Pascal's Blunder: Miscalculating the Threat of Global Warming

Prominent religious voices in America, especially among evangelical Christians, are increasingly being heard in the debate over global warming. More often than not, evangelicals - many of whom could easily be described as political and cultural conservatives - see climate change as a man-made problem.

The National Association of Evangelicals, a coalition representing 52 member denominations, called on policymakers in October to pay more attention to the problem of “environmental degradation” in its landmark statement, “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility.” In a recent presentation to the NAE, Sir John Houghton, Britain’s leading climatologist, said, “The rise in global average temperature (and the rate of rise) that has occurred during the 20th century is well outside the range of known natural variability.”

Identifying human society as the culprit behind global warming is fast approaching the level of accepted dogma in evangelical circles, as a recent article by Andy Crouch in Christianity Today confirms. Crouch argues that global warming theory, “is taken for granted by nearly every scientist working in the field,” and that there is “no serious disagreement among scientists that human beings are playing a major role in global warming.” Crouch criticizes the Bush administration’s “indifference” on the issue, noting the basis for caution in the questions of “a few vocal skeptics.”

It’s ironic that Crouch finds the source of evangelical distrust of scientific global warming dogma in the contemporary creation/evolution debates. If there’s any group that should know about the difficulty of breaking through the groupthink of mainstream science, it ought to be the proponents of Intelligent Design.

Crouch goes on to compare the global warming debate to Pascal’s wager, the famous theological contention that to “believe in God though he does not exist” is to “lose nothing in the end. Fail to believe when he does in fact exist, and you lose everything.” In the place of God in Crouch’s version of the wager, however, is global warming.

The problem with this analogy is that Pascal’s wager is only valid when placed within the context of the eternal and the ultimate. When it is applied to everyday issues, it quickly loses its persuasive power. Crouch’s contention that “we have little to lose” if we exaggerate the threat of global warming displays no recognition of the reality of the future impact of unduly restrictive political policies and environmental regulations.

Vernon L. Smith, a Nobel laureate and professor of economics and law at George Mason University, recognizes the economic concerns that are often overlooked. He writes, “If we ignore this rule of optimality and begin abatement now for damages caused by emissions after 100 years, we leave our descendants with fewer resources - 100 years of return on the abatement costs not incurred - to devote to subsequent damage control. The critical oversight here is the failure to respect opportunity cost. Each generation must be responsible for the future effect of that generation’s emission damage. Earlier generations have the responsibility of leaving subsequent generations a capital stock that has not been diminished by incurring premature abatement costs.”

Thomas C. Schelling, a professor at the University of Maryland, agrees, “Future generations will be much richer than current ones, and it thus makes no sense to make current generations ‘pay’ for the problems of future generations.” Smith and Schelling participated in what is known as the Copenhagen Consensus of 2004, convened by environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg. This process helped to prioritize ten of the most critical global challenges. The threat of global warming was consistently ranked last or second-to-last by each of the experts, while concerns like communicable diseases (control of HIV/AIDS), malnutrition and hunger (providing micronutrients), and subsidies and trade (trade liberalization), topped the list.

Smith’s analysis exposes the critical flaw in Crouch’s argument: the false dilemma of action now or cataclysm later. What we do know for sure is that if we commit resources now to fight global warming that could otherwise be spent on programs of immediate need, millions will suffer and die needlessly. I can think of no better way of reckoning with Christ’s admonition, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34 NIV).

[Editor's Note: This article first appeared on September 7, 2005.]

Jordan J. Ballor is associate editor with the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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