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Philosophy Briefs - A Perfect Moral Storm : Climate Change, Integenerational Ethics and the Problem of Moral Corruption

Author - Stephen M. Gardiner


The peculiar features of the climate change problem post substantial obstacles to our ability to make the hard choices necessary to address it. Climate change involves the convergence of a set of global, intergenerational and theoretical problems. This convergence justifies calling it a perfect moral storm’. One consequence of this storm is that, even if other difficult ethical questions surrounding climate change could be answered, we might still find it difficult to act. For the storm makes us extremely vulnerable to moral corruption.


Gardiner starts his paper with a few quotes. The first one by Samuelson in 2005 on social security, which is similar in the intergenerational problem posed by climate change. The second being a quote from the ICPC report in 2001.

There’s a quiet clamor for hypocrisy and deception; and pragmatic politicians respond with … schemes that seem to promise something for nothing. Please, spare us the truth.

Natural, technical, and social sciences can provide essential information and evidence needed for decisions on what constitutes dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.’ At the same time, such decisions are value judgements …’

There are many issues to be dealth with for climate change. Technology and science has been spending a lot of time and effort on renewable and clean tech or energy solutions. Lawyers have been fighting cases and defending the environment as much as they can. Politicians have been trying to get more laws in place and urging people to care about these issues. Not that these are not vital towards stopping climate change, but ethics does play a fundamental role in this problem.

The reason that ethics plays a fundamental role in the problem is that once we have data that climate change is happening, ethics is the area that will answer questions like So what?” or Why should I care?”. If you are not a moral skeptic, and you do care about things like natural resources, cities on the coast, crop yields, or nature in general or if you care about various types of people and animals, then you need some sort of theory of moral responsibility.

Some ethical questions occur at the practical level with policy decisions. Lawmakers, politicians, NGOs, and professors have to think about what type of action will be the best to make for climate change. Should we implement a carbon tax and what would it look like? Does the global south deserve reparations since they unequally get impacted by climate change ? What groups get to emit pollutants more or less than others?

These are important practical questions that need to be answered to solve the problem, but are contingent on a lot of empirical reasons as well. Gardiner is more concerned here with some of the more theoretical moral questions that are related or underly climate change. Gardiner is going to address three moral issues, namely, the global storm, the intergenerational storm, and the theoretical storm. All of these come together to make the perfect storm”, which is referring to the Junger tale about the fishing boat the Andrea Gail. When taking all these storms together, Gardiner thinks that we are at risk for something called moral corruption as well.

The Global Storm

The first two storms arise from the following three characteristics of climate change.

  • Dispersion of causes and effects
  • Fragementation of agency
  • Institutional inadequecy

The global storm can also be thought of the spatial” problem with climate change, and the intergenerational can also be thought of the temporal” problem of climate change. Both of these problems are affected as well by these three characteristics, but one spatially and the other temporally. We will get to temporally in a bit.

Dispersion of causes and effects : The dispersion of causes and effects is easy to think about spatially here. Emissions in one part of the planet affect the entire planet. The pollution of Americans is not only affecting Americans, but the entire planet.

Fragmentation of agency : There is no sole actor, no sole orginization, or not even a sole type of organization responsible for climate change. Private citizens, public officials, governments at large, and corporations are all implicated in some sense.

Institutional inadequecy : Addressing climate change requires global regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and introducing a reliable and effective enforcement mechanism (sanctions). A global problem requires a need for just global interactions. The issue with this is that the current global governance (or lack of depending on how you frame it), makes this seem difficult or impossible.

To frame the last two characteristics in a more structured way, Gardiner uses a game theory model called the Tragedy of the Commons. The Tragedy of the Commons is similar to the Prisoner’s Dilemma problem except that it involves a common resource to be shared among the agents involved. The scenario here is the Prisoner’s Dilemma in the context of overpollution between agents.

(PD1) It is collectively rational to cooperate and restrict overall pollution: each agent prefers the outcome produced by everyone restricting their individual pollution over the outcome produced by no one doing so.

