossed in a lump of butter, two eggs and a handfull of flour into the river last evening caught a trout..not only was it cooked but it came battered as well. Thats climate change at its best.R are you from Brisbane?

  • R James

    Hi ngamoko. I was actually swimming in Antarctica, though I only lasted about 60 seconds – wasn’t really after a tan. Water was -2 degC.

    Sorry I’m not Rick from Brisbane. Wrong person.

    Just for interest, have a look at the long term climate history :
    or and tell me which way you think the temperature will go.

  • ngamoko

    Hi R,
    Looked up the site you suggested.The answer is either way.Us humans are wrong as many times as we are right. We all have our ideas based on known and unknown information. However, there are always factors that are unknown that trip us up.Some years ago there was a massive earthquake in Japan.Motorways and massive concrete flyovers were destroyed. The Japanese engineers said they had “everything” covered and their structures would not collapse like they did in California.They even critisised our calculations. Allowing for the unexpected is really only a guessing game and to try and foresee the total future is impossible. Climate change, global warming etc falls into that catorgory.I still say taking off my engineers hat and putting on my common sense hat, the sun is more burny in the mountains where I live than it was 20 years ago. R you worry me, nobody in their right frame of mind goes swimming in the south pole waters.You are probably still recovering from your dip and have not felt the burnyness of the sun yet.

  • ngamoko

    Hi R,
    Looked up the site you suggested.The answer is either way.Us humans are wrong as many times as we are right. We all have our ideas based on known and unknown information. However, there are always factors that are unknown that trip us up.Some years ago there was a massive earthquake in Japan.Motorways and massive concrete flyovers were destroyed. The Japanese engineers said they had “everything” covered and their structures would not collapse like they did in California.They even critisised our calculations. Allowing for the unexpected is really only a guessing game and to try and foresee the total future is impossible. Climate change, global warming etc falls into that catorgory.I still say taking off my engineers hat and putting on my common sense hat, the sun is more burny in the mountains where I live than it was 20 years ago. R you worry me, nobody in their right frame of mind goes swimming in the south pole waters.You are probably still recovering from your dip and have not felt the burnyness of the sun yet.

  • R James

    ngamoko – I agree temperature could go up or down. Five regular cycles over the past 450,000 years isn’t a guarantee that it will continue the trend. However, if I had to put money on it, I know which way I’d take.

    We have 11 years solar cycles, but suddenly cycle 24 is a couple of years late in starting. Who knows where this will take us? The last time we had years of low sunspot activity, we went into the Maunder period (little ice age).

    Time will tell.

  • ngamoko

    R James,
    The only statement that is without a doubt 100% correct is your last one..Time will tell.
    Unfortunately, unless medical science greatly improves I won’t be around to see who is right and who is wrong.But, I will not waver one micron… I still say the sun is more burny where I live.
    I phoned around my friends they all agree with me.Now you can’t get a more scientific approach than that.

  • R James

    ngamoko – Then I suggest you stay away from the sun. I’ve had various skin cancers and melanoma removed – not nice.

    I don’t think the sun is any worse where I am (I live near the beach).

    It’s surprising that humans didn’t evolve with more immunity to UV rays.

  • Perhaps I’m biased because I work in IT supporting climate research – there really is a great deal of data and computing behind climate science.

    However, one of the questions I’ve posed to my colleagues is this –

    If the climate is changing – and the evidence certainly points to that – should we act even if it isn’t caused by human activity?

    The responses are interesting, and include – but it is caused by man – to no we shouldn’t change nature.

    As an engineer my view is that if we believe our present, or recent past climate, is the one best suited to our collective needs then we should take measures to maintain it. Even if the cause of recent change is not human activity. Much as we build sea defences, protect against earth quakes, etc.

    Perhaps this is moot, but it’s interesting to sample the different world views of scientists, engineers, and others.

  • R James

    Michael – my own view is that there is no evidence at this stage to support the hypothesis that CO2 can or will cause significant global warming. I have many reasons for this view, but this isn’t the main thrust of your post, so I won’t dwell on it at this stage.

    You main point is “should we take action anyway”. My concern is that we are spending billions and about to change the whole world economy over an unsubstantiated hypothesis, while we have known real problems eg pollution (NOx), starvation, poverty, limited natural resources etc.

