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We Agree: The Failure of Climate Ethics

I WROTE MY portions of this book, as well as several related works, because of concerns that the theories of ethics, or justice more generally, that had been put forward with respect to climate policy were flawed. They suffered from internal logical problems—their conclusions failed to follow from their premises. Moreover, following these theories would lead us outside of feasible solutions to a pressing global problem, or if feasible, would fail to stop climate change. I suggested that pursuing enlightened self-interest would lead to strong global emissions reductions, with the main problem being solving the free-rider problem.

The task for those defending the use of ethics to shape climate change policy is to put forward a theory of ethics that does not suffer from internal logical problems, that can actually be implemented, and that when implemented will solve the problem. This is not a high bar. It simply asks that if we are to follow a theory, that it make sense and work.

Gardiner has chosen not to take up the task. He does not put forward or defend a theory of ethics that meets these minimal requirements. Rather, he agrees with me that existing theories fail. His core claim is we face a “theoretical storm” by which he means “we are extremely ill-equipped to deal with many problems characteristic of the long-term future.” In his view:

... even our best theories struggle to address basic issues such as intergenerational equity, contingent persons, nonhuman animals, and nature. Climate change involves all these and more. Given this, humanity appears to be charging into an area where we are theoretically inept, in the (nonpejorative) sense of being unsuited for (e.g., poorly adapted to), or lacking the basic skills and competence to complete, the task.

[T]he theoretical storm also afflicts major theories in moral and political philosophy, such as utilitarianism, Rawlsian liberalism, human rights theory, libertarianism, virtue ethics, and so on. I conceive of such theories as major research programs that evolve over time (rather than, say, as sets of propositions). Whatever their other merits, in their current forms these research programs appear to lack the resources needed to deal with problems like climate change. Moreover, it seems likely that in evolving to meet them, they will be substantially, and perhaps radically, transformed.

Importantly, I am not claiming that in principle such theories have nothing to say. On the contrary, at a superficial level, it is relatively easy for the standard research programs to assert that their favored values are relevant to climate change and license condemnation of political inertia. Severe and catastrophic forms of climate change pose a big enough threat that it is plausible to claim that most important values (e.g., happiness, human rights, freedom, property rights, etc.) are threatened. Surely, then, proponents of such values will think that something should be done. Nevertheless, in my view the more important questions are how precisely to understand the threat, and what should be done to address it. On such topics, the standard research programs seem curiously oblivious, complacent, and opaque, even evasive. In particular, so far they have offered little guidance on the central question of the kinds of institutions that are needed to confront the problem, and the specific norms that should govern those institutions. Though this situation is starting to change as theoretical attention shifts (after twenty- five years of waiting), there is still a very long way to go.

These paragraphs could have come out of my chapters.

Rather than trying to meet these minimal requirements for an ethical theory, Gardiner suggests a lower bar for understanding the role of ethics: that in principle ethics is relevant even if right now it is not up to the task of providing guidance. It is hard to disagree with this because we cannot exclude the possibility that someone might come up with a sound, feasible theory. But until we see such a theory, we cannot know what it might say and in what direction it might lead. Instead, all we can do is address the ethics-based approaches that have been put forward so far. And here Gardiner and I agree: they fail.

This of course leaves many smaller disagreements. Gardiner defends elements of corrective justice that I do not believe are valid. He is less willing to live with feasibility constraints than I am. He thinks self-interest will lead to moral corruption. I do not. And so on. I leave these disagreements to our respective chapters where we each have had our say. What is most important is that we agree on the central issue: existing theories of ethics fail. As Gardiner says, they “offer[] little guidance on the central question of the kinds of institutions that are needed to confront the problem, and the specific norms that should govern those institutions.” I agree.


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