(PD2) It is individually rational not to restrict one’s own pollution: when each agent has the power to decide whether or no she will restrict her pollution, each (rationally) perfers not to do, whatever the others do.

The agents in this dilemma are faced with a paradox of sorts. Given (PD1), it is better for everyone if everyone cooperates. However, given (PD2) it is rational to defect from the collective goal. The paradox is that if every agent chooses (PD2), they end up undermining their individual interests as a collective as well. Here is a table that shows what the payoffs would be using some numbers. The columns represent what agent B does and the rows represent what agent A does. If A chooses to cooperate while B defects, then the outcome is worse for A than if they had defected as well.

A vs B Cooperate Defect
Cooperate 2,2 0,3
Defect 3,0 1,1

If climate change was agreed upon as a simple Tragedy of the Commons problem then the rational solution would be to make the collectively rational action the same as the individually rational action, thus getting rid of the paradox. We could do this through things such as trade and sanctions and solve climate change. If the problem was agreed upon or as simple as this table makes it seem, climate change would be easy.

First, even if we agreed on this as a model of climate change, the problem of global governance poses an issue. Global governance is greatly lacking on the planet and therefore implementing the necessary changes to the way we interact on a global scale to make the collectively rational action also the individually rational action is going to be challenging. Second, the agents involved do not agree on this as a proper formulation for many reasons.

There is a large amount of scientific uncertainty in what the magnitude and the distribution of the effects of climate change are at the national level. This uncertainty about things like data and the pros/cons of climate change for states makes them question the truth that (PD1) is formulated properly or even true at all. When faced with uncertainty, it is easier to default to past solutions or the current way of life since it is more intellectually comforting.

Furthermore, countries may wonder if defecting is an optimal choice for them as well. Optimal choices in the table above would refer to defecting if the other person cooperates or cooperating if the other cooperates. However, if a state thinks that no matter what they will benefit the most or get hurt the least from climate change, they may choose to defect. For example, say America is able to mitigate most of the bad damages of climate change, while places in Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America get devastated by climate change and then relatively we are better off.

Another problem between agents now is that those with self-interested reasons to benefit off of climate change and maintaining the status quo policy of polluting the planet have most of the power. Countries that are the most advanced technologically pollute more and have more to change about their basic structure of society. The agents that have the most to lose from climate change are ones that stand in an inferior power position. For example, the United States day to day economic and social life is not sustainable for the planet, but is sustainable for us (for the most part). Vietnam stands at risk of having parts of the nation underwater at all times and making the entire nation at risk of floods from monsoons and heavy rains. The power structure here is skewed, Vietnam maintains a lot less global power than America and would need some sort of collective action between heavily affected, inferior nations in the context of global political power.

The Intergenerational Storm

Dispersion of causes and effects : Climate change is not only dispersed spatially, but also temporally. The way that the greenhouse effect works is that it has a lag. The effects of climate change are not realized instantly. Sea levels rise slowly over time, for instance. More disturbingly, carbon dioxide lags as well. Carbon dioxide can spend a long time in the upper atmosphere, on average 5-200 years by some estimates. Some molecules can even spend tens of thousands of years. David Archer says that we should use the shorthand rule that carbon dioxide sticks around for hundreds of years, plus 25% of that sticks around for ever”.

What this means is that the climate change effects the earth is seeing are primarily not the result of pollution from our lifetime, but the pollution of past generations. One of the most important things to draw from this is that it is possible by the time that we notice how bad things are presently, we have committed ourselves to irreversible damage in the future (barring some sci-fi level of carbon capture technology that can reverse things. However, if we cannot stop polluting then it seems difficult to think that we can work together to reverse it).

Fragmentation of agency : The problem of fragmented agency is even greater than the spatial problem. It is possible to imagine what it would mean for the spatially fragmented agents to unite together, but it is significantly harder to imagine what it would take for temporally unified agents across generations. We can model this situation again similar to the Prisoner’s Dilemma problem before, supposing that agents are two generations that do not live together at the same time at all. This Gardiner calls the Pure Intergenerational Problem”. For this problem, we are going to suppose that states are in fact biased towards the interests of the present citizens and care less about the future generations (which seems to be a descriptive truth of at least American politics re: social security crisis).

