Where Is Blaise Pascal When You Really Need Him?

Both the Washington Post and the New York Times have reported that the Trump White House refused to approve the written testimony of Dr. Rod Schoonover for entry into the permanent Congressional Record. Dr. Schoonover had testified on Wednesday before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on the dangers that climate change poses to the security of the US.

Both the Post and the Times had links to the MS Word document of
Dr. Schoonover’s comments complete with the editorial comments of the WH censors reviewers. I have posted a copy of that document here. (I have added the RBC “Seal” and OCR’d the document.) Reading the document is more alarming than the fact of the suppression of Dr. Schoonover’s comments. It reveals a White House or NSC staff that is dominated with climate-denier ideologues.

For instance, one comment reads:

[T]here is nothing exceptional about current climate and it is profoundly incorrect to say that ‘characteristics of global climate are moving outside the bounds experienced in human history.” There was faster and greater Medieval warming around the year 1000 when Norse settled southern Greenland and developed a thriving agricultural society.


The blog Skeptical Science shoots a hole in that nonsense:

Firstly, evidence suggests that the Medieval Warm Period may have been warmer than today in many parts of the globe such as in the North Atlantic. This warming thereby allowed Vikings to travel further north than had been previously possible because of reductions in sea ice and land ice in the Arctic. However, evidence also suggests that some places were very much cooler than today including the tropical pacific. All in all, when the warm places are averaged out with the cool places, it becomes clear that the overall warmth was likely similar to early to mid 20th century warming.

Since that early century warming, temperatures have risen well-beyond those achieved during the Medieval Warm Period across most of the globe.  The National Academy of Sciences Report on Climate Reconstructions in 2006 found it plausible that current temperatures are hotter than during the Medieval Warm Period.  Further evidence obtained since 2006 suggests that even in the Northern Hemisphere where the Medieval Warm Period was the most visible, temperatures are now beyond those experienced during Medieval times  (Figure 1).  This was also confirmed by a major paper from 78 scientists representing 60 scientific institutions around the world in 2013.

Secondly, the Medieval Warm Period has known causes which explain both the scale of the warmth and the pattern. It has now become clear to scientists that the Medieval Warm Period occurred during a time which had higher than average solar radiation and less volcanic activity (both resulting in warming). New evidence is also suggesting that changes in ocean circulation patterns played a very important role in bringing warmer seawater into the North Atlantic. This explains much of the extraordinary warmth in that region. These causes of warming contrast significantly with today’s warming, which we know cannot be caused by the same mechanisms.

However, at the center of the WH attack is the “uncertainty principle.” That is, the proposition that we cannot act on the threat of global climate change because it is possible that our conclusions are not airtight. Thus, they include this quote from Syukuro “Suki” Manabe: “Don’t put your model in a race with nature. Your model will lose this race.” The quote is literally accurate but taken out of context. What Manabe did in his work was to simplify his models, taking out complexities and, thereby, isolating specific factors in climate change. See here. Manabe believes in the reality of CO2 driven climate change and the basic accuracy of climate models.

Finally, we get to Blaise Pascal and his famous wager. In its most simple form, Pascal posits that we cannot by human reason either prove or disprove whether God exists. He points out that if a wager was between the equal chance of gaining two lifetimes of happiness and gaining nothing, then a person would be a fool to bet on the latter. He then concludes that it is irrational to risk an eternal life of happiness for the possibility of gaining nothing. (“If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.”) (I’m certain that many of the members of the RBC would jump on me if I did not point out that one of the flaws in the wager is that there are many competing gods and that one cannot, using human reasoning, prove which is the true god.)

But that’s not the choice we face in addressing global climate change.

First, modeling, while not perfect, allows us to fairly accurately compute the future temperature rise and rise in ocean acidity due to CO2 buildup. Thus, we are out of “coin flip” territory. The probabilities of a disastrous outcome are, if not certain, very high.

Second, we can assess our costs, but downside and upside, with some degree of accuracy. We have projections of populated areas that are threatened by sea rise, species that are at risk of extinction, and the geographic shift of areas that can be used in agriculture.

Basically, Pascal basic approach was correct. Weigh the upside against the downside. He was in error in assessing the upside (i.e., that there are many competing gods) and could not calculate the probabilities involved. We are not so limited. Except in the White House.

7 thoughts on “Where Is Blaise Pascal When You Really Need Him?”

  1. Not many gods are claimed to follow a hippie policy of “whatever, I’m cool with that”. The Christian universalists who follow St. Gregory of Nyssa in thinking that at the end of time even Satan will be saved do not for all that say that the intervening period will be pleasant for sinners. Pascal’s wager is basically sound. Either there is no god, in which case the prudent bettor loses the extra fun they might have had from a life of sin; or there is at least one god who will probably reward virtue and may well punish vice over a longer time scale. If there is a god who is actually evil, there is no reason for his acolytes to trust his promises.

    1. It depends on what you believe, in a god, is evil. How about: You shall have no other god before me? Somewhat exclusionary. And what happens if you don’t believe in the number 1 god, whichever deity that turns out to be?

      1. A god who punishes virtuous believers who happen to worship using the wrong label counts as an evil one IMHO. Rumi: “I go into the Muslim mosque and the Jewish synagogue and the Christian church and I see one altar.”

        You do not offer a counter-argument to mine that Pascal’s bet works fine with a probability distribution of (non-hippie, non-evil) gods, as long as the weighted majority of their reward plans is focussed on virtuous behaviour not theological correctness.

  2. Not sure the Pascal wager analogy holds up well for climate change. I’m personally agnostic on how serious climate change will be and how much of it is anthropogenic, but using widely accepted projections, the costs of significant preventions are extremely high, before even taking into account the wastefulness and mismanagement of any government measures. Unnecessary expenditures which will decrease global growth and wealth would be a terrible thing for the world’s poorest. Therefor the risks of being wrong about the seriousness of climate change are high in either direction.

    That said, I am about to close on a lease of an electric vehicle. My calculations show that with fuel savings it will cost me no more over five years than a gasoline car. If that is the case in the US with its relatively cheap gas, it is probably even more the case elsewhere. I believe there is no longer any excuse for 90% of people to purchase a petroleum-fueled car, unless one has a moral objection to the $7500 federal give-away for doing so.

    1. OK. I’ll rise to the bait on the cost talking point. The last IPCC report (WG3) estimated the GDP cash cost of a 2 deg C policy as negligible – a 0.06% cut in the annual rate of growth, well within the estimation error. The price of wind and solar energy has fallen since much faster than they expected, so a current estimate would be of negative net cost. That’s before accounting for the very large co-benefit of reduced health damage from air pollution. Four years ago I guesstimated the net benefit including these as $35 trn to 2040. No commenter challenged me at the time, and you can now refer to much more authoritative voices like Mark Jacobson, Christian Breyer and Andrew Blakers. The WHO has now doubled the estimate of all deaths from air pollution, indoor and outdoor, to 9 million a year. So any revision on the health benefits would be upward.

      As I tried to point out more recently, the problem is not the overall cost of the transition – which is negative from the sources I have – but the large front-loading of the required investment. Once your wind and solar farms, batteries, HVDC lines and EVs are set up, they cost very little to run. That’s why estimates of the cost (i.e, the increase in investment) for a 10-year GND in the US run to almost $10 trn.

  3. “…the Medieval Warm Period occurred during a time which had higher than average solar radiation and less volcanic activity (both resulting in warming).”

    Interestingly, we have recently entered a period of quite low solar activity and higher volcanic activity, which could last for a couple decades. It will be interesting to see any effects.

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