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?
Here are some excerpts of a piece Stephen Gardiner published in Yale Environment 360, “The Ethical Dimension of Tackling Climate Change”:
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….
… 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?
… 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….
This is a grim state of affairs…. 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.
The rest of this excellent piece can be found at Yale Environment 360. Gardiner is a professor in the Department of Philosophy and the Program on Values in Society at the University of Washington, Seattle, where he specializes in ethics, political philosophy, and environmental ethics.
For my interview with Gardiner on geo-engineering, see:
- Exclusive: Dysfunctional, Lop-Sided Geoengineering Panel Tries to Launch Greenwashing Euphemism, “Climate Remediation”: Revealing Interview with Ethicist Who Withdrew from Panel, Equally Revealing Article by Panel Member on Report’s Dysfunctional Process