20 Oct 2011: Opinion

The Ethical Dimension of
Tackling Climate Change

The global challenge of climate change poses a perfect moral storm — by failing to take action to rein in carbon emissions, the current generation is spreading the costs of its behavior far into the future. Why should people in the future pay to clean up our mess?

by stephen gardiner

Sometimes the best way to make progress on a problem is to get clearer on what that problem is. Arguably, the biggest issue facing humanity at the moment is the looming global environmental crisis. Here, the problem is not that we are unaware that trouble is coming. After all, the basic science is both well known and continually being reiterated in major national and international reports. Rather, the core problem is that thus far effective action seems beyond us. We seem at best paralyzed, and at worst indifferent. Put starkly, there seems little place within our grand institutions and busy lives for what may turn out to be the defining issue of our generation.

Why? In my view, at the heart of the matter is the fact that humanity is in the grip of a profound ethical challenge that our current institutions and theories are ill-equipped to meet.

Sebastian Junger’s book The Perfect Storm tells the story of a fishing boat caught at sea during the rare convergence of three independently powerful storms. Similarly, the global crisis of climate change brings together three major challenges to ethical action — and in a mutually reinforcing way. It is genuinely global, profoundly intergenerational, and occurs in a setting where we lack robust theory and institutions to guide us. Neglect of this perfect moral storm leads us to underestimate the climate problem and fail to appreciate the wider implications in predictable ways.

Conventional wisdom identifies climate change as primarily a global problem. Wherever they originate, emissions of the main greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide) quickly become mixed in the atmosphere, affecting climate
Those least responsible for past emissions are likely to suffer the most serious impacts.
everywhere. According to the standard analysis, this makes climate change a traditional “tragedy of the commons,” played out between nation states that represent the interests of their citizens in perpetuity. In Garrett Hardin’s tragedy, each herdsman prefers the collective outcome where none over-consume — so that the commons is not overburdened. Nevertheless, when acting individually each prefers to over-consume himself, no matter what the others do — with ruinous results for all.

In climate change, we are often told, states reason in the same way. Each prefers the collective outcome where none over-consume with carbon emissions — so that dangerous climate change is avoided. Yet, when acting individually, each prefers to over-consume, no matter what the others do — so overconsumption is rife. In both cases, then, we are led to an outcome that no one wants, and which is severe enough to seem tragic.

Unfortunately, this traditional model is at best dangerously incomplete. To begin with, it ignores one central spatial aspect of the climate problem. Those least responsible for past emissions are likely to suffer the most serious impacts (at least in the short- to medium-term). This is partly because the poorer nations are disproportionately located in more climate-sensitive regions, but it is also because, being poor, they lack the resources available to the rich to address negative impacts. Since it ignores this basic problem of fairness, the traditional model underestimates the nature of the relevant “tragedy.”

Even more importantly, the traditional model obscures the temporal aspect of the perfect moral storm. Once emitted, a substantial proportion of climate emissions typically remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, and some persist for tens — even hundreds — of thousands. This means that the current generation takes benefits now, but spreads the costs of its behavior far into the future.

Worse, many of these benefits are comparatively modest (e.g., those of bigger and more powerful vehicles), and many of the projected costs are severe, even catastrophic (e.g., severe flooding and famine). Worse still, the problem is iterated: The same temptation to take modest benefits now even
Most victims of climate change cannot hold us to account, being very poor, not yet born, or nonhuman.
in the face of severe costs to the future is repeated for subsequent generations as they come to hold the reins of power. Hence, there are cumulative impacts further in the future. Worst of all, such impacts may eventually provoke the equivalent of an intergenerational arms race. Perhaps some future generations will face such appalling environmental conditions that they are entitled to emit more in self-defense, even foreseeing that this behavior makes matters even worse for their successors. And so it goes on.

The third storm exacerbates the situation. Climate change brings together many areas in which our best theories are far from robust, such as intergenerational ethics, global justice, scientific uncertainty, and humanity’s relationship to nature. The problem here is not that we do not have any guidance at all. For example, the idea that imposing catastrophe on the future for the sake of our own modest benefits is not a defensible way to behave is a relatively secure basic ethical intuition. Rather, the problem is that it is difficult to move beyond those basic intuitions to deal with the details, and we are too easily distracted by counterarguments, especially from theories that have merits in other contexts, but fail to take the future seriously enough.

For example, some influential economists claim the current generation is justified in moving slowly on climate change because future people will be richer due to economic growth, and so should pay more. But are we entitled to assume that the future will be richer even in a climate catastrophe? And even if they are, why should they pay to clean up our mess?

