Most people have experienced firsthand the futility of trying to convince someone to change their political beliefs. It may often seem like these beliefs are held largely outside the realm of evidence and logic. In the case of climate change, that may be because they are. According to a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center, scientific knowledge has almost no effect on beliefs related to climate change. It’s something else entirely. While 92 percent of Democrats with high levels of scientific knowledge attributed climate change to human activity, just 23 percent of Republicans with the same level of knowledge did. Science has proven a largely ineffective method to convince skeptics of the reality of climate change, but a more thorough look at why science has failed in this arena may illuminate another, more effective approach.
On NASA’s climate change webpage, the drop-down list of topics—proof, causes, effects, etc.—sits firmly under the seemingly unnecessary title “Facts.” Not only do NASA and other scientific organizations have trouble convincing people of the reality that is climate change, they struggle to prove the validity of their research to the general public. A second 2016 Pew study may hold the explanation: 36 percent of U.S. adults “believe that research findings about global climate change are influenced by scientists’ desire to advance their careers.” Additionally, almost half of Republicans with high levels of scientific knowledge believe that climate research findings “are influenced by scientists’ own political leanings most of the time.”
Donald Trump illustrated this sentiment in a 2012 tweet: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” This sentiment has real consequences: Trump signed an executive order on March 28 that recalled or altered many of President Obama’s executive orders addressing climate change. This included a call to rewrite the Clean Power Plan, which aimed to replace coal-fueled power plants with cleaner energy installations, and eliminated the requirement for government environmental impact reports to account for climate change.
Recent backlash against climate change measures initiated by the Trump administration, including the appointment of Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA, has not convinced Trump to take action to curb the United States’ effect on the environment. Based on the Pew studies, it appears that the most effective tool to convince someone to take action to slow the effects of man-made climate change is an old-fashioned cost-benefit analysis. Pascal’s wager, a philosophical argument in favor of believing in God, is an unlikely but effective tool for the argument in favor of believing in climate change.
The wager was created by Blaise Pascal, a 17th-century French philosopher most famous for his argument that puts the question of the existence of God in mathematical terms. Pascal concluded that it is safer to wager on the existence of God because after weighing the relative rewards and costs in both scenarios—believing and not believing—believing in God yields the highest reward with only minimal sacrifices. The argument is that if God does exist, believing in him will bring infinite joy through an eternal afterlife in heaven, and not believing in him will bring infinite pain through an eternal afterlife in hell. By Pascal’s logic, if it turns out that God does not exist, then tempering our actions because we believed will have caused only a finite amount of pain, and acting freely because we did not believe will have brought only a finite amount of joy.
In the realm of this argument, believing in climate change is not so different from believing in God. As Pascal did with his wager, we will assume there is no factual method to determine whether there is a trend in the earth’s changing temperature, as the mistrust of the presented evidence has rendered it largely irrelevant.
Climate change, if real, poses an immeasurable threat—sea levels will rise, weather will become more extreme—colder on cold days and hotter on hot days—and we will experience more intense natural disasters. If we choose not to believe and fail to enact policies to combat climate change, even fossil fuel dependent industries will have to deal with human-induced flooding, more frequent hurricanes, and other costly disasters. While some climate change activists focus on the long game, the reality is that if climate change is real and we choose not to believe, the short-term effects will become obvious within our lifetime: they range from health concerns to hurricanes, and the costs—tangible and intangible—are immeasurable. If instead we choose to believe and enact policies to curb the effects of climate change, the rewards will also be immeasurable: we will successfully protect our health and our property and avoid incurring the massive costs in healthcare and reconstruction after climate change has taken its toll. If it turns out that climate change is not real, then regardless of our belief, the benefit or cost is definitively measurable: if we did nothing, the benefit would be a cost savings to the fossil fuel-dependent industries; if we enforced regulations to reduce carbon dioxide levels, the cost would be the fossil fuel industry’s price of compliance.
By believing in climate change, we are giving ourselves the chance for an immeasurable benefit or a comparably insignificant cost. By not believing, we are giving ourselves the chance for an insignificant benefit or an immeasurable cost.* Trump has laid his wager on the second outcome.
Admittedly, there are definite downsides of enacting climate change policy and decreasing the use of fossil fuels: the U.S. fossil fuel industry alone directly employed around 2 million people in 2014. But a 2017 study by the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate Corps found that renewable energy is creating jobs 12 times faster than the rest of the U.S. economy. In addition, the EPA estimated that Obama’s Clean Power Plan would have resulted in health and climate benefits for the U.S. valued at $55 to $93 billion per year in 2030. Even ignoring arguments against a move toward clean energy, the sacrifices the fossil fuel industry and those that depend on it will make are diminutive compared to the disastrous possibility of climate change proceeding unaddressed.
Admittedly, this point is hard to sell. Just like it would be difficult for an atheist to properly consider the infinitely negative prospect of going to hell, it is difficult for the fossil fuel-dependent businessperson to contemplate an unlimited string of business hardships due to flooding and natural disaster. But as the International Trade Union Confederation’s global rallying call illustrates, “There are no jobs on a dead planet.”
Even in the absence of convincing scientific research on climate change, believing in it is still the safest, most prudent option. Upon weighing the costs and benefits of believing or not compared to those of climate change existing or not, the infinite reward of believing in climate change outweighs the finite cost of not believing. Without science, convincing skeptics of a scientific event like climate change proves a daunting task, but science doesn’t have to be the only means of unifying our nation in the fight against climate change.
*Correction—Monday, April 17th: A previous version of this article incorrectly labeled the outcomes of “believe in climate change, climate change doesn’t exist” and “don’t believe, climate change doesn’t exist” as “insignificant benefits” and “insignificant costs,” respectively. The tables have been updated to reflect the correct outcomes, which are “insignificant costs” and “insignificant benefits,” respectively.