May 1, 2005

Global Warming, Pascal’s Wager, and Magic Wands

By In Essays

Once again the Bush administration has defied logic and ignored renewable energy as a solution to our environmental crisis. Meanwhile, Japan has surged ahead of the United States as the world’s leading producer of photovoltaic panels, and it currently produces half the world’s solar power.

If you weren’t snoozing through philosophy class, perhaps you’ll remember the discussion on “Pascal’s Wager.” To paraphrase the 17th century mathematician and religious philosopher: If you believe that God exists and you’re right, you win. If you believe that God exists and you’re wrong, you still win because you’ve become a better person. But if you believe that God does not exist and you’re wrong, you’re in big trouble.

Whether you accept the validity and soundness of this syllogism depends

on how you interpret it. Nevertheless, it lends itself as a good template for the current argument on global warming. On side are a handful of scientists, pundits, and politicians paid either directly or indirectly by the oil, gas, and coal industries to say that burning fossil fuels has no effect on global climate change. Republican Senator James Inhofe even goes as far as calling the idea “a hoax.”

On the other side are hundreds of the most esteemed independent scientists and researchers in the world, including those in the National Academy of Sciences, who maintain that burning fossil fuels significantly contributes to global climate change.

Back to Pascal. If it’s true that burning fossil fuels contributes to global climate change, and as a result, we alter our national energy policy to reduce fossil fuel consumption, we win.

If it’s not true that burning fossil fuels contributes to global climate change, and as a result, we alter our national energy policy to reduce fossil fuel consumption, we still win because our environment will be cleaner and less polluted.

But if it’s true that burning fossil fuels contributes to global climate change, and we do nothing to change our energy policy, we’re in big trouble. In fact, we are already in big trouble and the situation is only getting worse.

Just take a look at George W. Bush’s current energy bill and it’s easy to see why: huge incentives for the gas, oil, and coal industries (and “nukular,” too) and very little indeed for renewable technology or incentives for increased fuel efficiency standards. In other words, the intention is to continue the same energy policy that has contributed to global warming for the past 30 years while at the same time ignoring alternative policies that could ameliorate the situation.

Recently, Bush said that he wished he could “wave a magic wand” to bring down the high cost of gas to help solve the energy crisis. Of course if he really wanted to do something constructive about it, the man who claims “Jesus changed my heart” wouldn’t have to wave a magic wand. All he would need to do is stop holding hands with the ruling family of Saudi Arabia and follow Christ’s example by throwing the money changers out of the temple, i.e., break free from his buddies in the oil, gas, and coal industries and institute a national renewable energy policy in the United States that would promote renewable technology like photovoltaic panels, windmills, and electric cars.

Of course Bush would never even consider such an idea, nor would all the apologists for the fossil fuels industry who discount human involvement in global warming. Japan, on the other hand, takes global warming seriously and has had a national renewable energy program in place for years. As a result, it has forged ahead of the United States as the world’s leading producer of photovoltaic panels, and it currently generates half the world’s solar power.

In addition, the Japanese are not only number one in the worldwide auto market with their gas-electric hybrid auto, the Prius, but last year introduced a super, all-electric car, the Eliica, that can outperform a Porsche and go from zero to 100kph in four seconds.

So don’t believe the propaganda (spawned during the Reagan years) that renewable technologies are not ready to be introduced to the mass market. Are they perfect? No, they still need to be improved and modified, especially electric car batteries, but once they are mass-produced, innovation will follow and free market competition– which Republicans claim to adore– will work out the rest of the bugs.

But will switching to renewable technologies provide enough energy for our country to become free of foreign oil? And will the cost of various alternative technologies dramatically decline if they are mass-produced? Of course, but don’t take my word for it.

Back in 1977, the Office of Technology Assessment did an exhaustive report on the subject and concluded that if the U.S. government, energy companies, and public utilities worked together to speed up the mass production of renewable technologies, these technologies “could be made {economically} competitive in markets representing over 40% of U.S. energy demand by the mid-1980s.”

Given this timetable, it is reasonable to assume that by 2005, renewable technologies would not only be much less costly than carbon-based technology but also able to supply anywhere from 50-75% of all our current energy needs. Which would mean a reversal of global warming, less pollution in our environment, fewer respiratory illnesses, no wars for oil in the Middle East, a lower cost to heat and cool our homes and drive our cars, and complete energy independence for our country.

So why didn’t our government institute a national renewable energy program decades ago to facilitate this transition? For the same reason it is not doing it today: The oil, gas, and coal industries, as well as their allies in the automobile business, are convinced it would destroy their monopolies and cut into their profits by billions of dollars each year. And to make sure this doesn’t happen, they routinely pay off politicians to ignore renewable energy legislation, postpone higher fuel efficiency standards, and obfuscate the issue of global climate control with the help of their friends in the mainstream news media.

But wouldn’t it be more prudent to accept Pascal’s Wager and err on the side that global warming is real and a national renewable energy policy is needed now– not 20 years from now?

Of course it would. Only an idiot or an evil person would choose otherwise– or perhaps an individual who is both an idiot and an evil person.

Now, if we could only wave a magic wand.

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