Durango Herald Environment Global Climate Change Hope

Accept the Wager

            Recently Dr. Roger Cohen challenged people in Durango to a bet about global warming. A well trained scientist, he earned a PhD in physics. When Dr. Cohen worked for the energy industry he was responsible for managing basic research in climate. While Dr. Cohen acknowledges that climate change is occurring, he believes that most of the change is not human induced. He does not see us headed toward an anthropogenic global catastrophe.

            Right here on the Herald Opinion pages, in order to prove his point, Dr. Cohen offered a $5000 wager that it would actually be cooler a decade from now.

            “Don’t dignify him by acknowledging the wager” was my wife’s advice. My son Dave had another viewpoint. “Five thousand dollars is insignificant compared to the future of the human race!” Dave was angry that someone would consider jeopardizing the future of his daughters for so little money. Herald readers wrote Letters to the Editor on both sides of the issue.

            I am usually up for a challenge and considered this one, despite my family’s advice. I had several concerns, including religious. As a Quaker (a member of the Religious Society of Friends), I am not supposed to bet. Nevertheless, I wrote Dr. Cohen a letter accepting his wager, with some conditions. Global climate change is a good indicator of our abuse of Earth’s resources by excess population and excess consumption.

            To my surprise, my offer was accepted. We had several conversations and ironed out the terms of the wager—which ended up different from the original. For instance, we agreed to look at the average global temperature for three years instead of relying on a single value.

            There is interesting precedent to this wager. Dr. Scott Armstrong (a professor at the Wharton School of Business) has publicly offered the “Global Warming Challenge” to Al Gore (of “Inconvenient Truth” and Nobel Prize fame).  Gore declined.

            Dr. Armstrong was a friend of another business school professor, Julian Simon. Before he died, Simon was the spokesperson for the cornucopians—people who believe that the natural world does not have limits. A definition comes from Wikipedia: “A cornucopian is someone who believes that continued progress and provision of material items for mankind can be met by advances in technology.” Although most people don’t think of themselves as cornucopians—or even know that such a word exists—they act that way.

Some of Simon’s statements were outlandish. He wrote: “We have in our hands now… the technology to feed, clothe and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years. …we would be able to go on increasing our…population forever….”

It is easy to show that with just one percent growth, at the end of just seven million years number of people would be impossibly huge. We would exceed the number of atoms in the universe!

            Paul Ehrlich, who popularized concern about population with his book The Population Bomb, had a wager with Simon about resource depletion. The bet was that the price of five metals would increase over a decade, as they got scarcer. In fact, improved mining techniques decreased their cost and Ehrlich paid up. Unfortunately, their bet was about resources of secondary importance. Air quality (a prime resource) and many other important measures of wellbeing declined during that same period.

            The Durango wager has turned out to be much friendlier. One of Dr. Cohen’s original stipulations was “My winnings will be donated to a local charitable organization promoting science education.” I am on the board of Durango Nature Studies, which fulfills these requirements. I wanted to do the same, and we agreed that all of the money would benefit DNS. The Community Foundation Serving Southwest Colorado will hold the money for the ten year period as part of DNS’s endowment.

            A large volcanic eruption could blanket the globe and cool off the climate. We agreed that the bet will be called off if this happens in the second half of the decade of the wager.

            You will have to wait ten years to find out who wins the wager. I hope that Dr. Cohen will prevail! By then Dave’s girls will be eleven and fourteen. I would like to think that any cooling would be caused by people using renewable energy sources and taking action to cut greenhouse gas production. Then the world my granddaughters inherit will be cooler, and will remain a wonderful place for them to live in.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2008 

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