In my view, climate change is a perfect moral storm. It brings together global and intergenerational challenges to our ability to behave ethically.
The Global Storm
I call the first challenge the global storm. The impacts of greenhouse gas emissions are not realized solely or even primarily at their source. Hence, there is a spatial dispersion of causes and effects. In addition, a vast number of individuals and institutions contribute to the problem. Hence, there is a fragmentation of agency. Worse, global institutions that might coordinate an effective response are lacking.
The international situation is often understood as a prisoner’s dilemma (PD), or what Garrett Hardin called a tragedy of the commons, a situation characterized by the following two claims: (PD1) It is collectively rational to cooperate and restrict overall emissions, and (PD2) It is individually rational not to restrict one’s own emissions.
If climate change were a normal tragedy of the commons that might be encouraging news. Commons problems are resolvable under certain circumstances, particularly if the parties facing the problem benefit from a wider context of interaction, as countries of the world do on issues of trade and security.
In addition, there is wide agreement that changing the incentive structure – through, say, a global cap-and-trade system – is the appropriate means for resolving a commons problem. Hardin called this “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.” This familiar analysis implies that the main requirement for addressing climate change is a system of global governance to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
Unfortunately, there are additional features that exacerbate the difficulty of the situation. One is uncertainty about the precise magnitude and global distribution of effects. This casts doubt on the truth of (PD1). Perhaps some nations think that the effects of climate change will leave them relatively better off than other countries, and so are less willing to cooperate. Perhaps they at least believe that they should pay less to avoid the associated costs.
A second exacerbating feature is that the causes of climate change, such as burning fossil fuels, are deeply embedded within the infrastructure of current civilizations. This suggests that those with vested interests in the continuation of the current system will resist action. Moreover, unless ready substitutes are found, real mitigation can be expected to have profound impacts on how humans live and how human societies evolve. Hence, action on climate change is likely to raise serious, and perhaps uncomfortable, questions about who we are and what we want to be.
A third feature is that action on climate change creates a moral risk for developed nations. It implies that there are international norms of ethics and responsibility and that international cooperation based on such norms is both possible and necessary. Hence, it may encourage attention to other moral defects of the current global system, such as poverty, human rights violations, and so on.
The Intergenerational Storm
The second challenge is the intergenerational storm. It arises from a temporal perspective on dispersion of causes and effects, fragmentation of agency, and institutional inadequacy.
Temporal dispersion arises because carbon dioxide can spend a surprisingly long time in the atmosphere. This longevity creates difficulties in grasping the connection between causes and effects. By the time really bad impacts occur, we will already be committed to much more change, complicating the ability of standard institutions to deal with the problem. Another, even more troubling, implication is that the full effects of our current actions will not be realized until far into the future. This means that we are passing the costs of our behavior on to future generations. Given that some of these costs involve serious harms, such as starvation, disease and death, buck-passing raises important ethical issues.
The structure of the buck-passing problem is similar to that of the traditional prisoner’s dilemma, but also worse in important ways. The problem can be roughly characterized as follows: (PIP1) It is collectively rational for most generations to cooperate; (PIP2) It is individually rational for all generations not to cooperate.
The first claim is weaker than the parallel claim for the prisoner’s dilemma because in the intergenerational version the first generation does not suffer climate change effects, and so does not benefit from cooperation. Moreover, when generations do not coexist, as temporally distant generations do not, one cannot appeal to a wider context of interaction or to the usual notions of reciprocity to bridge the motivational gap.
The usual thinking is that people will naturally be better off in the future because of continued economic growth and technological change. Because economic activity results in improved capital stock, infrastructure, and technologies, runs the argument, presently self-interested behaviour benefits those in the future through an invisible hand.
Now, this claim may have been true in the recent history of the more developed nations. Yet it seems unlikely that it ameliorates the threat of intergenerational buck-passing. For one thing, the loss of some very important goods, like climate stability, may overwhelm any economic or technological gains. For another, the operation of an invisible hand is based on specific social, legal, and moral frameworks. Since the presence of such conditions hardly characterizes all countries in all periods, we cannot escape the possibility that the effects of climate change may undermine the frameworks that have been successful in recent history. The threat of intergenerational harm thus seems a real one.
Beware Ye Who Enter Here
There is one final complication. The convergence of the global and intergenerational storms creates a new and distinct problem: the problem of moral corruption.
Given the privileged global positions of those in some parts of the world as well as the privileged intergenerational positions of those now alive or, at least, above a certain age, it is easy to think that it is in our interest not to take the climate change problem as seriously as we should.
This means that we are vulnerable to all kinds of influences that make this possible. Most obviously, we should beware the forces of denial, complacency, and selective attention. Less obviously, there is a real danger of self-deception, and in particular of remaining satisfied with policies that, on the surface, appear to take the issue seriously but actually do little to address the concerns of the future.
This moral corruption is a little understood impact of climate change – and everyone in the current generation is vulnerable.