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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?

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 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 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 — 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.

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.

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