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Short-term Goodies versus Long-term Harm: The Ethical Dilemmas of Climate Change

By Irene Pedruelo, Stephen M. Gardiner | November 30, 2015

CREDIT: Petter Rudwall.

While the world's scientists, policymakers, and members of civil society get ready for the Paris climate conference (COP21) taking place this and next week, I wondered: Will any philosophers be invited to participate in the talks? If the role of philosophy is to make people think critically, one could argue philosophers should have a relevant seat at a conference that is likely to play a decisive role in our planet's future. As the climate debate becomes increasingly at risk of falling hostage to endless political debates, I spoke with philosopher Stephen Gardiner in order to reflect on the ethical and moral complexities of climate change, which he likes to call the "Perfect Moral Storm."

IRENE PEDRUELO: When one googles "environmental ethics" or "environmental philosophers" the number of results is strikingly low. Are there not that many philosophers and ethicists reflecting on this issue, which is considered by many to be the issue of our century and probably of many to come?

STEPHEN GARDINER: Environmental ethics really only started as a subfield of philosophy in the 1970s, and the field has shifted from an original concern with how do we value nature, how do we understand our place in it, to more of an interest in environmental issues as human issues involving justice and especially global, intergenerational justice. But there actually aren't that many people even in philosophy who specialize in environmental ethics and consistently write papers in those areas, although that is changing over time.

IRENE PEDRUELO: You have claimed that climate change is fundamentally an ethical issue, not a scientific or political one. Why?

STEPHEN GARDINER: I understand climate change as a major ethical challenge, a perfect moral storm. It is a genuinely global problem; it is very seriously intergenerational and ecological; our theories in philosophy, economics, and other areas of relevance to public policy are not at all robust when it comes to thinking about these kinds of problems; and similarly, our public institutions are not well formed, in my view.

If we take future generations as an example, it turns out that there are long time lags between the benefits of our activities that produce carbon dioxide and cause global warming, and the costs and the negative impacts—many of which won't arise for at least several decades, maybe centuries. So we face this background temptation to take the short-term goodies, if you like, and then pass on a really big check for those goodies to other people who we will never meet and who will never meet us and be able to hold us accountable. There is no one to stop us—no one even to raise a voice on behalf of these future people, except us. We are vulnerable to ways of thinking about the problem that hide these ethical aspects, because they are uncomfortable to raise and because they make it quite clear that we are behaving in a reprehensible manner. We are vulnerable to what I call "moral corruption."

IRENE PEDRUELO: So how do you convince governments and citizens to invest in far-off benefits?

STEPHEN GARDINER: If, as some people believe, we are just irredeemably self-interested in a very narrow economic and short-term way, then it is going to be very difficult to solve these kinds of problems, at least in a way that protects future generations. But I think we are not. I think we do have intergenerational concerns. We do recognize that for us to impose certain kinds of costs on the future, in exchange for fairly minor benefits now, would be deeply unethical.

IRENE PEDRUELO: So if we are not self-interested, what is stopping us from taking action?

STEPHEN GARDINER: I think we do have an institutional problem, namely that current institutions are dominated by short-term economic kinds of considerations. We seem to lack effective institutions for registering intergenerational concerns that we really have. I think this explains the history of, say, international climate policy up to this point, especially the unfortunate episodes in Copenhagen and so on. So I think we do need some institutional reform based around registering genuine concern that we have for future generations.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Some economists do indeed argue that extreme action against climate change could actually have devastating economic effects in current generations.

STEPHEN GARDINER: At a very hypothetical kind of level, it is true that there is a genuine problem there. I have argued that when people say it is infeasible to cut emissions dramatically, this mistakes the issue in one way. Presumably, it's perfectly technically feasible—it doesn't violate natural laws of physics or whatever—for us tomorrow morning to turn off every device that is connected to carbon and not use it anymore. The reason we don't do that is not a technical reason. It is because we realize that if we turned off all our energy sources tomorrow morning, it would have severe impacts on all of us. Those impacts would be, amongst other things, very ethically bad. We would have severe trouble feeding people, treating people who are ill, and so on. Life would grind to a halt quite quickly, presumably. So I do think we have some reasons, what you might call "rights of self-defense," not to engage in really, really extreme climate action immediately, if that completely undermines many of the things we value today. But even theoretically, if you are going to invoke a right to self-defense like that, rights to self-defense have limits. If you knowingly are imposing harm on others out of self-defense, you have strong obligations to find other ways out, not to do things that unnecessarily harm, say, future people or current people.