    If we have limited resources, we need to reduce their usage. I believe that with the scientific knowledge that we have now and in the immediate future, we can’t make a significant impact on this while we have an exponential population growth. Most CO2 reduction goals are unrealistic, as Europe has found. We have a politician in Australia who has promoted the elimination of fossil fuels in the next few years (so no airline industry?)

    If anthropogenic warming is real, we’ll never get ahead of it with an exponential population growth.

    Here in Australia, most of our growth comes from immigration, (as it is in most developed countries) yet we struggle to find enough water in our capital cities (not due to rainfall which hasn’t changed). Populations of India (which will soon overtake China), Africa and Asia are rapidly increasing.

    So I encourage the research for alternative energy sources. I discourage the money spent such things as developing grass to reduce the methane in cow farts and moose burps. I want to see recognition that the biggest problem we have isn’t global warming, it’s over population. I want to see money spent to educate people in developing countries to tackle this problem. China took the step with its “one child policy”. I recognise that there are problems with the way this is implemented. However, we can’t keep going on our current trend.

  • R James,

    Reading your response reminds me, perhaps unkindly, of something I read by Steven Pinker. I don’t recall the original source, though I’m sure he references it. It goes along the lines that if you know a few of the political views of an individual you can infer, quite accurately, most of the others.

    It would be hard to find, for example, a climate change denier/sceptic, who isn’t also a supporter of free markets and anti-immigration. In the US they would most likely also be in favour of gun ownership and anti-abortion. (I’m already imagining this post might be pulled, but what the heck – in for a penny)

    In these challenging times I think it’s important that all of us think hard about why we hold the views we do. For example I wonder why you imagine globally population is rising so sharply when in my work I’m aware that recent forecasts have all been revised down – I suppose both you and I ought to try and learn why. It would indeed be great to learn that this was through education rather than less humane methods or causes.

    I’d also encourage anyone with an interest either way in climate matters to find out how much is really spent on various research areas, oh and perhaps compared with subsidy to car makers, airlines… and the various forms of protectionism we’ll all see in the next months and years.



  • R James

    Michael – I agree that the data shows that population growth is generally declining. I’m not against immigration, provided certain conditions are met. (probably not appropriate to go into these here). Growth remains very high in Latin America, Middle East, and parts of Africa. I believe this is not in anyone’s best interests.

    Regarding climate change, political views may be relevant for some people. I know that many people just go by the media. As an engineer, I needed more. Where possible, I go back to raw data (eg Hadcrut) and do my own analysis. I’ve also studied the theory behind the CO2 hypothesis, the model forecasts. I’m trying to form my opinions on the science, without depending on scientific organisations whose very existence depends on the outcome.

    For example, just some basic points –

    (1) if CO2 is the strong dominant force were told it is, and its concentration has increased 5% in the past 10 years, why has there been no warming in this period?

    (2) CO2 didn’t cause the high temperatures between the years 900 and 1,000. Why do we now blame CO2 as we come out of the “little ice age”. Temperature isn’t doing anything unexpected.

    (3) The rate of increase between 1970 and 2000 is the same as the increase between 1910 and 1940. Was that CO2 then also? If so, why was there no increase from 1940 – 1970?

    (4) Water vapour is the main greenhouse gas, and it varies all over the place. I doubt that variations CO2, at 0.038% of the atmosphere, is significant.

    (5) Scientists agree that the effect of CO2 is logarithmic. It’s like painting a window black – no light gets in. If you paint is again, there is little further effect. They also agree (IPCC also) that the direct additional effect of CO2 is about 1 degC increase. There are flow on effects (feedback or forcing)which account for additional change. For example, more CO2, more evaporation, more water vapour, more greenhouse effect. On the other hand, more evaporation, more clouds, less greenhouse effect. More heating, higher temperature, more loss due to radiation at night (proportional to the 4th power of the absolute temperature.) Overall, there is positive and negative feedback. The models assume that positive feedback will dominate (which is the only way the high temperature predictions can be achieved.) There’s plenty more. I can find no evidence that supports this assumption.

    There is no doubt that human activity has an effect on climate. What isn’t known is which way it goes, and whether it’s significant.