(PIP1) It is collectively rational for most generations to cooperate: (almost) every generation prefers the outcome produced by everyone restricting pollution over the outcome produced by everyone overpolluting.

(PIP2) It is individually rational for all generations not to cooperate: when each generation has the power to decide whether or not it will overpollute, each generation (rationally) prefers to overpollute, whatever the others do.

Gardiner states that (PIP1) is strictly worse than than (PD2) and similarly that (PIP2) is strictly worse than (PD2). The reasoning is as follows

  • (PIP1) vs (PD1) : In (PIP1), both agents that are involved in this model are not present. The present generation is less motiviated to cooperate with the future generation for this reason. Additionally, since subsequent generations face the same Prisoner’s Dilemma with the generation after them, it is harder for each subsequent current generation to be motivated to take the collectively rational action if the previous did not take it either. The first generation to take the collectively rational action is going to be doing charity in a sense, since there was no reciprocity with the generation before them.
  • (PIP2) vs (PD2) : (PIP2) is worse than (PD2) since the agents that would need to exist to make the collectively rational action also the individual rational action does not exist. In the spatial case, you can at least appeal to the collectively rational action being better for everyone and reciprocity.

Insitutional inadequecy : Democratic political institutions have short cycles. They are short in the more drastic since in that the people that elect you is the current generation and not the next generation, and worrying about the next generations problems will not get you elected (Medicare-for-all as your primary topic vs climate change). Additionally, the democratic institutions do not have the ability to deal with impacts that are defferred decades in advance. Due to this problem being in the distant future versus problems at hand, it is unlikely institutions will have the motivation to act.

The worst part about the intergenerational storm is that the generation A does not pass on the same problem to generation B. By refusing to restrict overpollution, the problem increases drastically to generation B. The problem does not increase linearly, it is an exponential increase. So if generation A decides to invest more in infrastructure relying on fossil fuel, it is going to make it harder for generation B to restrict their pollution. If generations keep up the inaction and exponentially increase the problem over time, it may come to be that we put some generation X in a morally tragic position, in that out of pure survival and self-defense, they may have to incur harm on themselves or a future generation.

The Theoretical Storm

The theoretical storm has to do with many of the difficulties in ethics at dealing with a problem this large. Not only is it hard to figure out what the facts of the matter are for climate change, figuring out who is implicated in climate change, to what degree are they implicated, and what sort of moral responsibility and blame should we attribute to the implicated subjects. It is very likely that most people on the planet will be implicated. Americans daily life style, the mundane things like eating and driving and using electricity, add up to possible deaths and relocation of millions of people around the globe. We may irreversibly destroy habitats , natural resources, and cities around the planet. These are issues that not only classical theoretical philosophy grapples with, but also practical philosophy. People that do research on things like implicated subjects, group responsibility, collective action, and systemic atrocities try to figure out these difficult problems as well.

Gardiner chooses not to dive into these issues in this paper and wants readers to merely understand that these exist.

Moral Corruption

Gardiner chooses not to go in detail either about the specifics of each type of moral corruption. He lists off the following possible strategies of moral corruption

  • Distraction
  • Complacency
  • Unreasonable doubt
  • Selective Attention
  • Delusion
  • Pandering
  • False witness
  • Hypocrisy

Gardiner hopes that anyone aware of the moral and scientific problems at hand with climate change will also be aware of moral corruption strategies. He highlights one of these on the list, that of selective attention. One can make it seem that they are tackling the problem of climate change as a whole by only paying attention to a few things that make the problem difficult. The current generation could try and tackle only the spatial problem of climate change without addressing the temporal. The current generation could make it seem like they are making efforts at a global scale as well, but ultimately refuse to adopt any strong measures such as sanctions. By making negligible sacrifices and avoiding overtly selfish behavior”, the earlier generations could say that they did their part without actually admitting that they did nothing.

Further reading

I will update this later with some relevant reading related to the theoretical problem and climate change in general.

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