This worry about distraction leads to a further important result. The intersection of the global, intergenerational and theoretical storms threatens to undermine public discourse. We in the current generation
We face a profound challenge that current institutions and theories were not designed to meet.
— and especially the more affluent — are in a position to continue taking modest benefits for ourselves, while passing nasty costs onto the poor, future generations, and nature. However, pointing this out is morally uncomfortable. Better, then, to cover it up with clever but shallow arguments that distort public discussion, and solutions that do little to get at the core problems. After all, most of the victims are poorly placed to hold us to account — being very poor, not yet born, or nonhuman.

Unfortunately, there is ample evidence for such shenanigans in the climate arena. If existing institutions are good at representing only the interests of their current members — or, worse, of the current generation of political and economic leaders — then we would expect agreements that reflect this. In particular, we might expect a succession of “shadow solutions” to the climate problem: processes, proposals, and agreements that pay lip service to wider ideals but ultimately deliver very little in the way of substance.

Sadly, this seems all too plausible a reading of the sorry history of international climate policy. The road from Rio to Kyoto to Bali to Copenhagen to Cancun is littered with procrastination, obfuscation, and empty promises. For example, all major countries including the United States agreed to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which took effect in 1994, and so committed themselves to “protect the climate system for present and future generations.” However, global emissions are now up more than 40 percent since 1990, and more than 17 percent in the United States. Similarly, in 2009 in Copenhagen, the global community publicly committed itself to limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. However, it left the hard question of who should do what to a subsequent national pledge system that does not get close to that target, and few have any confidence such a system will actually be implemented. (Witness, for example, the U.S. pledge of a 17-percent reduction on 2005 levels by 2020, which rests on legislation that has since been abandoned.)

Most recently, we see headlines such as “Cancún deal leaves hard climate tasks to Durban summit in 2011” (in the Guardian on Dec. 14, 2010), followed by “Durban Climate Deal Impossible Say US and EU Envoys” (in the same publication on April 18, 2011). Alas, given the temptations of the global and intergenerational storms, such dithering is all too predictable, and highly convenient.


Living in the Anthropocene:
Toward a New Global Ethos

A decade ago, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen first suggested we were living in the “Anthropocene,” a new geological epoch in which humans had altered the planet. Now, Crutzen and coauthor Christian Schwägerl explain why adopting this term could help transform the perception of our role as stewards of the Earth.
As bad as this news is, there may be worse to come. We should not expect a buck-passing strategy to limit itself to inaction and distraction, but rather to evolve over time. Given this, as the overall situation worsens, we might predict that the current generation will begin to press for a quick technological fix to hold off the worst impacts, at least until after they have exited the scene. In doing so they might even strive to seize the ethical high ground by declaring such a fix a “necessary” and “lesser” evil to prevent climate catastrophe. (Implausible? Welcome to the emerging debate about geoengineering.)

This is a grim state of affairs. However, recognizing the shape of the perfect moral storm can help us to make progress. We face a profound global and intergenerational challenge that current institutions and theories were not designed to meet. Given this, we need to move beyond the short-term economic and geopolitical framings that dominate current public discussion. We must acknowledge the global and intergenerational power that we yield and take responsibility for it, rather than taking solace in comfortable distraction. No one will stop us from exploiting that power but us. This is why ethics is at the heart of the matter.

POSTED ON 20 Oct 2011 IN Climate Energy Oceans Policy & Politics Pollution & Health North America North America 


Excellent points. The sad thing is, we already have the technology but for reasons you mention (among others), we lack the political will.

For many years, I've been writing and speaking to make the business case for sustainability as a profitable strategy (most notably, through my book Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green). I think someone has to make an equally persuasive case to government.

Posted by Shel Horowitz - Green/Ethical Marketing Expert on 20 Oct 2011

Well written, thought-provoking, and deeply concerning. It challenges the idea that if we just keep at the same things we are doing now, the powers that be will eventually see the light and make essential changes. So, then, what do people like me (no position of authority or clout) do to try and change this?

Posted by Una McGeough on 20 Oct 2011

The private sector has to buy-in. That means we need to create better monetization systems for carbon offsetting and promote reforestation that helps the environment and local communities and generates a profit for the investor that pays for the tree planting, maintenance and sustainable harvesting. There is 'no' money to be made in leaving forests untouched - actually it's one dollar according to my research. That's how much a U.S. industrial conglomerate pays per tree, not to have it cut down so the company can offset its carbon emissions. It is better to plan new sustainable forestry projects that provide an income for local communities, help the environment through progressive reforestation and gives the investor a return via a sustainble harvesting policy.