    As for how much money is spent on global warming, I don’t know, but I see estimates like US$50 billion in the past 10 years. I’m not saying all this shouldn’t have been spent, but I think we need to listen to a few more scientists before we change the world economies over this, and keep pouring money into Al Gore’s company.

  • R James –

    If you’ve really done the research into the subject you claim you have, it’s hard to understand why you would make a statement like “before we…keep pouring money into Al Gore’s company.”

    Do you mean

    Or are you referring to Kleiner Perkins, the venture capitalist at which he is a partner?

    Neither is on the public dole as far as I know.

    And as to “listening to a few more scientists,” as far as I can tell, there’s been 30+ years of debate on this subject, and the debate is generally considered to be over by those who are closest to the science. Many of the skeptics (though most assuredly not all, and I count my friend Freeman Dyson among the skeptics) seem to have political or economic reasons for their skepticism.

    Many of the “costs” attributed to climate remediation are actually the attribution of “off balance sheet” costs that the economy is already suffering, just applied to those industries that are creating the problems without bearing the cost.

    Putting a carbon tax on coal, for example, attributes costs to one part of the economy (where they belong), rather than transferring them to another (e.g. health care, insurance) where they don’t.

    It’s often only “incremental cost” to those industries who are squawking because they are finally being asked to give up their free ride.

  • R James


    I tend to think that Al Gore is doing very nicely out of this, and his company Generation Investment management is set to do very well out of it. The money eventually comes out of consumer’s pockets.

    I question whether the majority of climate scientists would agree that “the debate is over”. We read every day about how more and more, (even those associated with IPCC) are now openly doubting anthropogenic warming. One of the latest (15 Jan 2009) is Dr. John Theon – a now retired former NASA atmospheric scientist.

    It would be interesting to ask qualified scientists who’s income or research doesn’t depend on the outcome. For one I take notice of Prof Bob Carter.

  • An amusing and well-thought-out series of videos was prepared by “wonderingmind42” and posted to YouTube, dealing with the whole Pascal’s Wager / Risk Management approach to climate change:

    He says: Check out the more evolved descendant of “The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See:” a tour-de-force of logic and reasoning, backed up by a battalion of thoroughness and detail. Yes–you must see for yourself: “How It All Ends.”

    I think he’s done a good job of it!

  • R James

    This is quite good, but ignores some basics. We have lots of known problems – poverty, unsustainable population growth, pollution (global warming does nothing to address this), drug abuse, death through hunger and education.

    Politicians will make unrealistic commitments to reduce the use of fossil fuel – it won’t happen.

    The point is that we have limited resources – is it better to to throw it away on an unrealistic attempt to solve a problem that has failed to progress past the hypothesis level, or spend it on the known problems?

    Earth has been through much higher temperatures and CO2 levels, with no disruption to the natural cycles of the past 450,000 years. There’s nothing to suggest that this will change.

  • Joel Kauffman

    Dear Tim:
    You have made a number of arguments for the benefits of accepting the global warming scam. Some are worthwhile, such as cutting back on the use of petroleum in the USA. But carbon dioxide emissions have not caused warming, so the costs of those precautions by paying for those missions is very high, moving more people to poverty level, which every sociologist will tell you is bad for health.
    Too bad a direct effort at using less petroleum was not made, which would have been a clear gain for the USA. The manic crusade against “carbon” is a costly distraction and make-work.

  • Joel Kauffman

    Dear Tim:
    You have made a number of arguments for the benefits of accepting the global warming scam. Some are worthwhile, such as cutting back on the use of petroleum in the USA. But carbon dioxide emissions have not caused warming, so the costs of those precautions by paying for those missions is very high, moving more people to poverty level, which every sociologist will tell you is bad for health.
    Too bad a direct effort at using less petroleum was not made, which would have been a clear gain for the USA. The manic crusade against “carbon” is a costly distraction and make-work.

  • Those who say that “the debate is not over” should try to account for the information on this page:

    There really is no serious opposition left to the proposition that CO2 accumulation is risky within the relevant sciences. Dick Lindzen is still griping, but he doesn’t actually seem to engage anymore. The other few guys are observationalists with little grasp of theory.

    How MUCH risk is very much at issue, but this is a quantitative question, not a “debate”. The debate can be reduced to a few numbers, though.

