Wager for Change

Russ Wilson
Dec 8, 2019 · 8 min read

Why belief does not equal action when it comes to climate change

On the heels of another U.N. Emissions Gap Report, it seems only appropriate to dwell on the current state of climate change (in)action. While media coverage and political rhetoric continue to increase around the topic, actions don’t match the noise. This maybe is not surprising, but it does point to a need to change the framing of the debate.¹

Over two-thirds of Americans believe that climate change is a major issue or crisis (though how the question is asked can swing the numbers significantly). Yet, only about a quarter say they would be willing to pay ten dollars a month to help solve the problem.

In my own life, I revel in accomplishment when I bike instead of drive, forgo red meat, or even compost and recycle consistently.

But am I really doing that much? No, no I am not. And I know it.

However, I can sit in my own mental comfort that, individually, at least I am doing something. At least I believe in climate change and care enough to signal that belief to others. I convince myself that since I believe that large, systemic change is needed to truly tackle climate change, my belief is enough.

This comfort is what makes climate change so hard. Climate change is a collective action problem. Or more realistically a collective collective action problem. And yet, our political discourse still focuses on an individual’s belief on climate change, as if believing or not believing in it should be the basis for action. It should not matter.

The non-zero chance that climate change is real and a serious threat should be a serious motivator for action.

Pascal’s Wager for Climate Change

Indeed, people have made the comparison between climate change and Pascal’s Wager, a thought experiment about why a pragmatic and prudential individual should believe in something in conditions of uncertainty.

Pascal asserted that one should wager/believe in God, whether or not one “truly” believes in God. The greatly simplified and paraphrased argument goes like this: If there is a non-zero chance that God exists, it is in one’s self-interest to believe or “wager” in God.² He argues this because the pay-off of wagering correctly is infinitely good and the consequences of not believing in or “wagering for” God and getting it wrong are infinitely bad. In a phrase, heaven versus hell. The payoff matrix would look like this:

There are a number of flaws in the way that Pascal presents his argument (and certainly presenting it in a 2 x 2 matrix has many more issues), but it makes for a forceful comparison to climate change.³ Whether one truly believes in the threat that climate change poses or not, assuming a non-zero chance that it exists, one should wager that it does exist now, since the consequences of not doing so are incredibly dire.

Following this line of thinking, it is important to note that along with the size of the payoff, the probability of the payoff matters. Sure the Powerball might have a billion-dollar payout, but if I have a much better chance of getting struck by lightning or dying as a left-handed person using right-handed products, the odds of ever seeing that money is understandably minuscule.⁴

And this is what makes reading the U.N. Emissions Gap Report that much more anxiety-inducing — it is a reminder of another year gone by without serious actions taken to fight the impact of climate change. Hence the probability of incredibly bad outcomes continues to increase.

However, avoiding the policy discussion for another time, there are three big problems with accepting climate change as a modern-day version of Pascal’s Wager: 1. Belief versus action, 2. Geographic and temporal borrowing, and 3. Collective vs. individual problems. By not recognizing these problems and combating them, we fail to move beyond belief as the political football of climate change.

Belief versus Action

The logic behind this is as follows: even if I don’t think that climate change is real, the chance that it could be real should incentivize me to believe in climate change. The gap here is from belief to action. Now, the simple fix would be to alter the wager from “believing in climate change” to “acting as if climate change is a serious threat.” But, as the current political debate in the U.S. illustrates, a lot more energy is going into proving or disproving climate change instead of taking action.

We founder to coalesce around scientific evidence. Instead, we get lost in the increasingly pitiful back and forth about whether we should or should not believe the science behind the U.N. Emissions Gap report (and myriad other sources). This pettiness moves us farther away from the collective action that is important when facing the actual problem.

Living in a large American city, it is easy for me to feel comfortable in my belief in climate change. The vast majority of people I interact with on a daily basis share my belief and are (seemingly) as comfortable in knowing that at least we believe. This mindset is a largely apathetic and self-serving place to be. But it does speak to the collective nature of the problem and the privilege of living in the country that generates the most carbon dioxide emissions per capita by a large margin.