Posted by Mike Young on 21 Oct 2011

Excellent post Stephen Gardiner.

While Global Warming is the Cause, Climate Change is the Effect. The recent floods in some countries are attributed partially to climate change.

Environmentalist Suresh Heblikar said our economic systems are outstripping our ecosystems. He said: "With countries evading the terms of the Kyoto Protocol or Copenhagen Climate Council, the only way to tackle climate change is to open up our economy to free trade, make our population wealthier and more likely to seek a new social order that would encompass eco-awareness. Biodiversity has given us variation in our culture."

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
E-mail: anumakonda.jagadeesh@gmail.com

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 21 Oct 2011

Excellent theme, but there is also a simple answer why climate change is being ignored and sceptics are popular: people find it heroic tackling problems, they like the the knight slay the dragon and save the princess; all like to be the hero, but in this we are the dragon ourselves and this is very hard to except, so our brain sees no other option as rejection and denial.

Posted by F.Swart on 21 Oct 2011

An excellent and rare insight into the complexities of the intergenerational challenge posed by climate change.

I work for the World Future Council and we are equally concerned at how existing governance frameworks and decision making have proved inadequate to meet rising sustainable development challenges nor in taking the long view into account.

We are promoting the idea of Ombudspersons for Future Generations, to be established at all government levels. Working independently from government, but at its heart, these institutions would safeguard environmental and social conditions for the benefit of current and future generations by securing their institutional representation in all areas of policy-making. We believe new, integrated mechanisms for monitoring or ensuring the implementation of agreed commitments across the SD agenda are required.

Please take a look for further information www.futurejustice.org.

Posted by Catherine Pearce on 21 Oct 2011

Do you have any scientific training?

The IPCC is a political sham: please read the InterAcademic Council's review of the IPCC process associated with their assessment report #4, 2007. Note: this report was requested by the IPCC in an attempt to answer its critics.

The two statements that stick out in my mind is:

Many conclusions put forward by elite 40 writers in the Executive Summary are not supported by the science found in the scientific report.

The executive summary involves the line-by-line negotiation between political representatives and the 40 elite writers.

Note: the 40 elite writers were elevated from the about 1,250 lead authors and sub-authors (scientific report) by the Executive Committee: this committee is political and bureaucratic in nature and represents the policy makers of the member nations. Among the 40 chief writers is Pachauri (IPCC chief and trained railroad engineer); 6 other members of the IPCC bureaucracy; 1 American lawyer; 1 MD from WHO; 1 prominant member of Green Peace and 8 members associated with the World Wildlife Fund. Some of the scientists who were involved, were also involved in the climategate" scandal. Does this panel sound like it is made up of leading scientists?

Reading the climategate emails should also be required; don't rely on how the allarmist propagandists choose to spin it. As a scientists, these emails read as if it were the writings of scientists desparately trying to defend the IPCC by any means possible; unscientific and fraudulent. There life acchievements are at stake.

Some facts ignored by the IPCC and allarmist and yourself:

1. We have been warming for ~ 300 years as the world rose out of the lowest temperatures of the Little Ice Age. CO2, according to IPCC, did not rise until 150 years ago; with most occurring after WWII.

2. The IPCC has censored CO2 measurements made by the classical chemical titration method which had acchieved an error margin in the range of 1 to 2% in the 20th century. This accurate method indicated that CO2 began to rise sharply from 320 ppm in the early 1930's as the world began to prepare for war. This surge peaked in 1943 at the height of war at a level of 450 ppm; 60 ppm higher than today. Yet this elevated level of CO2 did not trigger warming. The warming that began in 1915 ended around 1940 followed by cooling between 1950 and 1975.

We now have a realistic understanding of the temperature change over the last 11,000 years; the Holocene Interglacial Period. For most of this period, temperatures have been above current temperatures; this period plateaued about 7,000 years ago at ~3.0 degrees celsius above today's temperature.

Comparison: in the transition between ice age and peak level of the Holocene the temperature rose ~10 deg C; with the first 7.0 deg occurring in less than half a century. Compared to this, the 1.0 deg C, caused by CO2, by 2100 seems rather trivial. Why should there be a danger of a runaway climate from 1 deg if 7 deg did not trigger such an event?

Science should never be controled by political
and ideological agendas; yet today, climate science is controled by these non-scientific factors. For anyone who claims that skeptics are well funded ignores that 99% of all climate funding comes from our government and that this money only feeds science that supports the politics of the IPCC. This funding allows are government to control the direction science takes

Furthermore, the greenhouse/climate change theory has been institutionalized where group-think has perverted climate science such that theory becomes law, speculation becomes fact and predictions are treated as certainties. What ever happened to test your ideas in order to validate ones thinking?

