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Treebeard's Stumper Answer
7 March 2003

Our Hot and Cold House

We set records for rain and drought in Santa Barbara in the last decade. There is growing scientific consensus that global warming is real, at least partly caused by the CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels like the gas in our cars. But how can this be when we still have such extreme blizzards (and drought) across the country? Maybe weather is random, like getting 8 heads in a row when flipping coins? My stumper is not to find the answer to global warming, but to pinpoint the question. Why is this topic still so controversial even among scientists?

Is this what global warming looks like? That's Mojo and my son Ry in the hot tub after we worked all afternoon to clear a path through the broken oak trees that blocked our road. (See my Storm Damage (26 March 1999) stumper.) Does it make sense that global warming would bring extreme weather like this foot of snow at our home in the Santa Barbara mountains in March, 1999? Then we had one of our driest springs ever in 2002. Is record breaking weather on the rise?

What's the connection between global warming and extreme weather? President Bush rejected the 1997 Kyoto Treaty intended to reduce CO2 emissions, and he's still hearing about it even from allies like British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Why is this topic still so controversial among scientists as well as politicians?


The last ice age ended only about 12,000 years ago, so of course there is real global warming. Warm air is more energetic and holds more moisture, so maybe we should expect extreme weather. Are we making it worse by burning fossil fuels like the gas in our cars? Economic costs make it attractive to deny, and clashes over values and policy - as well as science - make it controversial. We debate abortion, though "making babies" is well understood. Global warming is more interesting because the science is not all known, but the only time to act might be right now!

Notes:

I should know better than to tackle this impossible stumper. Of course I can't answer anything here, but I can try to sort out some of the reasons why global warming continues to be so controversial.

I believe that air and water quality have gotten better over the last few decades, at least close to home. That was money well-spent that created jobs and new industries as well. Incomplete information is a fact of life for both policy makers and scientists, and both need to revise their conclusions as new evidence appears. It's no wonder that calculating the costs and benefits of global warming strategies like the Kyoto Treaty is so controversial. The problem is that it's easier and cheaper to wait for "more research", but the only time to act might be now.

This global warming controversy has me thinking of Pascal's Wager. Maybe it's more familiar as a bumper sticker:

"If you're living like there's no God, you'd better be right."
Here's part of what Blaise Pascal really said in article 233 of section III of his Pensée's (1660; Trotter translation):
"God is, or He is not." But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up... Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose... But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is... If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

This is a remarkable passage for mathematical game theory as well as personal theology. It's easy to see the choices as a game matrix. Choose one from the left and one from the top, and see where they cross:

  God exists God does not exist
Wager for God Gain all Small loss
Wager against God Misery Status quo

Let's try rephrasing Pascal's Wager in terms of global warming:

"If you're living like there's no human-caused global warming, then you'd better be right."

"Global warming is a problem, or it is not. But to which side shall we incline?... There is an infinite chaos which separates these... Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that global warming is real... If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose little. Wager, then, without hesitation that global warming is real."

  Global Warming
IS a problem
Global Warming
is Not a problem
Wager for Global Warming Better future Small loss
Wager against Global Warming Huge problems Status quo

Maybe global warming is such a threat that we must act now despite incomplete knowledge and economic costs. I'm happy with that conclusion. Then I had the thought that the war being waged today in Iraq as I write this (on March 23, 2003) has a very similar logic: America must wage preemptive unilateral war against Saddam Hussein despite the high cost in money and lives, because the cost of not acting is far greater.

"If you're living like Saddam Hussein is not a global threat, then you'd better be right."

"Saddam Hussein is a global threat, or he is not. But to which side shall we incline?... There is an infinite chaos which separates these... Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that Saddam Hussein is a real threat... If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose little. Wager, then, without hesitation that Saddam Hussein is a real threat."

  Saddam Hussein
IS a global threat
Saddam Hussein
is Not a global threat
Wager for War Stability and peace Some loss
Wager against War Terrorism and war Status quo

No... Wait... This is wrong... We risk losing much more than "some loss" in this Iraq war... This is about the value of human life and our nation's prestige and future... This gaming strategy could allow anything...

These rude choices all sound so familiar. They squeeze difficult real problems into a simple 2x2 game grid, but there are always more choices. There are problems with Pascal's Wager by all accounts. It has an existential attraction, but you can use it to justify almost anything. That religious-like conviction can blind us to the real human costs and benefits of our actions, even in war when people are dying. We still have to make hard decisions that will effect our lives one way or the other, and the lives of many around the world. Scientists and policy makers both have to make hard conclusions based on incomplete knowledge. We count on them to revise their conclusions based on new evidence. There is growing scientific consensus about the facts of global warming (at least) that must be addressed with more than talk...

As a philosopher/naturalist/science teacher, I'm happy to leave this as a stumper. Global warming deserves a huge list of links, but there are other sites that do that better. Here are a few starting links for your own research:

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Copyright © 2003 by Marc Kummel / mkummel@rain.org