IRENE PEDRUELO: If we are concerned about intergenerational issues as you claim . . . Why did the Kyoto Protocol fail? What happened to the Copenhagen protocol? Is it that the timing was not right and back then we had not internalized the costs we were imposing on future generations? Is now the time?

STEPHEN GARDINER: In my view, we are trying to put a square peg into a round hole, if you like. The processes that we are engaged in leading towards Kyoto, Copenhagen, and now Paris, are driven by national governments, which have pretty short time horizons in terms of what they are structured to care about and act on. If you have institutions that are driven in this sort of way, it is going to be very difficult for them to deal with genuinely long-term intergenerational problems of the sort that I mentioned. So it is not surprising that we found it difficult. The one thing that is a little bit surprising at first glance is the habit we have had in the past of presenting Kyoto and even, for a few people, Copenhagen, as a significant success and step forward, when, if you look at the substance of those kinds of agreements and what they actually achieve in terms of carbon emissions, they look like severe failures. Since the beginning of the serious international process for dealing with climate change back in the early 1990s, global emissions have risen by something like 40 percent. So it is very hard to say that in the last 25 years we have been involved in very successful or even modestly successful international climate policy, when the reality is we have made things much worse, and we have done so by investing in infrastructure that has a long shelf life.

IRENE PEDRUELO: You were mentioning an institutional problem, but we have a successful precedent, which is the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer that entered in force in 1989. It is considered an example of exceptional international cooperation, a success of the international community. How does Montreal's success play into this idea of the current institutions not being appropriate to deal with climate change?

STEPHEN GARDINER: I think there are complicated stories to tell about the differences between the Montreal Protocol and the ozone problem and climate change. Some people have argued that one of the biggest failures of international climate policy involved the attempt to model the process too closely on the Montreal Protocol and the ozone problem. What I would emphasize in terms of differences is the profound intergenerational aspect of the climate change problem, which doesn't seem to be present, or at least to nowhere near the same extent, with the ozone problem. They are just very different problems in terms of the underlying incentives. Many people would also argue that there are underlying political and economic reasons why they have played out very differently.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Do you think that, in addition to the intergenerational feature, this failure to address climate change has anything to do with what was coined as "climate change fatigue"the general public being tired of certain narratives that have been around for a very, very long time?

STEPHEN GARDINER: Many of the things we have heard and continue to hear about the big Paris meeting this year are very reminiscent of all the things we were hearing prior to Copenhagen in 2009, prior to Kyoto in the late 1990s, prior to the Rio summit in the early 1990s. But often these themes are being presented as if there is some new problem. So I do understand the narrative fatigue issue. What I would like to think is that when people really think about their fatigue with that narrative, what they are probably frustrated with is the fact that we are not doing very well in addressing the problem, and particularly that sometimes these major meetings are initially on the front page of the major newspapers the day after, presented as some kind of dramatic success against the odds, but then very quickly, over the course of a few months or a year or so, it emerges that things were not quite as they seemed and are much worse than initially presented. I think that is a worry, because I think it erodes public trust in what is going on.

IRENE PEDRUELO: What happens if the talks collapse in Paris or if they are not fruitful? Would it mean that the United Nations is not the appropriate institution to lead international action on climate change?

STEPHEN GARDINER: I doubt that the talks will actually collapse. The history of these things suggests we will get some kind of agreement, but the devil will be in the details—how ambitious is the agreement? How likely are people to actually live up to what are just their voluntary pledges, really? And in particular, how likely are they, when the governments making these pledges are going to be very different by the time the end of the commitment period is done, whether that is 2030 or somewhere after that? So I suspect we will get some kind of agreement, but what people should really be paying attention to is how robust that agreement is in substance and in shape.

IRENE PEDRUELO: You have been quite critical of the UN though . . .

