I’m All In

Last night my I went to a friend’s house for a casual game of poker. I’m not much of a cards player but the ‘guys night’ appeal didn’t sound so bad—just telling jokes and having a few beers with buddies is typically a good time.

We played Texas no limit hold’em. Its pretty much straightforward poker but with some shared cards and no limit on betting, which means that anyone can raise of stakes of a hand very quickly.

I’m quite risk-averse and conservative, which inevitably makes me a bad poker player. Rather than going ‘all in’ (betting everything that I have on just one hand), I tend to bet in small increments and fold whenever the stakes get too high.

As I pursued my conservative strategy throughout the night, I slowly but surely realised the problem with it. I won and lost small increments of money, which kept my bank pretty much where it was from the start. But as other people lost all of their money or made huge amounts of money, having what I started with wasn’t so impressive. I mean, I was still in the game hours after we began, but the others that remained had huge amounts of money. Their ability to out-bid me and scare me off of perfectly good bets meant that I would inevitably lose. I didn’t really realise this until the very end, when I became hopelessly overpowered and eventually (many hours later) lost.

Thinking back on it, my strategy was pretty bad. I spent hours working on incremental gains but as a result inevitably lost. I could have won perhaps if I had gone ‘all in’ on a few hands from the start but I was too conservative to do it. If I had lost those early hands, I could have retired to the sofa with the others. If I had won I could have walked away with some money. But my approach doomed me to a long and losing poker night.

If you are, for some reason, keenly interested in what I did last night, then this post is done. But if you’re interested in climate change, then stay with me as I explain how my poker match ties in.

What I realised this morning is that my approach to climate change and sustainability, and probably many others’, resembles my strategy in poker a lot. I buy green here an there, I do my part when I can, I change my thermostat a few degrees, and I try not to fly as much. I adopt an risk-averse and conservative approach.

This doesn’t seem like an unusual thing to do. I know others that make similar commitments and, speaking optimistically, some governments do the same. But a serious reflection on what the scientific phenomenon of climate change is suggests that it is a lot like Texas No-Limit Hold’Em.

As we know, climate change is one of the most monumental challenges our planet has ever faced. Carbon concentrations above 350 or 450 ppm are likely to produce catastrophic environmental consequences. The social and economic effects are likely to destroy the societies that we have built and leave destruction for our children. There is, of course, an option to stop this from happening and, by all measures, this will require extraordinary and concerted action as soon as possible. Producing any assurance that the worst effects of climate change will be prevented means unprecedented worldwide action.

In this situation, like the situation that I found myself in last night, a cautious and incremental strategy will necessarily doom us to failure. The longer we wait to go ‘all in’ the more futile going ‘all in’ will be. Either we throw all our weight behind risky action early and win (or lose) or we simply give up and face the consequences. Small bets will keep us in the game a long time, but if we still end up losing it will be a huge waste of time.

I think about climate change a lot. But today, for the first time, I realised just how incompatible my personal approach is with the problem is. I should either I go ‘all in’ now or give up. Caution will just ensure that I lose eventually.