UW News

December 5, 2011

Climate change stirs 'Perfect Moral Storm,' prof says

Steve Gardiner

Steve Gardiner

The world is sailing into some killer storms and its leaders have done almost nothing to protect its boat. Thats the view of UW Professor Steve Gardiner, who likens climate change to a perfect storm — a convergence of three difficult problems that so far weve found ourselves unable to face, much less solve.

Gardiner is not a climate scientist but a philosopher — one who deals with matters of ethics. The book hes written about the issue is A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change.

“Sometimes the best way to make progress in solving a problem is to clarify what the problem is,” he writes in the introduction. “In my view, the global environmental tragedy is most centrally an ethical failure, and one that implicates our institutions, our moral and political theories, and ultimately ourselves, considered as moral agents.”

A Perfect Moral Storm is not bedtime reading. Its intellectually challenging, but it isnt an obscure tome meant only for academics. In it, Gardiner lays out the three challenges that together make up the perfect storm:

  • Climate change is global. What one nation does affects every other nation.
  • Climate change is intergenerational. What we do today will affect people yet to be born.
  • We have no adequate theory with which to tackle climate change. The ones we are using tend to obscure the problem.

As these three storms come together, they threaten to destroy the world, just as the three storms in Sebastian Jungers Perfect Storm came together to destroy the fishing boat Andrea Gail, Gardiner claims.

“Ive been interested in global environmental problems for a while, and when it became clear that the climate problem was going to be one that would be difficult to solve, I noticed people expressing angst about why it was so difficult to solve,” Gardiner said. “A lot of people went in the direction of talking about it as global, so the problem is getting nation states to agree with each other in a traditional tragedy of the commons situation. And I thought that was missing this big intergenerational element.”

Beth Luce

Tragedy of the commons, Gardiner explains, is one of the theories people have applied as they looked for a solution to the problem. In a classic tragedy of the commons scenario, a group of people each herd cows on a common pasture. If one of them buys another cow, it is to his advantage economically, but if everyone gets more cows, the pasture will be destroyed and everybody loses. So its ultimately an advantage, both individually and collectively, to cooperate, though it appears to an individual to be an advantage not to cooperate.

The tragedy of the commons is inadequate to the climate change challenge, Gardiner contends, because it doesnt take into account the gradual nature of climate change and the resultant fact that a person today very likely wont bear the full brunt of his or her actions.

“It seems possible to behave badly and do reasonably well out of it, at least comparatively,” Gardiner said. “So that undermines the motivation to seek solutions. It makes the problem harder to resolve.” He calls this “generational buck passing.”

As if all this werent enough, Gardiner says the convergence of the three problems makes us vulnerable to moral corruption.

“By moral corruption I mean something quite specific: a distortion of the way we talk about a problem from an ethical point of view, because our background incentives to deal with the problem might not be that great,” Gardiner said. “One reason to think that might be the case is that in a normal case of ethical and political conflict between people, those who are subject to victimization can speak out and put pressure on those who victimize them, to recognize their concerns and address them. But in this case some of the major victims are future generations and nonhuman nature. They cant speak for themselves, so there isnt that kind of pressure on us to be consistent in what we say.”

Thus there are the arguments about whether climate change is real or not, and whether we can act based on incomplete information.

“One thing I say in the book is that in philosophy we have experience in what its like to take seriously the idea that we must refuse to believe anything that we cant be absolutely certain about,” Gardiner said. “That criterion is what led Descartes to conclude that the only thing he knew was that he was a thinking being. Its such a high standard of evidence for believing something that it leads to conclusions that are philosophically interesting but absurd from a practical point of view. So theres something problematic about applying such a high standard to this problem.”

Of course, the so-called “green revolution” holds out hope that we might be able to innovate our way out of the climate change problem. In other words, if we develop and adopt green energy solutions, it will be good for us and for future generations. Gardiner says he hopes thats true, but he also worries that people might use it as an excuse for inaction, or worse, refuse to make any sacrifices today for the sake of the future.

“If someone said to you, ‘Well, I recognize you have some basic human rights, but unless you can show me that it will be profitable for me not to violate them, I will violate them, thats a morally problematic attitude,” Gardiner said.  “Im afraid that in public discussion we sometimes slip into the equivalent of that without realizing it.”

Although Gardiner doesnt offer any solutions in his book — he writes that his purpose is to “get clearer about the nature of the problem itself, as a preliminary to generating and assessing potential solutions” — he does hope that readers will come away with a greater understanding of what were up against and that that can lead to action. From his fellow academics, he hopes for a shift away from the tragedy of the commons to more apt theories. As for the world outside academia, Gardiner wants average citizens to see climate change as an ethical challenge.

“I think a lot of the public discussion just misses that. It also misses why were so vulnerable to behaving badly,” he said. “I think its quite conceivable that in terms of our legacy — how were thought of by future people — this might well be the defining issue of our generation. Our complacency about it will be seen in a similar way to the complacency of past generations about deep social problems such as slavery.”

Gardiner is on sabbatical this year, currently in the Netherlands and later in Oxford, where he will do further research on a subject that forms a chapter in A Perfect Moral Storm — geoengineering, defined as intentional intervention in the Earths climate system on a global scale.

“My thesis would suggest that thats where were going next, and chances are we wont behave that well in that sphere either,” Gardiner said.