Stephen Gardiner

A Perfect Moral Storm

Climate Change, Intergenerational Ethics and the Problem of Moral Corruption



1.       Overview

          a.       Addressing climate change is incredibly difficult because of special problems it involves

          b.       These problems are

                    i.        The global nature of the problem

                    ii.       The intergenerational nature of the problem

                    iii.      Inadequate theories about how to deal with these types of problems

                    iv.      Resulting tendency toward moral corruption

                              (1)     Above three interact to make worse and hide the problem of moral corruption

                              (2)     Vulnerability to moral corruption worse problem than three above

          c.       All these factors make climate change a perfect moral storm (challenge our ability to act ethically)


2.       Ethics and value judgments are central to deciding what counts as dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system

          a.       Even though natural and social sciences and technical knowledge are also highly relevant


          b.       E.g., Ethics central to deciding how much total GHG we should emit and who will be allowed to emit them

          c.       To answer these questions must:

                    i.        Decide how to weigh interests of current generation with those of future generations

                    ii.       Decide appropriate role of energy consumption in people’s lives

                    iii.      Decide how important is historical responsibility for the problem

                    iv.      Decide what current needs of a particular society are and what its future aspirations are


3.       A perfect storm:

          a.       Book and movie about fishing boat caught at sea when three very bad storms converged

          b.       Definition: event constituted by unusual convergence of independently harmful factors, and as a result, really bad consequences are likely


          c.       Climate change is a perfect moral storm because of the convergence of factors that threaten our ability to act ethically.


4.       Three features of climate change help create the 1st two problems (“storms”)

          a.       Dispersion of Causes and Effects

          b.       Fragmentation of Agency

          c.       Institutional Inadequacy


          d.       Can look at these features spatially (global storm) or temporally (intergenerational storm)


5.       Spatial dispersion of causes and effects of GHG

          a.       Any emission from any region goes into the upper atmosphere and affects climate globally

          b.       Impact of a particular emission not realized at is source, but spread to other actors and regions on Earth

6.       Fragmentation of agency

          a.       Climate change not caused by one agent/person, but many individuals and institutions that are not united to act as one

                    i.        There is no world government and not even an effective set of international governing agreements

          b.       Will make it hard to respond to it.


7.       How Responding to Global Warming Is a Tragedy of the Commons, That Is, a Prisoner’s Dilemma (Applied to a Common Resource)


8.       Prisoner’s dilemma (=PD) using example of over-pollution, exists when two claims true

          a.       PD1: Collectively rational to cooperate and restrict overall pollution:

                    i.        Each agent prefers outcome resulting when everyone restricts their individual pollution rather than outcome resulting if no one does this.

          b.       PD2: Individually rational not to restrict one’s own pollution

                    i.        When each can decide whether or not to restrict her pollution, each (rationally) prefers not to do so, whatever the others do

9.       Paradoxical

          a.       Would be better for everyone if every agent cooperated

          b.       But also know that they should all choose to defect

          c.       So if individual agents act rationally in terms of own interests, they collectively undermine those interests


10.     Climate change is a PD/tragedy of the commons

          a.       No one wants serious climate change; each country prefers outcome produced by everyone restricting their individual emissions over the outcome produced by no one doing so

                    i.        So collectively rational to cooperate and restrict global emissions

          b.       But each country prefers to free ride on actions of others

                    i.        So when each country has power to decide if restrict emissions, each prefers not to do so, whatever the others do.


11.     Solve tragedy of commons by regulation, enforceable sanctions/penalties, “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon” (Garrett Hardin’s language)

          a.       Make free riding impossible so collectively rational behavior becomes individually rational

          b.       For climate change, this means global regulation of GHG emissions with a reliable enforcement mechanism

                    i.        World gets together and puts enforceable limits on GHG emissions


12.     But we have institutional inadequacy (3rd feature of climate problem from above)

          a.       We do not now have an effective system of global governance


13.     Another problem: Scientific uncertainty about magnitude and distribution of effects on national level (Climate change winners and losers)

          a.       Costs and benefits of climate change for particular nations not known

          b.       Some nations might wonder if better off with climate change than w/o it

                    i.        E.g., Canada and Russia may have warmer climate and that might benefit them overall

          c.       This would make PD 1 false (its not in their interests to cooperate)

                    i.        They would be better off not cooperating even if every one else also fails to cooperate, than they would be if everyone cooperated

14.     Further problem: Big economic and social impacts in addressing climate change

          a.       Because world economies so fossil fuel dependent, controlling GHG (arising from using fossil fuels as energy source) will have profound effects on economic organization of developed countries and on aspirations of developing countries.

