Blaise Pascal would be impressed, perhaps. But we shouldn’t be. Secretary of State John Kerry, even as the Middle East burns and a chill descends on U.S.-Russia relations, is keeping his focus on “climate change.” And he’s offered up a version of Pascal’s wager.
“If we make the necessary efforts to address this challenge — and supposing I’m wrong or scientists are wrong, 97 percent of them all wrong — supposing they are, what’s the worst that can happen?” Kerry asked as he gave the commencement speech at Boston College on Monday.
That’s a variation on Pascal’s Wager. As a logic exercise, Pascal considered whether God exists. Because there is scientific and philosophical uncertainty, Pascal says people must wager — in other words, choose to believe God is, or is not.
“Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is — let us estimate these two chances,” Pascal wrote in his collection of thought, “Pensees.” “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.”
Kerry’s use of the Wager demonstrates one thing: despite claims otherwise, despite claims to the contrary, the science and the debate are not settled. Believers in man-caused climate change are still trying to evangelize, to convince the rest of the world of their rightness.
Hence the first part of Kerry’s Wager: “If we make the necessary efforts to address this challenge…”
But what, exactly, are those efforts? For one thing, America isn’t the problem. Carbon emissions in the U.S. are down dramatically, and continuing to decrease. At the same time, emissions from China and India and other emerging nations are rising — even more dramatically.
As The Atlantic magazine observed last year, “China, where rapid economic growth has been powered with copious amounts of coal, accounted for more than a quarter worldwide emissions in 2011, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The United States was responsible for just under 17 percent.”
In other words, there’s nothing we can do unilaterally that will truly “address this challenge.” Bringing China and India to the negotiating table isn’t something those college graduates can do. That’s Kerry’s job.
On the other side of the Wager are the consequences. When Kerry asks “what’s the worst that can happen?” here’s what he lists: “We put millions of people to work transitioning our energy, creating new and renewable and alternative; we make life healthier because we have less particulates in the air and cleaner air and more health; we give ourselves greater security through greater energy independence…”
But the true costs of a carbon tax — because in some form or another, that’s what we’re talking about — would be heavy and would hit the poor the hardest, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.
Kerry’s argument fails because he misrepresents the Wager. Pascal could at least offer clear-cut choice and black-and-white outcomes — Heaven or Hell. Kerry can’t do that. All he can do is downplay the consequences and piteously plead with Americans to make the “right” choice.
Kerry claims his argument is “about science,” not faith. But don’t bet on it.