    These three cover a lot of ground. At what level should CO2 and CO2-equivalent concentrations peak, at what level should they stabilize, and by when should they stabilize?

    Once you start looking at what goes into this it becomes very daunting.

    Also, the ocean acidification question is comparably huge. It should not be ignored, and the fact that it is almost unknown is scandalous.

  • Here I thought I was making a great original argument at and then I come across this. Great post!

  • I very much like the Pascal Wager framing. In addition to all that we don’t know, however, I feel for myself that I know two things.

    1. Evidence of accelerated ocean acidification is strong, and therefore quite alarming.

    2. Global motor-vehicle emissions are the mother lode of potential carbon reduction.

    My complaint about current government policy is that it’s moving towards a comprehensive carbon scheme, while moving away from any pointed solutions wrt to vehicles. If government policy is going to bypass its richest motherlode of carbon reduction, how can I regard government policy as serious? Simply put, there is no current US government led plan to dislocate cars for public transport. As this is my benchmark, I am compelled to regard current and proposed policy as “more” politically driven.

    No doubt I carry bias, and no doubt my framing of the problem can be wrong. But I’ve already seen the effects of this kind of policy weighting applied in such states as California. It just seems almost pointless to restrict imports of coal-sourced power generation into Calif., while at the same time doing little to get vehicles off the road.

    So, I don’t really want to set up a false dilemma between how I would weight govt policy, and how things appear to be progressing. You no doubt have seen my plan: I would build tons of utility grade solar in CA deserts for new power gen., and then I would run tons of new light rail. For example, places like Oakland and the East Bay would see almost a historical revival of light rail in my framing.

    The irony is that the free-market has been telling us for some time to stop building so many autos. But, government policy both here and in Europe seems emotionally incapable of extracting itself from the old paradigm.

    Finally, it’s a certainty that the air will be monetized (given value). It’s an idea more than a century old. I’m all for it. My air is your air and visa versa and it will be a long overdue system to raise the costs severely for those who would encroach upon it. When I researched carbon and carbon markets two years ago, I was struck with the idea that eventually this will all be much less politicized and everyone will see the air as their own backyard.

  • John


    I am one of those skeptics, I don’t think the scientific evidence clearly points to the fact that man has caused the earth to warm up. But I agree with some of your points. Cleaner air and a cleaner earth IS a worthwhile goal for humanity. In fact, as a scout (a seemingly reprehensible organization to many liberals), we were taught to “leave no trace.” However, my question is, at what expense? I am very anti-socialist, and the global socialists HAVE latched onto global warming as a way to further progress their agenda of state control over the masses (this includes loss of liberty, more taxation, etc.).

  • Pascalian

    I am intrigued by the application of Pascal’s Wager to the climate change deniers. I agree with it, but am concerned that, like some atheists, the deniers’ issues are not really the risks of AGW at all, but their need to adhere to a certain “moral standard”.

    The most common argument is that global warming is a comspiracy to take money, freedom, whatever from people. The possibility that anthropogenic global warming is true is a bit like the possibility of a real resurrected Christ – slammed because it doesn’t fit the philosophy.

  • Tim

    I’ve just come across this article – well-argued! As you say, the risk of doing nothing is too high. Some may argue against “global warming”, but it’s much harder to argue against global climate change (or disruption, as John Holdren prefers to call it).

    Let’s face it, we know the concentration of atmospheric CO2 is at the highest level for at least 650,000 years – and the rate of increase is rising. Whether or not that increase is primarily anthropogenic rather misses the point – we can reduce our contribution and is in our interest to do so.

  • Bruce

    If a good case can be made for believing in global warming using Pascal’s Wager, can the same be said of using Pascal’s Wager as a good reason to believe in God?

    After all, many people see a parrallel between a belief in global warming and religion. Many go so bar as to say a belief in man made global warming is a religion itself.

  • Bruce –

    The point of Pascal’s Wager is that it isn’t a guide to belief. It’s a guide to action.

    Pascal argued that it was better to believe in God because of the actions you take as a result. However, philosophers like Epicurus and Zeno made the same argument for atheism, an argument that has been reprised in modern times by John Fowles in his book The Aristos.

    All came to the same conclusion: that it’s better to live a life of moderation and virtue.

