Stephen Gardiner On Climate Policy in a Perfect Moral Storm

Stephen M. Gardiner from the University of Washington visited UTK today to speak about climate change and environmental ethics. He identified three major “storms” that we face when trying to deal with global warming.

The first is a global storm of political failure. Since 1990 there have been a number of international attempts to limit the release of carbon dioxide. So far those attempts have failed. Carbon dioxide concentrations continue to grow at an accelerating rate. Gardiner notes that there are no global institutions capable of tackling the issue.

The second storm is intergenerational. We are stuck in a temporal buck-passing pattern that delays action because the benefits of action are deferred while the costs are immediate. There’s no incentive for current generations to limit their consumption for the benefit for future generations. But there is a moral imperative at work which we are reluctant to recognize.

The third storm is theoretical. We don’t have the necessary theory to resolve, or even reall understand, the problems of global regulation and intergenerational ethics. Problems like scientific uncertainty, international justice, contingent persons and preferences are under theorized. Gardiner argued that intergenerational problem is potentially even larger than the global problem but there are even fewer institutions that work across generations.

Despite all of this Gardiner offered some optimistic points. The current discussion of the problem is overly focused on global politics which immediately draws attention to the problems of action, especially politics. Perhaps a more local focus, even on the individual level, might help us to see through the problems.

He also noted that a reduction to 1990 levels of carbon dioxide, which was part of the Copenhagen negotiating points, would not be the end of modern civilization. He remembers what life was like in 1990 and it’s not too different from life in 2010.

He concluded that even after acknowledging any uncertainty about the science behind global warming there is no sane reason for us to accelerate the release of carbon dioxide. It would be like having your doctor tell you to reduce your cholesterol and then having your friend tell you that the evidence presented by the doctor is uncertain so you should go out and eat more cheeseburgers.