A Perfect Moral Storm- The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change

Humanity is facing an extreme risk from unabated climate change. The science is widely understood and accepted. Yet we seem paralysed when it comes to reducing the threat: in spite of 20 years of international talk emissions continue to rise alarmingly. The dangerous political inertia which besets us is investigated in Stephen Gardiner’s book A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change. It’s a philosopher’s take on the issue, thorough and elucidatory, yet entirely accessible for general reader – Gardiner even helpfully indicates when a more technical discussion can be safely skipped without losing the thread.stephen gardiner

The “perfect moral storm” in which we are caught and which makes it so difficult for us to act in the case of climate change is a convergence of three “storms”, which he differentiates as global, inter-generational and theoretical. Globally, the causes and effects of climate change are dispersed, the agency is fragmented and the world appears to have no institutions capable as yet of establishing the agreed regulations and enforcement necessary to address a tragedy of the commons. Exacerbating factors which make agreement more difficult include the uncertainties about the magnitude and distribution of the effects of climate change, the fact that its sources are deep-rooted in economic infrastructures, and the responsibility it places on the developed nations vis-à-vis poor countries.  It’s not unfamiliar material, but Gardiner’s discussion of its ramifications in the kind of international negotiations we have so far observed is perceptive and realistic. Not that he takes any pleasure from pointing out how intractable the problem is in those negotiations. He’s as concerned as anyone who understands what the science is pointing to. But his judgement of what has been happening to date is pessimistic, and his discerning of the factors working against international agreement is certainly illustrated all too clearly in what we see happening in the repetitive ongoing discussions. The manoeuvrings of the developed nations appear crucial in his analysis, although he doesn’t engage in overt blame-laying.  

The second, inter-generational, storm is heightened by the fact that carbon dioxide is a long-lived greenhouse gas and what we are putting into the atmosphere today will be there for a long time, some of it for thousands of years. The climate change we are experiencing today is the result of emissions in the past rather than current, and the effects of our emissions are deferred for future generations to experience. The benefits of carbon dioxide emissions are felt by present generations in the form of cheap energy, whereas the costs are deferred to future generations in the risk of severe or catastrophic climate change. Gardiner explores the moral discomfort of being part of a “tyranny of the contemporary” and seeks to uncover the full moral imperative which this storm carries with it.

By the theoretical storm Gardiner means our lack of skills and basic competence in addressing issues such as intergenerational equity, international justice, scientific uncertainty, and the human relationship to animals and nature. Climate change involves all these matters, and we are poorly placed to deal with them. There is not enough deep analysis of what exactly has gone wrong and what it would take to set it right. Short-term geopolitical discussions dominate our social discourse. “Cost-Benefit Paralysis” is the title of a chapter in which he focuses on the theoretical inadequacy of economics which simply doesn’t recognise the full seriousness of the threat to future generations.

perfect moral storm The uncomfortable ethical imperatives which confront us over climate change lead to attempts to avoid them – what Gardiner describes as moral corruption.  His writing on this topic is illuminating, and borne out all too often in current debates. Avoiding real engagement with the issues is a feature of moral corruption. His list of the ways in which this is achieved is comprehensive and all too recognisable: distraction, complacency, selective attention, unreasonable doubt, delusion, pandering, hypocrisy. Gardiner observes that the intergenerational setting of climate change enhances the phenomenon of moral corruption. Today’s victims of climate change can strongly challenge the corruption of climate change discourse, but tomorrow’s victims are not here to argue their case and are the more readily ignored. Moral corruption does not rule out action altogether, but it produces weak action which can pretend to be addressing the problem and hailed as a great achievement. It avoids overtly selfish behaviour but more by camouflage than substance.

Jane Austen may seem an unlikely source of illumination of the problems of inaction on climate change, but Gardiner draws interesting parallels between the process by which John Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility allows himself to be persuaded out of sharing a modest portion of his wealth with his widowed stepmother and half-sisters. Dashwood moves from a serious and apparently firm moral commitment into eventually dismissing the commitment almost entirely. In a similar fashion, Gardiner considers, the rich nations of the world have failed to deliver on the ethically grounded commitments represented in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the poor, the future, and nature have largely been left to fend for themselves. 

Gardiner’s discussion is centred on ethics. The political inertia in which we are mired is a failure of ethics, and it is obviously his hope that the exploration of this fact will help us find a way through what at present seems impenetrable difficulty. His book points to some changes required, and nowhere more so than in the attitudes of the developed nations who have become rich through the energy provided by fossil fuels. They must accept the predominant burden of responsibility in winding back their own usage of fossil fuels and compensating the developing world. In all his patient exploration of the issues, and with all due allowance to the difficulties of transition, there is no escaping this central ethical fact of the matter. 

It’s hard to resist pessimism about the capacity of our institutions to take up the ethical challenge. When humans become rich and powerful they seem to find every reason in the world to resist anything that might threaten that wealth and power, even when it is obviously in their own best interests and in the interests of their own descendants to co-operate in preserving the global commons. The reasoning Gardiner exposes carries an immediate logic which blinds us to longer term consequences or paralyses any attempt we might try to make to address them.  However his own inclination is to resist pessimism, and he supplies a list of what he describes as initial ethics to help us “muddle through”. At very least, he reflects, ethics can bear witness to serious wrongs even if they can’t as yet effect change. 

His thoughtful book, behind its quiet and rigorous exploration of habitual human thinking, does bear witness to the wrongs we are enmeshed in. It’s tempting to hope that at our level of human civilisation we will surely pull back from threatening disaster by simply recognising the ethical inadequacy of our current stances and putting our wealth and power to better uses than preserving them at all costs. But, as Gardiner concludes, the intellectual task is daunting and it is not yet clear that we are up to it. 


For other great stories on all aspects of Climate Change, check out Celsias:


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  • Posted on June 3, 2011. Listed in:

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