    The same is true of global warming. Whether we believe in it or not, it’s better to act as though we do, because me make better choices in the here and now.

  • O Bloody Hell

    > If no one will sell you insurance against something, you probably ought to be seriously worried about it.

    An absurdist and stupid claim.

    *I’ll* sell you a policy against any damage done by AGW. $10k per year for $1,000,000 coverage. Contract specifics to follow.

    What? Not taking? I guess *you* aren’t really too worried about it, then????

  • O Bloody Hell

    > In my talks I’ve argued that climate change provides us with a modern version of Pascal’s wager: if catastrophic global warming turns out not to happen, the steps we’d take to address it are still worthwhile.

    And the flaw to this is much the same as with Pascal’s Wager (you really might want to actually look into it — no one but a die-hard Xtian actually argues it, as it’s very easily demolished)

    It ignores not only the opportunity costs of the alternative decisions (trillions!), but the rather blatant risks associated with the wager being the wrong decision entirely.

    In the AGW case the long-term evidence is clear — if we are actually at the edge of an Ice Age — and there is plenty of evidence to support this argument — then any efforts regarding AGW will only aggravate that.

    I’m not saying that either is happening, I’m saying that The Wager cannot be made in the vacuum it is usually (including above) presented in. It’s an inherently defective argument, and anyone who attempts to make it is dodging the whole picture. And it’s only with a substantial part of the whole picture — which we aren’t even close to having — that we can make a rational, informed decision.

    One thing ClimateGate is revealing is that the cadre associated with AGW is at least as biased and goal-oriented (as opposed to “Science Oriented”) as the skeptical camp is claimed to be.

    They have just as much to gain by selling — yes, selling — their point of view as “correct” regardless of facts as anyone “in the pocket of some cabal of oil companies”. They have just as much of their careers and reputations on the line as the opposition, and have distorted the science — indeed, openly expressed fraud and suppressed dissent — in the name of promoting policy for which there is inadequate data.

    The raw data needs to be opened up and readily available. The techniques used to “polish” the data to tease out claimed information need to be open and readily available for all to see and examine for bias and distortion.

    And this is certainly true for the people on BOTH sides of the argument.

    That’s how SCIENCE works. Not by fiat, not by consensus — Ether Physics was “the consensus” in 1890. By 1900, one single, solitary experiment, reproduced a half dozen times in a half dozen places, had demolished the concept utterly and completely. That was because the technique was open and readily available for all to see and concur as to what it said.

    Current AGW “theory” isn’t even justifying that moniker. It’s raw supposition because no one is allowed to see the data used to make the arguments made and to examine the techniques used to manipulate that raw data to produce the claimed information.

    That’s NOT Science.

    Science is about open access to the data and methodology used to make a claim.

    It’s not about high priests in charge of The Theory making pronouncements on high based on the Revealed Word of Gaia, revealed only to their eyes, their visions, their judgments.

    ‘Nuff said.

  • Tim O'Reilly

    O Bloody Hell –

    No one taking your insurance offer is, I imagine, also a product of your lack of creditworthiness as an insurer.

    As to opportunity cost, my increasing read is that the opportunity cost is all on the side of doing nothing. Green tech is one of the big opportunities of the 21st century. The country that leads in this field will dominate the global economy within the next few decades.

    As for consensus and science, you’re misusing your history. The AGW hypothesis is far more like the transition to quantum theory – a difficult challenge to the orthodoxy that only gradually (over the past fifty years) has been accepted. The equivalent to the theory of luminiferous ether is the idea that the world is too big for humans to have an impact.

  • Martin Vermeer

    A somewhat similar argument is presented by Greg Craven:

    He made some really good YouTube videos.

  • Cris

    Another argument supporting an approach like Pascal’s Wager is that science does show that our drinking water contains trace elements of pharmaceuticals (antidepressants, birth control hormones, etc.), there are high levels of lead in tuna, and breast milk has some of the highest levels of PCBs of anything that humans ingest. These are results of human activity, and could be improved by a better attitude towards our environment.

  • Brian Ponkey

    Wait a minute… Wasn’t Pascal’s Wager demonstrated to be logically fallacious, several hundred years ago. Employing this type of reasoning doesn’t serve the greater cause. We need more science, not more bullshit.