STEPHEN GARDINER: It is true that my recent arguments have been that maybe we shouldn't expect too much out of the UN process, as it is currently constituted. I think we should push for what I call a global constitutional convention, akin to the Constitutional Convention in the United States in 1787—a forum, a meeting place, where we get together and confront the very serious institutional challenges to solving a problem like climate change, and think about what kinds of institutions we could develop that would make that work better, in particular by representing the concerns of future generations. I believe climate change is only the first of this general kind of global, intergenerational, ecological problem that we are going to face, so there is reason to think about institutional architecture that will be good even apart from the climate problem. The other reason is that I think historically we haven't been doing very well in dealing with the climate problem, and thinking seriously about institutional matters that might actually help the process, including within the UNFCCC (The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change).

IRENE PEDRUELO: Let's dive in a little bit more on what this global constitutional convention would look like.

STEPHEN GARDINER: One can imagine there being quite a high level of controversy about which particular forms each of these things should take. At the moment I am not trying to highlight any particular solution that is going to emerge from the convention, but encourage us to take seriously the problem that we have by having such a convention. For example, there will be differences of opinion about, in, say, a new institutional architecture, how to accommodate, on the one hand, but also rein in to some extent the power of national governments, so as to be able to make solving this kind of intergenerational problem easier. That kind of disagreement will help to inform the constitutional convention.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Put it in a different way, are you a deep believer in global governance and global institutions needing to be in charge and needing to lead this fight?

STEPHEN GARDINER: I am not sure I would say that I am a deep believer in global governance per se. Like any level of governance, global governance would have certain kinds of benefits, certain kinds of risks associated with it. So if it does turn out that the best way to deal with these intergenerational problems is to have some kind of centralized institutions that do have very significant power over other institutions, there would still have to be very serious checks and balances to make sure they don't become too powerful and give us other problems, which institutions tend to do.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Let's go back to the Paris conference happening in December. Many countries have already set out their intended emission targets—Europe, the United States, China. But still it seems it is not enough, and still they are playing this game, where no one wants to pledge too much too soon.

STEPHEN GARDINER: There is currently an ambition gap between the pledges that are currently being made and any reasonable chance of meeting that objective [to limit the global temperature increase to not more than 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels]. Another kind of problem is that there are serious issues, including justice issues, about what is owed to the developing countries, given the historical emissions of the big emitters, including the United States, the EU, and now China. Many people have seen this as the single biggest stumbling block to climate action for decades, and at the moment, that is taking the form of a dispute about who is going to pay for what is called inside the process, "loss and damage," moving forward. Some of the parties, especially India, whose cooperation is very important, are highlighting that, really, their contributions depend on a serious deal about loss and damage and compensation. So some of the reluctance that you are talking about reflects the attempt not to deal with issues that are fundamental . . . until later.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Is it ethical for the so-called "developing countries" to say, "Hey, look, you rich countries polluted in the name of economic development for decades, so why can't we do so now, why are you imposing restrictions on our 'right to pollute'?"

STEPHEN GARDINER: There is a legitimate kind of complaint there that at least some developing countries have, especially those with significant portions of their population in extreme poverty, which includes a significant percentage of the world population. The "after you" kind of approach is one that has driven climate politics for decades. It was indeed the original idea behind the Kyoto Protocol. The idea was that the developed countries would take the lead, partly because they were more historically responsible for this problem, but partly also to show that they were serious about making these kinds of cuts. Of course, we know that a significant number of the major emitters didn't follow through and didn't actually make significant cuts under Kyoto, or agree to them. So that trust-building exercise that was supposed to recognize some degree of historical responsibility just didn't play out. This only reinforces the complaint of the developing nations here. It is probably true that developing nations have some rights of self-defense against certain kinds of activities that would have very severe moral costs for them. But on the other hand, they don't have carte blanche to do as they like without considering the interests of future generations.

IRENE PEDRUELO: So we could find ourselves blaming each other and not really taking responsibility.

STEPHEN GARDINER: One might argue that this is perhaps a highly convenient situation for the current generation in both developed and developing countries, because by continuing to blame each other, this inaction continues. I think future generations will look back at this and probably be quite scathing in their attitude to both sides.

