Climate change as religion
Religion is about God, and also about heaven or hell. The definition could be stretched to one where religion’s concerns apply to “long after we’re gone” and when we’re not quite sure what will happen then. Here’s where Al Gore and his merry band of alarmists come in with their Inconvenient Truth that the world is warming. With the supposed dire consequences in the very long run, we’d better do something about it. That something is reducing carbon emissions that produce the greenhouse effect, as any grade school science teacher will tell your kid. The science is that the greenhouse prevents the heat from the sun from escaping earth. And while what follows does not dispute this scientific finding, I see the debate as a matter of religion broadly defined. Those who would like to reduce carbon emissions believe in Climate Change as a religion, and those on the other side believe that the effects of global warming, if it exists, are not quite for certain.
This brings up a What If question: What if climate change as the alarmists tell us is not quite right? Specifically, what if the greenhouse effect, correct as of today, can be negated by an event or technology that “pierces” the greenhouse and allows the sun’s heat to escape? The problem could be not global warming but global cooling! After all, there are planets both warmer and cooler than earth.
I got two sensible and sober answers to the what-if question at a recent conference on climate change held at Silliman University. One answer, from a Cabinet Secretary in charge of climate change policy, Mary Anne Sering, is that we should confront the problem of climate change with “no regrets,” and besides, reducing our carbon footprint helps preserve the environment, cleaning up air and water pollution and helping us to lead healthier lives. Another answer came from the Silliman President, Dr. Ben Malayang III. He said that the proper response to climate change is one that results from “intellectual diligence.” I took that to mean that we should approach the matter with intellectual honesty. We should be skeptical of those who oppose the climate change initiatives because many of them are simply out to promote the interests of present-day fossil fuel owners or producers. If we accept Climate Change as religion it should be because we studied and thought about it long enough.
But are there philosophical or economic theories to support the Climate Change religion? It turns out that there are at least two intellectual patron saints of the religion. One is the mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-62). The other is the economist Thomas Malthus (1766-1834).
Pascal’s contribution to the debate is usually set up in terms of the question of whether God exists. Pascal’s answer is also known as Pascal’s wager. In the wager, there are only two possibilities: God exists, or not. If He exists, then it pays for one to behave morally or religiously so that he can go to heaven. If God does not exist, the believer would have lived a moral or righteous life, and there is no loss in that. The atheist however risks eternal damnation but gains little if there is no God.
Substitute Climate Change for God, and you have Pascal’s wager as applied to climate change. Therefore, we should strive to reduce our carbon footprint by reducing fossil fuel use or by planting trees. By now we should all be on the side of Al Gore and, perhaps coincidentally, also of Sen. Loren Legarda, who seems never far behind when it comes to environmental issues. Indeed, Legarda, citing a study by the Asian Development Bank, claimed in early 2010 that the Philippine economy would contract that year by 6% if we did nothing about climate change. That the economy actually grew must be evidence that we did the “right thing.”
Unfortunately, the 18th century economist Thomas Malthus can also be seen as a co-equal of Pascal as an intellectual patron saint of the Climate Change religion. What was Malthus’ argument and was he right?
Malthus and starvation
Malthus said we should control population because otherwise we would starve. His theory was quite simple, just like the greenhouse effect theory. Malthus thought that the earth’s bounty was a constant, but population would grow exponentially. The pressure of population on resources meant that people would starve unless they made certain economic choices. But what happened? Malthus was famously wrong, though only in retrospect. Technology brought about better agriculture and enough food to raise standards of living worldwide without the need for “discipline.” The idea that we should control our human tendency to procreate supposedly died.
Interestingly, the world must not have taken Malthus seriously because population continued to grow. And we got lucky. If we had believed in Malthus, we would have been more disciplined in terms of procreation. Many of us today would not exist because one of our forebears would have been one of those laughing Allegras that would never have been born.
So what to do now? Follow Pascal and Malthus because if we don’t believe and behave, the world would be a worse place. Or be a skeptic, and think that if fossil fuel is cheap enough, why not use it until it gets depleted. In the meantime, it is quite likely, even if we can’t quite predict the how and when, that some scientific or technological innovation will reverse or neutralize the greenhouse effect, or even put it to good use.
Climate change, the RH bill, and the Spratly islands in the Philippine legislature
It bears repeating that those who believe in Pascal or Malthus would adhere to Climate Change as religion. This is also quite politically correct since it seems likely that Climate Change adherents would also favor the RH bill whose underlying objective is (informed) population control. However, it appears that the Spratly issue will perhaps make them re-think. Why? If you believe in Climate Change, you don’t favor the use of fossil fuels. Why are we claiming the Spratly Islands? Supposedly, it is because the islands are within the economic territory of the Philippines, and of course, we would ordinarily want them because they are thought to contain valuable resources of fossil fuel reserves underneath. But since fossil fuels are verboten under the Climate Change religion, those who believe in green economics should value the islands more as a touristic curiosity, and not worth the diplomatic bother. A counter-argument, which is also sensible, is that we should press our claim on the islands because we want to make sure that the fossil fuels underneath are never used!
So there you are. We should believe in Climate Change because we want our children, grandchildren, and descendants all the way to 2100s, to have a future, even if possibly the science behind the Climate Change religion can be upended by future discoveries. It is for the moment a matter of intellectual due diligence. For the same reason, we should favor the RH bill because obviously, as in legal birth control, it is better to be safe than sorry. Again for the same reason, we should abandon our claim to the Spratly islands, or, in the alternative, if we press the claim, it is only because we want to “lock up” and never use the fossil fuels thought to belong to those islands.
The uncomfortable unknown or belief
As a skeptic, I sit uncomfortably with those who don’t quite believe in Climate Change, including the PR firms working for oil and coal companies. Still, I also don’t like the idea of being “green-washed.” I suspect that there is a greater payoff for mankind if we focus on basic science to solve the greenhouse problem without having to give up the use of cheap fossil resources. Because of uncertainty, this is uncomfortable belief. But in a world where we don’t know for sure, why should belief be comfortable?
PS: The economics of climate change
Accepting the science behind the greenhouse effect, we can apply the tools of economics to the choice between “doing nothing” and “doing something” about climate change. The social costs and benefits of global warming can be measured. On the best data that disinterested economists can come up with, it appears rational to be a non-believer in the Climate Change religion. The problem is that religion and rationality are often mutually exclusive. And so the debate goes on.