Until the IPCC can honestly deal with the observations above, not censor them, I will remain a proud skeptic. Note: healthy science respects the skeptic, religion hates and punishes the skeptic.

Posted by peter bartner on 24 Oct 2011

Very clear article that outlines the essence of the ethical challenge we are in. The climate challenge is a complex "tragedy of the commons" setting and as the author rightly pointed we are currently going the easy by prioritizing our narrow self-benefits and discounting the future.

I would add two considerations to your excellent piece.

To the ethical dilemma there is also to add that the time delays are hard to grasp. It was easier, in Hardin's example of the pasture, for the villagers to see that they all needed to reduce the size of their herds: there was a common place to take care of, and a short time lag between action and result. The climate challenges put us in a condition where the time delays are large, and the "space" is the entire planet.

The second component I would add is the design of our institutions. Current political and economic institutons have been designed to favor the short over the long term. Today's electoral campaigns (in most OECD countries, at least) need to embrace the assumption of promising economic growth, new and expanded consumption, and technological advancements. Today these are taken for proxies for a higher quality of life and as the engine to keep the economy moving. As much as we know that we need a continuous economic growth, we also know that today most of such economic growth is highly linked with negative impacts such as rising emissions, environmental degradation and undermining people's capacity to meet their needs. As long as the engine of our economy is linked with such negative impacts, we will focus on the wrong goals. The positive aspect is that there is already enough knowledge about socio-ecological sustainability that we can potentially design new indicators that take into account the positive components of the GDP while counting as a minus the negative ones.

Posted by marco valente on 29 Oct 2011

Climate change is the biggest environmental issue facing humanity, but why can't we also acknowledge it's the biggest issue facing creation writ large. Of course we ought to be concerned about how climate change will impact humanity, but the rest of creation is along for the ride. Wouldn't that make the moral argument for action even stronger? Wouldn't it be nice if philosophers, politicians and average people could expand their perspective and act accordingly?

Posted by Kyle Gardner on 09 Nov 2011

I disagree with the above comment that we have the technology, but lack the will. We have the technology to partially offset carbon-based fuels. We cannot (at this point) replace all the carbon-based fuels with carbon-neutral fuels.

Fortunately, the latest science tells us that we have more time to develop this technology than previously reported. This extra time is important in that we do not need to rush into possibly expensive and less-effective solutions, but rather fully develop long-term solutions.

Environmental protection is tied to economic growth. Without the money garnered from this growth, there will be nothing to spend on environmental protection. We cannot implement policies that will hamper economic growth, lest we have less money to spent on future environmental protection. Some people are arguing that the moral argument is for stronger action. But how moral is that argument, if it causes increased human suffering due to economic hardship?

Posted by Dan Johnson on 11 Nov 2011

I totally agree with the author Stephen Gardiner. It is true that the nations who are underdeveloped and have less industrial platforms are suffering more impacts of climate change but in Japan earth quake, I think this view went wrong to some extent although Japan is not a huge country but they have a good industrial force. They suffered a huge loss. May god solve their problems.


Posted by Faraz on 08 Dec 2011

People of a village in the middle age, living in [squalor], forgot their problems going to church and listening to the priest talking about the risk of suffering in hell. Exactly like warmists (Gardiner the preacher raising a moral problem on an hypothetic problem far away in the future) who, while the ugly things (desertification, species extinction, fishless oceans, etc.) announced by the IPCC people and worse ones are occurring at a growing rate, culprits identifiable, action possible right now, prefer to pay attention on a distant problem announced by climatologists (not able to develop models for weather forecast valid for longar then a few days) through short-lived models that spread responsibility on everybody (= no culprit) and for which there is no practical measure to adopt. Very religious I would say!

Posted by Carlo Castellani on 17 Apr 2012

Yes, this thinking is brilliant, taking us into the heart of ’the storm'. And that is where we have to go, not just academics but all change makers.

Posted by Rachel Francis on 21 Jun 2012

Comments have been closed on this feature.
stephen gardinerABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephen Gardiner is professor of philosophy and Ben Rabinowitz Professor of the Human Dimensions of the Environment at the University of Washington, Seattle, where he specializes in ethics, political philosophy, and environmental ethics. He is the author of A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change. He is a visiting fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study, and has previously held fellowships at Princeton University, Oxford University, and the University of Melbourne.



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