IRENE PEDRUELO: We live in an era of technological determinism, the rise of TED Talks that try to find the solution to all our problems, etc. In this context, some members of the science community—and the media picked up on it—started talking about geoengineering, which according to Professor David Keith from Harvard consists of "the intentional large-scale manipulation of the global environment." You have called this a "very quick fix to the problem." Is geoengineering unethical?

STEPHEN GARDINER: We should admit that geoengineering is at a very, very early stage of research. We know very little about whether there is anything really technically feasible about these techniques and none of them constitute a magic bullet that is going to solve the problem. More importantly, we have to beware of the temptation of implicitly assuming that these technologies are going to be ethically wonderful in ways that solve all our problems.

IRENE PEDRUELO: What concerns you about this approach to tackling climate change?

STEPHEN GARDINER: I am concerned with what I call the tyranny of the contemporary, where we take these short-term benefits and pass serious long-term costs on to future people, for example. That dynamic may still play itself out under geoengineering. One could easily imagine a generation, especially in the more affluent countries, picking a form of geoengineering—the most popular one being discussed now is spraying sulfates into the stratosphere to block incoming sunlight and cool down the planet—that holds off the worst impacts of climate change for 50 to 100 years. Some people explicitly say that geoengineering of the sort they imagine will benefit everybody; but it is not empirically likely that some kind of intervention is capable of benefiting absolutely every individual on the planet so globally and intergenerationally over hundreds of years.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Is the international community engaging in these kinds of ethical and moral debates?

STEPHEN GARDINER: In the case of international climate policy it has been very difficult to achieve ethical climate policy. Many people would argue, including me, that that is, to a significant extent, because existing institutions are not set up so as to favor the more ethical forms of policy.
It is hard for those kinds of concerns to get the traction that they need. It has been the position of some political actors and some writers on the process that ethics is irrelevant and a distraction and gets in the way of real solutions, but also the view of other major political actors and commentators that if we don't address the underlying ethical issues, we are not going to get any kind of serious solution.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Are ethicists invited to the Paris conference?

STEPHEN GARDINER: I am not aware of some huge push to involve all the ethicists in these discussions. I think there is some interest from policy people in what is being said in the ethics literature, both by philosophers and people in other disciplines concerned with climate justice, but I wouldn't say that it is a central part of the discussion.

IRENE PEDRUELO: One could argue that the discussion on climate policy and the role ethics plays in it in a way assumes the existence of a global ethic that we all share, just for the sake of being human beings living in and sharing this planet. Is a global ethic possible to achieve?

STEPHEN GARDINER: There is a very interesting question about the degree of convergence and overlap of ethical approaches to the world across different cultures. Some people describe the basic concern with historical emissions and taking responsibility as a concern about "clean up your own mess," as a sort of basic ethical intuition. And one sees this in the pledges that have been made as well so far in international climate policy this year. They are full of language that seems utterly mainstream and non-controversial to people in developing and developed countries.

Policy Innovations' Eight Quick Questions

Where do you see yourself in 20 years? Hopefully, celebrating that that perfect moral storm problem has been solved, at least for climate change, and we are well on the way to solving the intergenerational problem more generally with effective institutions.

What are the three main attributes of an innovator? I think you have to be intellectually curious, courageous, and not afraid to, as they say Down Under, back yourself.

What other obsessions do you have, in addition to intergenerational justice? Cricket, the England cricket team in particular.

What does social innovation mean to you, a term that lately has been around a lot? "Social innovation" strikes me as one of those buzzwords that comes up often and it is hard to get at what the content really is. I would say it involves taking the risk, stepping outside that very narrow, short-term economic thinking, which we are all kind of brought up with, and thinking bigger about who we are and what we want to be.

What do you do in your free time? I hang out with my kids and try to deal with the terrible logistics of making their lives work.

I'm afraid of . . . I'm afraid that we are at real risk of messing it up just at one of the most crucial points in human history.

Life is about . . . What we make of it.

What would you tell your younger self if you had to start over again? I have absolutely no idea. I guess I might say: don't try to make things more complicated than they actually are.

Read More: Environment, Ethics, Sustainability, Globalization

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