Gore’s Wager for the future

By Justin Doran

This past Friday, Al Gore was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for increasing popular exposure to the effects of manmade climate change. The media response to this was overwhelming: Al Gore 2008! To me, the irony of this response was excruciating. Here was a man who lost the presidency entirely to a broken electoral system. Who bowed out to a man who would come to devastate U.S. environmental policy. Who, after years of soul searching, made the decision to re-enter the public sphere as a champion for the greatest cause of our generation. And after receiving one of the highest honors available to the sons and daughters of mankind, then (Then!) he should renew his faith in the American political establishment.

The almost comical disconnect that appears between today’s media and actual historical context comes from the longstanding portrayal of global warming as a political issue. As I understand it, the destruction of the Earth’s habitable environment is not something that a rational human being can espouse. As Al Gore explains over and over again, the preservation of the environment is a moral question, and it exists in politics only insofar that government is a formalization of morality.

The question seems to be how much ethical value we should assign to nonhuman life. For the most part, a consensus exists that its value is correlated to the extent that it serves a purpose for human beings. However, as the category of life comes closer to human intelligence, or even just the ability to feel pain, there is more debate on whether or not those creatures have a value apart from human interest. This line of thinking mistakes the forest for the trees.

If the assumption here is that all life is measured against the value of human life, then there is no question that human life is valuable. Moreover, the value of human life does not decrease when it takes the form of our children. If anything, the moral weight of our children is far greater than that of our own.

So why, when considering the effect of global warming on the environment, do we even make the distinction between the destruction of ecosystems and the termination of human life? The continued existence of humanity depends on the biotic communities we inhabit. Its value is the same as our own.

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The disagreement, as has been regurgitated by pundits of every shade, is whether or not our current behavior will jeopardize the lives of our progeny. One argument that has been posed by a number of environmental ethicists is a variation on Pascal’s Wager, which is an argument for believing in God. It has variably been called the Global Warming Wager, but here I’ll refer to it as Gore’s Wager.

There are four possibilities. Global warming is actually caused by humans, or it is not. Additionally, we can choose to believe global warming is caused by humans, or we can choose not to. What are the ethical consequences of these four possibilities? Obviously, we are the most morally culpable if we are, in fact, causing global warming yet refuse to believe it. This ultimately ends in the extinction or large-scale diminishing of human life as a result of our own stubbornness.

On the other hand, if we act under the assumption that humanity is causing global warming, even if we are incorrect and it is the result of natural processes, we are not responsible for the destruction of our species. And if we are able to transform our planet in time to preserve our continued existence, then there will exist future generations to sing our praises. Yet the media continue to entertain the “debate” on global warming. There is no debate; there is no discussion to be had. There is only action and inaction.

Some have doubted that fighting global warming is an achievement on the same level as the Geneva Conventions, or ending Apartheid in South Africa, or making peace in Vietnam. On an issue of this magnitude there can be no doubt: No one has deserved the Nobel Peace Prize more than Al Gore.