George Bush has decided not to go to the world environmental conference in Rio de Janeiro in June. The meeting is supposed to mark the formal beginning of an unprecedented international effort to deal with the world’s major environmental problems, and many heads of state will be there.
The conference could signal the beginning of a New World Order. Not an order based on the idea that we can kill everybody and they can’t kill us, but an order based on the recognition that we’re all in this together.
But the soothsayers and oracles who guide George with their polling results have told him the people are sick of seeing him in foreign lands even if he did manage to vomit on an enemy prime minister. So here he stays, locked inside the 12-mile limit as surely as Jimmy Carter was locked in the White House by Iranian revolutionaries.
Maybe he should reconsider. The present American position on the bigger environmental issues is so out of step with the rest of the world that in Rio Bush would almost certainly be attacked verbally, and he might even be the target of hostile demonstrations. If Bush could escalate the demonstrations into a claim that foreigners hate him, he might be able to win back some Pat Buchanan supporters. Especially if he took some decisive action, like running over demonstrators with his limo or dropping bombs on them from Air Force One.
The biggest point of contention between the U.S. and the rest of the human race is global warming. If the dire predictions related to the greenhouse effect are close to the truth, coastal cities will soon disappear beneath the seas and we midwestern birdwatchers will be adding cactus wrens and roadrunners to our Chicago-area lists.
The countries of the European Community have already embarked on a program to reduce the emission of carbon dioxide and other gases from their industries and vehicles. But here in the U.S., the Bush administration has decided that we can’t afford to spend large amounts of money to fend off a menace that we are not absolutely, totally, 100 percent certain is real. If George wakes up one morning to find his cigarette boat floating into the living room of his house in Kennebunkport, we might do something, but until then, prudence dictates that we shut our eyes and pretend real hard.
This stance set me to thinking about Pascal’s wager. Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician, is said to have presented this wager as a proposition to gamblers for whom he used to calculate odds. God, said Pascal, is so mysterious, strange, and unknowable that we can never be certain He exists. In the absence of certainty, how should we behave? If we bet that He does not exist, we could live like CIA agents, free of moral constraints. If we had made the right bet, we would, at the end of our lives, simply die. But if we had made the wrong bet, we would burn in hell for all eternity.
Our other alternative is to bet that He exists. If we did that, we would try to live morally upright lives. And at the end of those lives, if we had made the wrong bet, we would just die. But if we had made the right bet, we would enjoy indescribable bliss for all eternity. So, Pascal concludes, if you consider what you have to win and what you have to lose, betting on existence is your best bet.
Which brings us to Bush’s wager. George is betting on nonexistence. The greenhouse effect, he says, is not happening. If he is right, we have no problems. If he is wrong, we are condemning ourselves and our children to miseries that will make the horrors of the 20th century look like a day at the beach. Come to think of it, in the 21st century everything might look like a day at the beach: merciless sun beating down on bare sand with no shade in sight.
What if we were to bet the other way, to wager that the greenhouse effect is real? The benefits are incalculable–not eternal bliss, but at least the possibility of a decent life for our children. But, George might counter, we could be throwing vast amounts of money, money that could be used to build schools or bomb Libya, at a chimera. How strong is George’s argument? Would all the money it would take to counter the greenhouse effect be wasted if the greenhouse effect is not real? I don’t think so.
There is general agreement on what needs to be done to counter global warming. The most important action would be to reduce our use of fossil fuels. The combustion of oil, coal, and natural gas releases carbon that has been locked up underground since the Paleozoic, and this carbon combines with oxygen to produce CO2, the principal greenhouse gas. We need to make our industrial processes more efficient, make our cars more efficient and use them less, design and build our houses so they require less energy for heating and cooling, and develop alternative energy sources such as solar power to replace fossil fuels.
Does any of that sound familiar? Haven’t the benefits of reducing our use of fossil fuels been apparent for decades? Isn’t it already clear that we would be better off if we didn’t have to send quite so much money to the gas company? That our lungs would be healthier if we didn’t have to breathe so much smog? That our oceans would be cleaner if there were fewer oil tankers on the seas? (Did you know, by the way, that oil tankers release far more oil on purpose, for such things as cleaning out their tanks, than they do in accidents?) And wouldn’t it be nice not to have to ask “How high?” every time the reactionary idiots who run Saudi Arabia ask us to jump?
The second thing we need to do is eliminate the use of halocarbons, the family of chlorinated compounds that includes chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), halons (which are used in fire extinguishers), and chlorocarbons such as carbon tetrachloride, which are used as solvents and for other purposes. This one is a freebie. These compounds are known to be the principal villains in the problem of ozone depletion, and last year, after an ozone hole opened over Kennebunkport, George decided that loss of ozone was a real problem. So we have already joined with other nations in a major effort to get rid of these chemicals.
The third thing we need to do is reverse the global trend toward deforestation. Forests provide cooling and CO2 absorption and thus help prevent global warming. But, again, shouldn’t we be committed to reforestation anyway? Aren’t forests, especially tropical forests, vast reservoirs of life? Aren’t they the places where most of the earth’s biological diversity is located? Aren’t we already trying to protect forests in order to protect gorillas, harpy eagles, gibbons, spotted owls, and millions of other life forms?
We can also help ourselves by finding better ways to deal with our garbage than putting it in landfills, since anaerobic decomposition in landfills produces methane, a greenhouse gas. We might also eat less beef, since cow farts (at this point you are allowed one short giggle) are another noticeable methane source. But if we do the big three, we can avoid the miseries the greenhouse effect will bring.
It is really up to George now to decide where to place his bet. Will he bet that the greenhouse effect is real? If he does, he will have to start aggressively promoting ultimately beneficial but sometimes unsettling changes. American business is dominated by a hidebound, stodgy, and increasingly conservative managerial class, a class that will oppose George if he starts making noises about requiring them to leave behind the methods that are now leading them into bankruptcy.
If he bets that it is not real we all face the risk of a sort of hell on earth, but businessmen won’t get riled up and they will keep sending George nice big campaign contributions. You know him as well as I do; which way do you think he will go?