Geographic and Societal Borrowing

The “cost” of being correct or incorrect about climate change is distributed across different societies and throughout time. If I fervently disbelieve in climate change and am wrong, that impact does not necessarily affect me. Instead of just the wellbeing of my eternal soul (as seen in Pascal’s argument), wagering on climate change and being wrong impacts the wellbeing of future generations. Humanity — over seven billion people today and our collective progeny — will face the existential threat of climate change much differently.

And, in fact, acting to mitigate climate change could actually cost me a lot today, with the benefits trickling to others I will never see — whether in other countries or in future generations. Until climate-friendly options are cheaper and more convenient than less planet-friendly options, taking action against the problem will rest on behavior change. As of right now, for those individuals who do seek to be more conscious about their carbon footprint, the payoff matrix⁵ below illustrates why behavior change in this instance is so hard.

Taking action to use renewable energy, reduce waste, buy local produce, off-set the carbon footprint of travel, and the other readily available actions can actually cost a lot of time and money without an individual directly seeing the benefits.

Now, the benefit that one may or may not see is debatable (and certainly the knowledge that one’s actions may help future generations could outweigh any monetary sacrifice). However, the point stands. For the average individual to substantially reduce their carbon footprint, it is not cost-free and could be incredibly costly or inconvenient.

And not wagering to act against climate change may not produce negative results for one in the near or medium-term, with the long-term bounded by one’s own mortality. This is much different than Pascal’s Wager, where one will potentially benefit or suffer infinitely depending on present actions.

For those individuals in developed societies where this logic holds true (and to an extent, for the developing world where a similar set of incentives is also at work), the impacts of their actions are incredibly damaging to others. Yet, without seeing that impact on a daily basis and grasping what one’s actions mean for others, the cost and inconvenience of behavior change is prohibitive as a reason to wager to mitigate climate change.

Individual versus the collective

Pascal’s Wager is an argument for an individual’s belief in God. One should make the wager to benefit from eternal salvation and avoid eternal hellfire. Whether one makes that choice or not does not impact the fate of others’ souls. Conversely, the actions of others do not determine the eternal fate of an individual’s soul. The choice is made by one person and that consequences (presumably) are reserved solely for her or him. Not to mention that faith for one person can (and arguably should) look different for people from various walks of life.⁶

This is not the case with climate change. And in fact, the impact of an individual’s modest actions are incredibly small. My own eating, travel, and energy use habits are particular to me. Even if I can convince my neighbors and my community, we still would make an imperceptible dent in carbon emissions.

Furthermore, to ask billions of people around the world to individually arrive at a puritanical lifestyle adjustment is not only naive and impossible, but it also won’t work.

This is what makes climate change a particularly hard collective action problem. Given the number of societies that exist around the world, the problem is a collective collective action problem. There needs to be agreement and buy-in across a society of societies. The U.N. report reminds us of that. The problem is vastly different from the developed world to developing countries, across those with vast natural resources, from different energy needs and societal norms.

Moving Forward

Fighting climate change requires one to look toward collective problems and fight the lullaby of apathy that can accompany the self-congratulatory mindset of “at least I believe climate change is real.” The real wager here is taking action and breaking down collective problems into goals that can be solved by individuals.

Creating climate-friendly alternatives that cheaper and more convenient than their non-green counterparts across all industries is the gold (green?) standard. But this is not the current state for most industries in most places and will require broad, systemic change. Driving change through government policy is a slow and frustrating process, but if the debate remains around belief and not action, we will continue to face this mire of wagering on the wrong thing.


[1] Full disclosure, I do not pretend to be a climate scientist or even (as much as I cringe to admit it) a climate activist. By definition then, this post is more noise. Fair warning.

[2] If you want a better, more thorough discussion of Pascal (without actually reading his writing, because who has time for that?), see here: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pascal-wager/

[3] Yes, Pascal’s original formulation intended to demonstrate the benefits of believing in a matter of faith; whereas, the scientific evidence that underlies the argument for the seriousness of climate change is not based on faith but factual observations. But the religion vs. science piece of this is against the point.

[4] For those thinking that a tiny number multiplied by infinity is still infinity, three things: 1. Yes. 2. I told you this was a simplified presentation, and 3. You would be the ones reading footnotes on a Medium post.

[5] Last pay-off matrix, I swear.

[6] Indeed, this is a critique of Pascal’s Wager — belief in a higher power is not binary — there are many religions and conceptions of the “correct” god.

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