A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change by Stephen M. Gardiner

| January 2014
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A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change, Stephen M. Gardiner (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 495 pp., $35 cloth.

9780199985142_p0_v1_s260x420Climate change is the most intractable environmental issue, and Stephen Gardiner has written extensively about it, especially from an ethical perspective. He recognizes that climate change is not merely a technical, economic, or political challenge but fundamentally a moral one. It comes about because people—especially the rich and powerful—are unwilling or unable to care about those on the receiving end of climate hardship. This insensitivity generates complacency, or at least confusion, about how to build institutions and shape widespread behavior in the service of climate protection. A Perfect Moral Storm is Gardiner’s most extensive and detailed statement to date on this theme.

Gardiner is no misanthrope. He is not one of those moral thinkers who condemn humanity for its excessive greed or self-regarding orientation. Although he does not say so, the reader gets the sense that Gardiner feels sorry for humanity. It is as if we have brought about a problem that is so complex—and therefore so “wicked”— that the parameters of moral action are tragically narrowed. We are moral creatures frustrated by the structural constraints of climate change, and A Perfect Moral Storm explains this structural straitjacket. Gardiner’s hope is that, by understanding the nature of these constraints, we can find moral wiggle room to work our way toward climate safety. Gardiner is far from confident that this is possible, but this is at least his ambition, and it constitutes the normative justification for the book.

The structural constraints consist of three core elements that Gardiner sees coming together to create the perfect storm. The first is the global dimension of climate change. People emit greenhouse gases from particular places across the world, yet these concentrations accumulate in the atmosphere as a whole and affect living conditions everywhere. Furthermore, because we live in a sovereign state system wherein states enjoy only fragmentary responsibility and control, it is difficult to generate the moral consideration and political will necessary to address climate change. (Students of International Relations will be familiar with this dimension, since it maps closely upon the idea of “the tragedy of the commons.” Gardiner acknowledges this similarity, but shows that circumstances specific to climate change intensify the tragedy.)

The second dimension of Gardiner’s perfect storm is intergenerational. Greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere for ages and thus decisions about reducing emissions involve concern for future generations. The problem is that future generations have no voice in contemporary affairs, and few politicians—who must show achievements within a two-, four-, or six-year period of office—are willing to undertake costly action now for climate rewards that will appear only in the distant future. (One is reminded of the famous adage, “The future whispers while the present shouts,” or perhaps of Winston Churchill’s remark, “A problem postponed is a problem solved.”) Gardiner shows how contempocentricism is a moral dilemma because the current generation always has asymmetrical power over future generations. He calls this, appropriately, the tragedy of the contemporary.

The final issue is theoretical. Gardiner says that we lack the intellectual tools to properly understand climate change. Scholars in multiple disciplines, but especially in the humanities (and ethicists in particular), have yet to articulate compelling models of climate change that allow moral sensitivity, compassion, transnational and transgenerational care, and other forms of ethical concern to rise to the surface and provide guidance for meaningful and effective climate action. Climate change, in other words, is undertheorized. We have failed so far to generate a meaningful way to understand and address it.

Taken together, the challenges and complexities of the global, intergenerational, and theoretical tempests conspire to create the perfect storm, which undermines moral action because it scrambles our ability to see clear lines of culpability, undermines our ethical probity, and diminishes our sense of agency. Moreover, such ambiguity enhances the temptation to avoid moral responsibility—a practice that Gardiner astutely discusses through the concept of moral corruptibility.

Gardiner’s book has many strengths, foremost of which is its ability to explain why action on climate change is so hard. As Gardiner explains, we simply cannot act in a straightforward manner because the complexities surrounding climate change cloud our moral perceptions, and our institutions are incapable of channeling collective moral outrage into inspired action.

The book is also frustrating. It reads like a labyrinth tour through all of Gardiner’s thoughts on the subject. Typically, Gardiner will entertain an idea, recognize that others might disagree, discuss their (occasionally imagined) criticisms, accept some of them and reject others, and then end up advancing his original idea again, only now with slight reservations. Gardiner’s excessive defensive thinking and second-guessing of his own arguments make it difficult to follow the sequence and significance of his overall effort.

Furthermore, Gardiner is constantly parsing out minute aspects of his arguments. The book is peppered with distinctions that appear, at least to me, so subtle as to have little bearing on the larger point that the author is trying to make.While such analytical differentiation reveals Gardiner’s nuanced thinking on the subject, many readers may find this process wearying. More generally, the book reads like a compendium of treatments revolving around the perfect storm rather than a coherent, sequential argument about it. This may be because the book is partly cobbled together from his previously published works on the topic.

Throughout the book Gardiner tries to muster optimism. He keeps telling us that by articulating the moral dilemmas around climate action he is creating space for new thinking and caring. He is right: describing and coming to terms with a problem is a first step toward finding a solution. But his optimism is hard to embrace. This is because Gardiner’s moral exercises are all in the service of solving climate change. Gardiner’s faith is that if we can unshackle the moral imagination and its attendant power—by unpacking and ultimately ameliorating the global, intergenerational, and theoretical constraints—humanity may be able to address climate change (or at least it will have a better shot at doing so). I am not so sure.

To me, the moral dimension of climate change is less about instrumentality—that is, harnessing moral energy in the service of climate protection—and more about the deepening of our humanity when we reflect on climate injustices and act according to our deepest moral sensitivities independent of outcomes. I say this not to invoke a kind of deontological moral stance, but to acknowledge the actualities of climate change. Currently, there is no practical effort that seems significant enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a safe level. Moreover, climate change is not a puzzle with a given solution set; it is a chronic challenge that involves mitigation, adaptation, and a type of soldiering through increasing climate intensification and suffering. It is a challenge, then, not simply of aligning moral passion with particular strategies but more generally one of living in ways that are morally befitting a climate age. That is, engaging morally with climate change is not about creating a particular result, but about taking a necessary stand in the midst of an unfolding tragedy.

No matter how much we try to mitigate and adapt—and we should try hard—there will still be unavoidable suffering. Recognizing this does not free us from moral behavior, but instead inspires it. According to the political theorist Leslie Thiele, environmental challenges are ethical issues insofar as they call on us to extend moral consideration across space (to the poor and less fortunate who live “downstream”), time (to future generations), and species (to the living world beyond humans). We need to extend such concern not because doing so will solve a particular problem, but because it is the right thing to do for those who feel the pain of hurting others. It is not about instrumentality, but about becoming more human.

—PAUL WAPNER

Paul Wapner is professor of global environmental politics at American University. His most recent book is Living through the End of Nature (2010).

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Category: Book Review, Issue 27.4

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