‘U-Dub’ Professor Stephen Gardiner Sees Climate Change as ‘Perfect Moral Storm’

Gardiner sees a climate change ‘perfect moral storm.’

SEATTLE, WA. — First it was a scientific debate. Then it became also an economic and policy challenge. Now climate change is becoming a moral storm. Or maybe it always has been.

University of Washington associate professor and author Stephen M. Gardiner believes the latter is the case. A social scientist and professor of ethics, political philosophy and environmental ethics, Gardiner has studied the ethical and moral complexities of climate change for the past 10 years. But only now is that focus becoming a significant part of the broader discussion on what to do about the impacts of a changing climate.

“Social sciences, especially philosophy, may be a bit late coming to the discussion, but they raise valuable questions and concerns that must be understood and dealt with as we seek to find solutions,” Gardiner said in an interview in his campus office.

In his upcoming book, A Perfect Moral Storm: Climate Change, Intergenerational Ethics and the Global Environmental Tragedy (due in 2010 from Oxford), Gardiner expands on the complex ethical and moral issues that climate change presents for today’s and future generations.

Consider a “perfect storm” an event driven by an unusual convergence of independently harmful factors, with the convergence likely to result in substantial, and possibly catastrophic, negative outcomes, said Gardiner. The term “the perfect storm,” of course, stems from Sebastian Junger’s book about the Andrea Gail, a New England fishing vessel caught at sea during a convergence of three particularly bad storms.

Convergence Threatens ‘Ability to Behave Ethically’

“Climate change appears to be a perfect moral storm because it involves the convergence of a number of factors that threaten our ability to behave ethically,” said Gardiner, who organized a conference on climate change and ethics in 2007. “Specifically, the global challenge and the intergenerational challenge that impact our ability to behave ethically.”

The global storm is relatively straightforward. Climate change is a global problem; the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions are realized not only at the source, but all over the world; and climate change is caused by lots of players – individuals and institutions, making a coordinated response difficult.

The intergenerational factor is a bit more complex. By its very nature, climate change has intergenerational features. The problems of the past and those of today will have to be dealt with by future generations. And the solutions being offered and undertaken today will also affect future generations.

Are the changes being made today the ideal ones to address future problems? Are they in the best interest of today’s generation? And of the next generation and the one after that? Doesn’t continued economic and technological change typically mean the future generation will be better off? What is the ideal balance between the interests of today’s generation and tomorrow’s? Are we passing the buck?

Gardiner ‘shedding light’ on moral aspects.

As the two systems of the intergenerational storm and the climate change storm collide, they set up the perfect moral storm: the challenge lies in making the right moral decisions and not falling subject to denial, complacency, selective attention, or being satisfied with policies that appear to take the issue seriously but in reality do little to address the concerns for the future.

Are these philosophical discussions adding or detracting from the public’s understanding of climate change and action? According to Gardiner, his work and the work of the philosophical community is only revealing issues that have always been there, and perhaps redirecting the discussion.

Economics a Placeholder – Real Debate on Values

“I’m only hoping to shed light on the moral considerations that need to be taken into account in creating solutions to climate change,” said Gardiner, who this past summer gave several talks to National Academy of Sciences meetings on the topic of ethics and climate change.

“So far climate change has been discussed as an economic issue. Unfortunately, economic numbers have become a placeholder for the real debate about which values we are trying to protect and how we are going to protect them.”

Gardiner would like to see the conversation shift from such a heavy emphasis on economics to a value discussion about objectives.

What are the objectives in dealing with climate change? “The answer as to what to do about climate change depends on your objectives. For example if your objective is to do the very best by the interest of a high-consuming elite in the western world in the next 20 years, the answer is not very much, if anything.”

“If we want to protect the interest of future generations and vulnerable species, it frames the question in a very different way. There are going to need to be discussions about exactly what we need to achieve. That’s where the social sciences like philosophy come in.”

‘Perfect Moral Storm’ Clouds Ahead

While the brewing storm seems ominous, the international community has rallied before on complex and seemingly intractable issues. Specifically, Gardiner points to the stratospheric ozone treaties where solutions stepped out in front of the science, although experts acknowledge that the climate change challenge is far more difficult than that presented by CFCs and the ozone hole.

Health Care Debate: Long Term, Big Picture Lessons

Are there lessons to be learned from the health care debate this summer as climate change bills inch their way through Capital Hill and as the December Copenhagen convention approaches?

Gardiner thinks so.

“We must continue to focus on the big picture issue of what the long-term consequences are likely to be of our current behavior. We must take care not to be distracted by what are, by comparison, relatively minor issues about exactly what sort of cap and trade, or who is going to be given what permits under what conditions. These are important debates. But the overall objective is so important that we have to make sure that we not allow that kind of debate to sink action in general.”

One of the keys to making needed progress involves building a bridge between the academic scientific community and the policy community, according to Gardiner. He thinks some earth and social scientists have done an adequate job communicating about science, but he thinks neither the physical nor the social science communities has adequate channels bridging academia and policy.

“We need a set of people who understand the academic work in science and also understand the policy role very well, and stand between the two and do effective communication and effective advocacy informed by each side,” Gardiner says. “I think that there is a bit of an attitude in the scientific community that if the policy makers ‘just understood’ this problem everything would happen. I doubt that that is true. I suppose even if they understand the ethics of the problem, we still need great people on the ground pushing these things forward who understand both sides of the debate.”

That’s one of the roles that Gardiner hopes to fill by teaching courses on environmental ethics that span the philosophy, environment, and public affairs programs at the University of Washington. As part of that effort, he is collaborating on an upcoming course with highly regarded University of Washington climate scientist John Mike Wallace.

For more on Gardiner’s work including A Perfect Moral Storm: Climate Change, Intergenerational Ethics and the Global Environmental Tragedy, go here.

Stephanie Kenitzer is a freelance writer and communications expert living in the Seattle, Washington, area.

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