As I write, the leaders of the world are gathered at Copenhagen to discuss what is to be done about the threat of global warming.
There remains a significant minority of climate change ‘sceptics’ in the world. The debate over the reality of global warming is a fascinating illustration of the human ability to ‘manufacture’ a preferred reality. At the one extreme you have environmentalists who have clamouring about the damage humans are doing to planet earth since the 1960s, and who now feel they have enough solid evidence to say a rather big “I told you so!” At the other extreme you have the vested commercial interests for whom saving the planet is just going to cost too much money, and who find it more convenient to believe that global warming is just a big conspiracy.
Both these extremes exhibit all the classic features of self-deception: picking and choosing the evidence that supports their case and ignoring the evidence that doesn’t; setting up ‘straw man’ arguments for their opponents and demolishing them; attacking the character of those on the other side; and so on. Their positions may be complete opposites, but sometimes it’s amazing how similar their tactics are! And none of those tactics are very likely to lead them to know the truth of the matter.
In the middle, of course, lies the real and objective science. As I understand the current state of play, the debate is able to continue because the evidence is not yet conclusive either way. It is simply not possible to say with certainty yet that man-made global warming is a perilous reality or to rule it out with confidence.
So the game becomes one of risk management. Sometimes, even if the risk of something bad happening is small, you may still want to invest a lot in avoiding it, because if it did happen, it would be disastrous. We do this every time we hop into a car. Your seat belt will be useless and inconvenient 99.9% of the time you are in the car. Yet you put up with that because that 0.1% of the time when you need it, when you are involved in an accident, it can save your life. The seriousness of the danger makes all that inconvenience worthwhile. That seems to be the argument of the more sensible and objective climate change believers at the moment, and I must confess it makes a lot of sense to me.
It also bears a startling resemblance to the argument about believing in God. Even if you believe it highly unlikely that God exists, the danger of being an unbeliever if God is real is so great that it actually makes sense to believe in God just in case. I suppose this is another variation on Blaise Pascal’s famous wager (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal%27s_Wager).
Following the risk minimisation logic through, you will find some rather unexpected personalities on either side of the global warming debate. For example, while the Greens’ Senator Bob Brown is an avowed atheist, he sees the sense in taking the safe path on the environment. On the other hand, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell is a climate change sceptic!
That’s not to say that all Christians should be global warming believers. As I said before, the evidence remains inconclusive at this point. But it is interesting to see how people can change their standards for accepting things so drastically according to what they want to believe.
The gathering is interesting from another side as well. Nations have historically found it almost impossible to collaborate effectively on anything without selfishly seeking what’s best for themselves. Even friendly nations often will not help each other without getting something out of it, or at least safeguarding their own interests. The Americans have been the world champions at this game for some time now, although China seems to be challenging for the crown through its business ventures in Africa. But now, faced with a potential crisis that threatens the very existence of nations, and one that threatens the whole world without exception, will this selfish approach be continued? Or will the nations finally feel that they must put aside individual agendas and come together to save humanity from destruction?
I think it would be naive to expect that any real change in attitude is likely to occur, at least not until things get really, really bad. And perhaps not even then. And yet, it will be interesting to observe just how much change does occur, and how much of it is genuine rather than grandstanding on the world stage.
Meanwhile, think green! Hey, it’s a nicer lifestyle anyway.