Barry Jones and the wisdom of Pascal’s wager

In the 1980s, former Minister for Science, Dr Barry Jones, was ridiculed for his Commission for the Future, which warned about global warming and climate change. Philip Adams rightly recalled just how wise Jones was and how prescient the Commission was—and gave us yet another reason to get rid of Howard’s appalling government.

A variation of the argument Pascal applied to belief in God can be applied to climate change. Pascal’s "wager" says it’s better to bet on God’s existence than against it. If he exists, you’ll be an eternal winner; if not, you’ve lost nothing. On the other hand, Pascal argued, to bet against God and to lose means you’ve lost everything.

For years John Howard joined George Bush in betting against the reality of climate change. On this issue these Christian gentlemen were effectively atheists. And they’ve been proved disastrously wrong. Now they’re being politically punished. Trouble is, so are the rest of us.

In the ’80s, the Commission for the Future was established by Barry Jones, the Hawke government’s minister for science. I was chairman and Professor Ian Lowe was CEO. We chose the greenhouse effect, as this fatal phenomenon was then known, as our focus. We published documents, convened conferences, imported experts, held meetings in town halls across Australia. There was a dramatic response from scientists and public alike but a negligible reaction from our politicians.

At the time the problem wasn’t denial. The climate change conspiracy theorists were yet to emerge. Nor was it a question of party-line hostilities—they, too, would emerge much later. Indeed, more concern was shown for the issue on the conservative side. The problem was just that it was early days for anxiety. What the Commission for the Future was shouting about belonged to … the future.

Not that we were being loud or angry. Anything but. Prior to the rise of "risk management" as both a fundamental ingredient in business and an increasingly influential profession, we were proposing the wisdom of Pascal’s wager. In everything we said and published we stressed the same point. It is safer, better, wiser to act on the assumption that global warming is a major threat. If proven to be true, Australia will be years ahead. If we’re proved wrong, we’ll still have gained. We’ll have reduced pollution. We’ll have cleaner air, purer water.

Come John Howard’s watch we’d lost the bet. Like Bush, he listened to the wrong people. The famous vested interests. Having closed down the Commission for the Future, Howard harkened to Hugh Morgan and his fellow miners. The PM preferred the soothing views of the deniers among right-wing think-tanks and punditry to those of the scientists. Howard saw climate change (Bush’s soft-pedal term for the crisis) as some sort of insidious, ideological attack on the very lifeblood of capitalism.

In short, there was no risk assessment. No insurance. No safeguards. And in an appalling piece of symbolism, no Kyoto. Now with our rivers dying, dams drying and our cities and food production in crisis, he admits there is a problem. And he expects to be taken seriously and gratefully as the nation’s saviour.

Oh, and he reckons nuclear power is the answer. And more uranium mining. The nuclear power industry was on its last legs, dying everywhere. For good reason. It’s immensely costly, increases dangers of weapon proliferation, poses huge problems with waste disposal and the decommissioning of plants.

It will take decades to build nuclear plants. And did you know that the much-vaunted value of uranium is somewhat exaggerated? It’s just 1 per cent of our mining exports. As Ian Lowe points out in the latest Quarterly Essay—demolishing Howard’s nuclear arguments—Australia makes more from the export of cheese.

Can one hope that Labor will get off its backside? If you look at NSW the answer is no, with the Government opening coal mines at 1000-miles-an-hour while tackling Sydney’s water shortages with a wretched de-sal plant. And federal Labor seems more concerned with 14,000 coal-mining jobs—a labour force that could easily be absorbed in building sustainable power stations.

As Lowe points out, we’ve lost hundreds of thousands of jobs in the manufacturing industries in recent years—and that’s put down to progress. As climate change bites, its effect on, for example, the Great Barrier Reef will be dramatic. Bang go 60,000 jobs in the Queensland tourist industry.

The Murray-Darling was a disgrace long before climate change kicked in. Now it’s official. It’s a calamity. Howard tells us this as if it’s news. As with power needs, water usage has been spiralling out of control for decades—and the lack of political response at all levels of government has been criminal.

We need a change in the political climate just as the PM needed a better role model. He should have dumped Bush (everyone else has) and gone for Arnie. What Schwarzenegger is achieving in California—an economy of comparable scale to Australia’s—is impressive. Power-saving initiatives, alternative energies, tougher emissions laws.

It’s all bets off on climate change. Howard to the knacker’s yard. Time to change horses.