Beginning Oct. 31, decision-makers and scientists will meet in Glasgow, Scotland, to discuss revisions to the landmark 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. The 2021 UN Convention on Climate Change (known as COP26) is the latest major attempt by the international community to tackle the climate crisis and, in all likelihood, it also will be the last. As the conference’s president, Alak Sharma, noted, “What COP26 really stands for is our last chance to avoid the worst effects of climate change.”
If you’re one of the roughly 65 million Americans who don’t think humans contribute to climate change, that threat probably means nothing to you. You’re welcome to maintain your skepticism, but there remain warrants to live and legislate like the peril is real and catastrophic.
First, we should consider the conjecture of 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal. The argument, known as Pascal’s Wager, makes a pragmatic case for believing in God, but easily can be modified to apply to this earthly concern.
Let’s assume that the existence of manmade climate change cannot be reasoned and we must blindly choose whether to believe in it or not. If we choose to fight climate change by substantially cutting greenhouse gas emissions and it turns out to be real, we receive innumerable rewards: the preservation of forests that would have been eradicated, protecting dozens of inhabited islands from sinking below rising tides, and the saving of hundreds or millions of lives.
If climate change isn’t real or was inevitable anyway, we’re not really out much regardless of whether we fought to decrease emissions or not. But if we do nothing and the concerns of scientists are realized, summer heat waves would burden people across the globe, millions would get displaced from their homes, and famines would ravage less-stable countries.
If there is the slightest chance that climate change is real, even if that chance is low, it is wisest to bet on its existence given that the stakes are so high.
Regardless of the veracity of climate change, curbing fossil fuels remains a good idea. For one, it would cut air pollution and improve public health. Before 13-year-old me left Southern California for East Tennessee, I had routine asthma attacks and had to carry a steroid inhaler everywhere I went. But since I left the big city for quaint Friendsville, I’ve not once had an asthma attack (except during a smoggy visit to Beijing, China).
Though I can’t concretely attribute my improved health to the crisp atmosphere in our green state, research is clear that air quality makes a dramatic difference on personal health. It’s estimated that particulate matter generated by the burning of fossil fuels kills an extra 10 million people annually by inducing strokes, heart disease, lung cancer and other illnesses (“Global mortality from outdoor fine particle pollution generated by fossil fuel combustion.” Vohra, et al., April 2021). Even if cutting emissions doesn’t stop the planet from heating, it will at least give us a cleaner and healthier world.
There’s also an economic plus to pretending climate change is real. To cut greenhouse gases, America will need to completely revamp its electricity infrastructure. While this may sound like a challenge, the opportunity is much greater.
Renovating this infrastructure will require new jobs, and lots of them. In the example of President Biden’s proposed climate plan — a part of the American Jobs Plan currently in Congress — somewhere between 3 million and 11 million jobs would be created over the next nine years in sectors like solar energy and high-efficiency car manufacturing (“‘Green’ jobs in Biden’s infrastructure bill.” Clifford, April 2021). All-in-all, the Bank of America estimated that Biden’s climate plan would boost America’s economy by as much as 9% (“Here’s What Biden’s $2 Trillion Climate-Focused Infrastructure Plan Means For Stocks And The Economy.” Ponciano, February 2021).
Indeed, Blount County is already feeling the benefits of clean energy. As Matthew Murray pointed out in his recent Daily Times column, “the number of establishments doing business in our area and annual payroll both increased by 10%” largely as a result of Tennessee’s advanced energy economy (“The advanced energy economy benefits us all.” Sept. 30).
These strategies aren’t even political, with our recent Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander having proposed injecting billions of dollars into the U.S. Department of Energy for developing green technology via a “New Manhattan Project.”
It often is cited that 97% of climate scientists believe in manmade climate change, but you need not agree with them to see the advantages of going green. Treating climate change as something real, seminally dangerous and preventable has inherent benefits for our public health and economy. The roulette wheel is spinning and our chips are in hand. What’s our wager?