2011-06-17 08:30:26A Perfect Moral Storm
Alex C


Interesting book review read from Science, here's the text:

In A Perfect Moral Storm, Stephen Gardiner argues that the deepest challenge posed by climate change is an ethical one. The book diagnoses the nature of this ethical challenge and contends that part of the reason why progress in addressing climate change has been so dismal is that climate change constitutes what Gardiner (a philosopher at the University of Washington) calls a “perfect moral storm.” This is an interesting way of approaching the topic. Gardiner claims that climate change is such a difficult issue because it involves the convergence of three separate “storms”: the global nature of the problem, its intergenerational dimension, and the inadequacy of our theoretical models. The conjunction of these elements seriously impedes our ability to make ethical decisions about climate change.

One of the obvious impediments to responding adequately to climate change is the lack of a cohesive political methodology for resolving global problems. The diffusion of greenhouse gases around the world and the complex causal chain involved in their production raise substantial difficulties for our already weak system of global coop- eration. Gardiner argues that the negotiating that goes on among nation states is not well captured by current bargaining theories, which leaves them seriously incomplete. For example, standard game theoretical models such as the prisoner’s dilemma and the tragedy of the commons do not neatly fit the problems caused by climate change because they ignore considerations of fairness. For instance, in the tragedy of the commons model (a situation in which it is collectively rational to cooperate but individually rational not to do so) only future costs and benefits are considered. That neglects the historical responsibility that some countries have for the problem of climate change due to their heavy past emissions.

Moreover, using these models makes it easy to assume that the costs and benefits from cooperation are very similar, whereas poor countries (and poor people in rich countries) are much more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change than the rich. This is more than just a claim about the failure of recent climate negotiations. Here and throughout the book, Gardiner links the analysis of theoretical models to the real-world situations that they attempt to describe.

But perhaps the most diabolical problem is that of intergenerational justice. While spatial dispersal of the effects of climate change creates obstacles for international negotiations, the effects of climate change also register in the temporal dimension. Because of the delayed effects of climate change, effective mitigation will need to occur over a long period. It may be hard to gauge the effects of this “back loading,” which in turn may call into question the ability of our standard institutions to adequately respond to the problem because of their inherently short time horizons (e.g., electoral cycles).

Gardiner understands passing the buck from one generation to the next as the most difficult of the various ethical dimensions of climate change. Many of the assumptions that hold in standard bargaining models will not work with the generational problem because we do not have future agents with whom to bargain and because there is no reciprocity in the bargaining situation. He also addresses the formidable issue of whether the possibility of abrupt climate change in the immediate future will make it more or less likely that we will discover the motivation to act.

According to Gardiner, not only are our institutions and moral theories unable to cope with the challenge of climate change, many of our general theoretical tools are inadequate as well. Indeed, he proposes that if a theory or institution fails to address a serious global threat, then it should be judged inadequate and must be rejected. Too many theories exhibit the vices of being oblivious to or complicit in problems. Utilitarianism and cost-benefit analysis come in for particular criticism here.

In one way, this is where the book is at its best—analyzing the key theoretical tools that are used in the climate change debate and pointing out either their inescapable faults or what modifications would have to be made in order for them to be useful. For instance, Gardiner argues that devising an adequate understanding of discounting (determining the dollar value now of costs and benefits in the future) is fraught with difficulty: if, for example, a standard discount rate of 5% is applied, it would mean that 200 years from now the value of our economic output would be reduced to a few hundred thousand dollars. Such a view undervalues the benefit of sacrificing now for the gains for future generations. Although most applicable to approaches such as utilitarianism, these well-founded criticisms highlight the work that must be done to modify (or abandon) existing theories.

All this might sound very pessimistic, and in a way it is. But the book’s strength lies in Gardiner’s success at understanding and clarifying the types of moral issues that climate change raises, which is an important first step toward solutions. He argues that failure to appreciate the convergence of the three components of his perfect storm leads us into a kind of moral corruption where we let ourselves be persuaded by weak or deceptive arguments, with disastrous consequences for our ability to act on climate change.

Readers will find much of value in Gardiner’s engagements with complex interdisciplinary problems. For instance, his analysis of the limitations of cost-benefit analysis and discounting is likely to appeal to any- one interested in standard economic debates about the costs of adapting to and mitigating climate change. The chapter “Jane Austen vs. Climate Economics” draws on the actions of John and Fanny Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility to consider moral corruption and how it affects the climate debate. Gardiner also offers extensive discussions of geoengineering, international climate negotiations, population ethics, and climate change skepticism.

A Perfect Moral Storm provides a rich analysis of the ethical challenges that we must tackle in the face of climate change. Gardiner effectively makes the case that while responding to and understanding climate change necessarily involves many disciplines, the effects of climate change on us, on future generations, and on the environment mean that we must determine how to distribute the impacts of climate change fairly and how to weigh present-day sacrifices against future benefits. Once we start thinking about these issues, the problem posed by climate change falls firmly in the domain of ethics.

By analyzing the complex “moral storm” created by climate change, Gardiner gives us an insight into whether our theoretical tools are adequate to understanding the ethical reality of climate change, which is an important first step in proposing just solutions. His consideration of whether our theoretical tools are adequate to understanding the ethical challenges of climate change provides an important step toward identifying just solutions.


I found the discussion on game theory to be quite intriguing, especially considering the articles that Dana has published here discussing just that.

2011-06-17 08:55:47The urgency of acting now...
John Hartz
John Hartz

is dramatically brought home by Rob Painting's article , CO2 Currently Rising Faster Than The PETM Extinction Event  , posted today (June 17) and by Lee Kump's article, The Last Great Global Warming, published in the July edition of Scientific American.