Creating the frame for making choices

Tim O’Reilly observes that Pascal’s wager is a significant and early expression of decision theory when faced with a choice of what to believe when reason or science fails to provide a definitive answer is a simple and effective way to reason about contemporary problems like climate change.

We don’t need to be 100 per cent sure that the worst fears of climate scientists are correct in order to act. All we need to think about are the consequences of being wrong.

Let’s assume for a moment that there is no human-caused climate change, or that the consequences are not dire, and we’ve made big investments to divert it. What’s the worst that happens? In order to deal with climate change:

1. We’ve made major investments in renewable energy. This is an urgent issue even in the absence of global warming, as the International Energy Agency has now revised the date of “peak oil” to 2020, only eight years from now.

2. We’ve invested in a potent new source of jobs.

3. We’ve improved our national security by reducing our dependence on oil from hostile or unstable regions.

4. We’ve mitigated the enormous off-the-books economic losses from pollution. China recently estimated these losses at 10 per cent of GDP. We currently subsidize fossil fuels in dozens of ways, by allowing power companies, auto companies, and others to keep environmental costs off the books, by funding the infrastructure for autos at public expense while demanding the railroads build their own infrastructure, and so on.

5. We’ve renewed our industrial base, investing in new industries rather than propping up old ones. Climate skeptics like Bjorn Lomberg like to cite the cost of dealing with global warming. But these costs are similar to the “costs” by record companies in the switch to digital-music distribution, or the cost to newspapers implicit in the rise of the Web. That is they are costs to existing industries, but they ignore the opportunities for new industries that exploit the new technology. I have yet to see a convincing case made that the costs of dealing with climate change aren’t principally the costs of protecting old industries.

By contrast, let’s assume the climate skeptics are wrong. We face the displacement of millions of people, droughts, floods, and other extreme weather, species loss, and economic harm that make is long for the good old days of the current financial-industry meltdown.

Climate change is really a modern version of Pascal’s wager. On one side, the worst outcome is that we’ve built a more robust economy. On the other, the worst outcome really is Hell. In short, we do better if we believe in climate change and act on that belief even if we turn out to be wrong.

But I digress. The illustration has become the entire argument. Pascal’s wager is not just for mathematicians, nor the religiously inclined. It is a useful tool for any thinking person.

Tim O’Reilly, O’Reilly Media
from This Explains Everything edited by John Brockman, Founder of

Business cases to explore

Connecting our children to our community
Connecting water and oil – Have you heard the radio call?
Connecting the oil sands and our water and atmosphere
The Transpacific Partnership

Fort McMurray Oil Sands

I don’t tell people what to think. I am only saying what I think. I would like people to make up their own minds.

Neil Young – Canadian musician
Make up your own mind

Everybody is entitled to their opinion. It’s equally true, however, that everyone is not entitled to their own facts.

Dave Collier, – President, Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers
More oil sands facts, less rock star rhetoric

Petropolis – Aerial Perspectives – Film

Is this an argument for or against Alberta’s Oil Sands

Community connections

Creative connections

Neil Young – Music is our strongest form of communication

Impact on the economy

Qualicum Scallops lays off staff


Is Canada tarring itself?

The Alberta tar sands is the world’s second largest oil reserve. The tar sands are a mixture of sand and a heavy crude oil called bitumen. Bitumen can be mined in open pits or extracted from underground by injecting superheated water. Liquified bitumen is piped to upgraders for refining, as far as 1600 miles.


Peeling back the forest surface has already displaced more earth than the Great Wall of China, the Suez Canal, the Great Pyramid of Cheops, and the ten largest dams of the world combined. The project could eventually industrialize an area the size of England.


The Athabasca River is part of the third largest watershed in the world. Processing a barrel of bitumen requires approximately three barrels of water. The toxic water is then pumped into giant tailings ponds alongside the shore.


Enough natural gas is burned to heat 4 million homes daily, while local upgraders emit 300 tonnes of sulphur. Per day, tar sands operations release as much carbon dioxide as all the cars in Canada.


No comprehensive assessment of the megaproject’s environmental, economic, or social impact has been done.


From Petropolis – Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta oil sands – Watch the film –


This version was condensed from the 43 minute film in support of the “Honor the Treaties” 2014 concert tour presented by Neil Young




Petropolis Film Web Site –


Honor the Treaties –


Exploring the business case for the Gateway Pipeline project


Contribution to what interests

Cost to what interests

What we know – observable evidence


Probability analysis on the Tar Sands


Dr. Andrew Weaver

Canada Research Chair in Climate Modeling and Analysis

University of Victoria

Tom Steyer

San Francisco hedge-fund billionaire


Dug Saunders

Globe and Mail, April 18, 2014


NextGen Climate Action


“This is a global problem that calls for a global solution so one of the things I do hope I can learn about and I hope happens is that there is co-operation between Canada and the United States the way there has been in the past, where together we have managed to solve the hole-in-the-ozone problem and acid rain.”


He believes, strongly, that even the oil industry now recognizes that the climate debate is settled, that Canada has no need for an oil industry, that alternative-energy sources can be even bigger employers than petroleum, and that the market economy can make that transition happen and he would like Canadians to recognize this, and act accordingly.


He wants to convince Canadians that there is life beyond petroleum – that, beyond the big “no” of stopping Keystone and reducing oil-sands production levels, there is also a big “yes” of profitable post-oil enterprise.


The notion that the economy depends on petroleum revenues and jobs, he says, is a myth he is hoping to shatter by backing clean-energy industries – including, he says, a Canadian project to extend the Ontario hydroelectric grid more efficiently into the northern United States.


“It isn’t Keystone or nothing,” he says. “It’s Keystone or a different, cleaner energy future. That message is one that hasn’t got through nearly enough, and it’s played into this false dichotomy that either we’re going to have a strong economy or we’re going to have a healthy environment. And that is a false choice that people try to use to scare citizens and voters.”


Here he has a point: Canada’s economy is far less dependent on petroleum than is often portrayed by the Prime Minister and oil-patch investors. Oil and gas make up only 8 per cent of the economy (and 40 per cent of it is not from Alberta’s oil sands); our future does not depend on oil extraction. The drama of Keystone, however bold the headlines, is not really playing on centre stage. Mr. Steyer would like to persuade Canadians that they could get by just fine without Athabasca crude.


“I don’t know how it works in Canada,” he says, “but what we’ve seen in the United States is that there are a hell of a lot more clean-energy jobs than there are fossil-fuel jobs.”


‘This is not a Canadian problem or a U.S. problem, it’s a global problem’: U.S. ambassador to Canada on climate change