Faced with new climate-related threats and changes every day, it’s time to present a new, environmental version of Pascal’s wager. As 17th Century French mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal argued, a rational person should live as if God exists. If God does not actually exist, the person has lost little. But if God does exist, then that person has gained eternal life.
Today, especially as citizens of an industrialized country, there is little lost by making investments in cleaner, greener buildings, energy and transportation. Such a change would prepare us for a world in which the climate is changing. If science is wrong, and the climate changes are natural, or not as drastic as forecast, society has wasted little and gained much—in fact, several studies have shown that such investments would be economically beneficial.
It’s become clear that for some areas it may be too late to adapt. A new report from the American Geophysical Union says Hampton Roads, Va., for example, has already “fallen victim to sinking land and rising seas.” The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says limits on adaptation will be reached in some islands and in the Arctic.
At the rate the world is emitting carbon, it will take less than 10 years to reach the threshold where a 1.5° C temperature rise (2.7° F) is inevitable. At that point, scientists say, changes in the natural systems will be irreversible.
Still, there is hope. Emissions can be limited not just through government action, but through the efforts of architects, contractors and engineers. The industry must find new and innovative ways to reduce energy intensity, which will help keep the globe from reaching the 1.5° threshold. Limiting the temperature increase to 1.5° could provide up to $20 trillion in global benefits, according to a 2018 study in the journal Nature.
Buildings and construction are responsible for 39% of global carbon emissions, according to a report from C40, a climate leadership group of cities that represents one-twelfth of the world’s population. Regulations and incentives could reduce carbon-intensive steel and cement use by 35% and 56%, respectively. Measures such as these are key because over the next 40 years, the world is expected to add the equivalent of a city the size of Paris to the planet every week. Despite the trend toward more efficient buildings, the amount of growth outpaces the efficiency gains. The movement toward electrified vehicles at construction sites can also reduce emissions.
There are still some people who don’t agree with the overwhelming scientific consensus that the earth’s climate is changing or that the cause is man-made emissions. Yet there is a lot of sense in acting as if that change is coming. The world will be better off for it.