          b.       Resistance to respond: Many politically and economically powerful interests that benefit from continuing current system will resist

          c.       W/o substitutes for fossil fuel energy, addressing climate change will have big impacts on how we live and evolve and make us ask difficulty questions of who we are and what we want to be

          d.       Uncertainty biases us against action

                    i.        Social effects of action are large and concrete (stop driving and ride a bike or bus)

                    ii.       Effects of inaction are elusive and indeterminate

15.     Still another problem: Skewed vulnerabilities and power relations bias toward inaction

          a.       Those responsible are least vulnerable and rich and powerful; those most vulnerable and least responsible are poor and powerless

          b.       Responsibility for historical and current emissions lies mainly with rich, more powerful nations

                    i.        Poor nations have little power to hold them accountable

                              (1)     Jamieson suggests some ways they can do this.

          c.       Poorer nations most vulnerable to worse impacts of climate change

          d.       If rich/powerful nations cooperate with poor on this global issue, it might lead to need to focus on other global issues like poverty, violations of human rights


16.     Worse problem than global storm

17.     (Temporal) Dispersion of causes and effects

          a.       Climate change is severely lagged phenomenon and its impacts are substantially deferred (back loaded phenomenon)

                    i.        Sea level rise will take a long time to be fully realize

                    ii.       CO2 will spend long time in atmosphere 100s of years, 1/4 thousands

                    iii.      By year 2000 already committed to a rise of at least .5 degree centigrade over the already observed .6 degree centigrade

                    iv.      Effects of what we are doing now won’t be realized for quite a while

          b.       Impacts are resilient and will be hard to reverse and doing so will take advance planning

          c.       Delays in action will have serious problems for our ability to manage the problem

          d.       By the time we realize that things are bad we will already be committed to much more change

          e.       Democratic political institutions may not be able to deal with a problem like this

                    i.        Politicians have a relatively short time horizon (next election or his career)

                    ii.       But some of the impacts will be a hundred years away

          f.       Benefits today, bad effects for future: Deferral of effects undermine will to act: Lack incentive

                    i.        Bad effects of current emission likely to be mainly on future generations (severe and perhaps catastrophic climate change)

                    ii.       Benefits largely come to present people (cheap fuel)


18.     (Temporal) Fragmentation of Agency

          a.       Worse than spacial fragmentation of agency, for at least theoretically all the people of the world can come together and act, but present and future can’t act together


19.     Responding to climate change involves a worse PD (tragedy of commons) when consider that parties are different generations

          a.       PD 1 (future generations): It is collectively rational for most generations to cooperate

                    i.        (Almost) every generation prefers outcome produce by everyone restriction GHG than outcome if no one does

          b.       PD 2(future generations): It is individually rational for all generations not to cooperate

                    i.        When each generation has power to decide if it will restrict GHG, each rationally prefers to not restrict its emissions


          c.       With PD 1 (with future generations) it is not rational for the first generation to cooperate with later generations, because bad effects are down stream (later in time)

          d.       This will have a domino effect as subsequent generations have no reason to comply if their predecessors do not. (???)


          e.       PD 2 (future generations) is more difficult because binding enforceable commitments among generations seem impossible as they do not coexist

          f.       They can’t influence each other’s behavior with coercive institutions


20.     In sum: Not in interests of current generations to do anything about the problem!

          a.       Current populations may not be motivated to establish a fully adequate global climate regime, since given the temporal dispersion of effects (back-loading and deferral), such a regime is not in their interests


21.     Some other problems;

          a.       We don’t just pass on the existing problem to future generations, but we make it worse

          b.       Failing to act now makes costs of preventing/mitigating climate change more expensive later (because of additional investment in fossil fuel technology in developing world)

          c.       If we don’t act now, people who would not be harmed will be:

                    i.        Now A, B, C generations will be affected

                    ii.       If don’t act, D and E will be affected

          d.       We might do something that make later generations justifiably harm even later generations out of self defense


22.     Our moral theories don’t do well in addressing issues that involve scientific uncertainty, intergenerational fairness, possible people, animals, nature

23.     Climate change involves all these


24.     Serious problem for ethical action on climate change

25.     Moral corruption can come about by

          a.       Distraction

                    i.        We have a recession or a global terror problem and so don’t focus on climate change

          b.       Complacency

                    i.        Everything is fine no need to worry

          c.       Unreasonable doubt

                    i.        Do cigarettes cause cancer? Do humans cause climate change?

          d.       Delusion

                    i.        We can keep growing, consuming, burning fossil fuels forever

          e.       Pandering

                    i.        Luring the developing world into a unsustainable lifestyle

          f.       False witness

          g.       Hypocrisy

                    i.        During Rio Earth Summit, U.S. told Brazil should not cut down its rainforests while at the same time we were cutting down the old growth forests of Pacific Northewest at an even faster rate

          h.       Selective attention

                    i.        Pay attention to the global problem (and ignore the Intergenerational problem)

                    ii.       For this draws our attention to global politics and scientific uncertainty that makes it harder to act (and benefits present people) and look away from intergenerational ethics which seems to demand action


26.     Each successive present generation exploits its temporal advantage over the future

          a.       Climate change problem is so complex it makes it convenient for each present generation to pretend it is doing something (negotiate weak treaties) when it is really just exploiting its temporal positions (and pushing costs onto future generations)

          b.       Avoids overtly selfish behavior and takes advantage of the future w/o admitting it to others or to itself