A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change

Can a philosophical approach to the climate issue have a practical impact? wonders Steve Yearley

July 21, 2011

Philosophers and students of ethics are famed for the lurid and complex scenarios they invent to test out their ethical principles: should a passer-by switch the railway points to save the runaway carriage stuffed with people, even if the decision leads to the death of a single person stranded in the train's new path? Is it ethical for cavers trapped in a mine to blow up a rotund individual irremovably wedged in the access tunnel?

And just suppose there were a strange form of gaseous emission that came from our customary transport, heating and industrial applications and that was believed by leading scientists to have very serious implications for the way our climate works. This imagined gas circulates around the atmosphere and lingers a long while so that people who don't emit much of the gas are as likely to be affected as those who do. Because this gas builds up in the atmosphere slowly, the strongest impacts will not occur during the lifetime of the present generation, but in two or three or more decades. And although the gas is overwhelmingly emitted by people, it will also have an impact on the oceans and is likely to cause the death of corals and do numerous other ecological harms. What would be the ethically right thing for citizens and governments to do?

The riddle couldn't be simpler. But Stephen Gardiner's point is that so much of the current argumentation around climate change focuses on matters such as disputes over historical temperature records, the likely rate of warming or the viability of a carbon tax, that the extent of the ethical challenge posed by our impact on the climate can be easily overlooked or marginalised. But for Gardiner, climate change is a very serious ethical problem and an equally serious challenge to the discipline of philosophical ethics.

Admittedly, the rhetoric of the "perfect storm" is perhaps becoming too familiar. The UK government's chief scientific adviser, Sir John Beddington, is already using the term to draw our attention to the overlapping effects of anticipated food, water and energy shortages. But for Gardiner, climate change represents a perfect moral storm, in that prosperous people today are knowingly imposing large burdens on poor people, on the biosphere and on future generations, and knowingly not doing much to reform our collective behaviour. If we measure our behaviour in terms of our carbon-dioxide emissions, today's prosperous people are not even beginning to reform our conduct; we are emitting more than we were 20 years ago, not less.

A Perfect Moral Storm is lucid and written with a philosopher's precision. The business of the first four of its six sections is to anatomise the problem. As hinted in the riddle above, Gardiner believes that there are three interacting storms. The first is global in the sense that emissions from carbon uses that benefit the developed world may already be making life worse for poor people, by intensifying literal storms or changing rainfall patterns. Under these circumstances, where emissions are dispersed and the pollution spreads worldwide, one cannot even look to fix one's own problems since we are all in it together. The second is intergenerational, since the present generation is setting in train changes that are very likely to cause harms in the future. This is a kind of buck-passing to future generations who can obviously have no say now.

Finally, there is a theoretical storm in the sense that our conceptual tools for handling problems of this character and magnitude are not sufficient. For example, cost-benefit approaches to the evaluation of policies for climate change - and other large-scale intergenerational problems for that matter - are so dependent on the techniques used to put a current value on future goods and on assumptions about how wealth and well-being will develop in the future that they are little more than reflections of current outlooks. They are less a guide to the future than a reflection of present values and prejudices.

In specifying the way in which these three storms operate, Gardiner covers a lot of useful ground. He is very good at exposing the sloppy way that the standard tropes from game theory (such as the tragedy of the commons) are often applied to the "analysis" of the climate change issue. The climate problem is in notable ways trickier than the standard commons issue, for example. And he provides some very smart commentary on current agreements and initiatives. He is inclined to see the Kyoto Protocol, for example, not so much as a heroic start, but as an agreement that has already licensed wealthy countries to maintain their lifestyles without making any deep cuts in emissions or undertaking related policies. And the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen was no better, since there were no mandatory targets for emissions reductions.

With ethically difficult problems of this sort, Gardiner says, there is always a danger of moral corruption: that those who stand to benefit from business as usual, or who will have to forgo a good deal of their present comfort, will be attracted to inadequate and half-hearted measures. Such measures allow them (that is to say: us) the reassurance that they are doing something to address the problem while, in fact, they are changing very little.

Paths to moral corruption are imaginatively presented through a parallel with John and Fanny Dashwood, a cold-hearted couple from Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, who manage to talk themselves out of their sworn obligations to poor relatives. Gardiner uses parallels with Austen's narrative to illustrate how the flexible and self-interested deployment of moral rhetoric allows people to do a moral harm while convincing themselves that they are acting reasonably and justifiably. The governments of developed nations and the world's wealthy citizens end up acting like the dubious Dashwoods, persuading themselves that they are taking serious steps and acting for the best while keeping the vast majority of the inheritance to themselves.

These general arguments around moral corruption are put into action in relation to proposals to "geoengineer" the atmosphere - that is, to use technological interventions such as spraying sulphate aerosols high into the atmosphere to shield the Earth from the Sun's rays, thus offsetting some of the global temperature rise. The suggestion is increasingly heard that we should at least be researching these alternatives vigorously in case - for want of an agreement on carbon emissions - we come to need them. But Gardiner shows how susceptible such reasoning is to moral corruption. Doesn't such preparation make it likelier that governments will feel less pressure to agree carbon reductions since there is a Plan B? Furthermore, if we do need a Plan B, why is geoengineering a good candidate when one could imagine alternatives (such as a stupendous investment in renewables) without the likely side effects of many geoengineering proposals? Here, Gardiner makes a very strong case for submitting all proposals for geoengineering to a strict ethical or public-interest review.

Overall, Gardiner makes a strong case for highlighting and insisting on the ethical dimensions of the climate problem, and his warnings about buck-passing and the dangerous appeal of moral corruptions hit home. But there remains a worry that strong ethical claims do not always get transformed into strong political positions. It is impressive to see how convincingly the climate issue can be rewritten as primarily an ethical problem, but the practical impact of having done so remains to be demonstrated.

The Author

Stephen Gardiner was born and raised in the UK, but after having lived in various parts of the US and New Zealand, he describes himself as a "linguistic mutt". At the University of Washington in Seattle, where he is an associate professor in the department of philosophy, his teaching assistants enjoy dissecting his accent with undergraduates - one insists that he "must have made it up".

Gardiner received a bachelor's degree in philosophy, politics and economics from the University of Oxford in 1990 and three years later took his MA in philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

With a doctorate in philosophy from Cornell University, he secured a lecturership in philosophy at the University of Canterbury, where he fell in love with New Zealand and remained for five years. The experience made him into something of a "one-eyed Cantabrian", but he nevertheless returned to the US to be closer to family.

Had he not chosen philosophy, he says, "it might have been fun to have a crack at being Brian Cox, or J.K. Rowling, or maybe even Kenneth Branagh".

A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change

By Stephen M. Gardiner

Oxford University Press 512pp, £22.50

ISBN 9780195379440

Published 14 July 2011

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