A Perfect Moral Storm

December 10, 2013

Concluding the Fall 2013 Five Thousand Pound Life programming, which focused on climate change communication and ethics, Stephen Gardiner lectured on negotiating responsibilities and actions—both individual and collective—in the global, intergenerational crisis of climate change. The lecture began by framing the climate problem as a severe ethical challenge, a “perfect moral storm,” and then went on to confront the worry, memorably expressed by Dale Jamieson, that “today we face the possibility that the global environment may be destroyed, yet no one will be responsible.”

The essential argument of Gardiner’s lecture is expressed concisely by his opinion piece for Yale Environment 360, which we have reprinted below. Following his talk, Gardiner discussed the implications of his research for design with respondents Adam Yarinsky, architect and principal of Architecture Research Office, and Joel Towers, Executive Dean of Parsons The New School for Design. Responses and questions from Yarinsky and Towers, and a response by Gardiner, are presented after the essay.

Sometimes the best way to make progress on a problem is to get clearer on what that problem is. Arguably, the biggest issue facing humanity at the moment is the looming global environmental crisis. Here, the problem is not that we are unaware that trouble is coming. After all, the basic science is both well known and continually being reiterated in major national and international reports. Rather, the core problem is that thus far effective action seems beyond us. We seem at best paralyzed, and at worst indifferent. Put starkly, there seems little place within our grand institutions and busy lives for what may turn out to be the defining issue of our generation.

Why? In my view, at the heart of the matter is the fact that humanity is in the grip of a profound ethical challenge that our current institutions and theories are ill-equipped to meet.

Sebastian Junger’s book The Perfect Storm tells the story of a fishing boat caught at sea during the rare convergence of three independently powerful storms. Similarly, the global crisis of climate change brings together three major challenges to ethical action—and in a mutually reinforcing way. It is genuinely global, profoundly intergenerational, and occurs in a setting where we lack robust theory and institutions to guide us. Neglect of this perfect moral storm leads us to underestimate the climate problem and fail to appreciate the wider implications in predictable ways.

Those least responsible for past emissions are likely to suffer the most serious impacts.

 

Conventional wisdom identifies climate change as primarily a global problem. Wherever they originate, emissions of the main greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide) quickly become mixed in the atmosphere, affecting climate everywhere. According to the standard analysis, this makes climate change a traditional “tragedy of the commons,” played out between nation states that represent the interests of their citizens in perpetuity. In Garrett Hardin’s tragedy, each herdsman prefers the collective outcome where none over-consume—so that the commons is not overburdened. Nevertheless, when acting individually each prefers to over-consume himself, no matter what the others do—with ruinous results for all.

In climate change, we are often told, states reason in the same way. Each prefers the collective outcome where none over-consume with carbon emissions—so that dangerous climate change is avoided. Yet, when acting individually, each prefers to over-consume, no matter what the others do—so overconsumption is rife. In both cases, then, we are led to an outcome that no one wants, and which is severe enough to seem tragic.

Unfortunately, this traditional model is at best dangerously incomplete. To begin with, it ignores one central spatial aspect of the climate problem. Those least responsible for past emissions are likely to suffer the most serious impacts (at least in the short- to medium-term). This is partly because the poorer nations are disproportionately located in more climate-sensitive regions, but it is also because, being poor, they lack the resources available to the rich to address negative impacts. Since it ignores this basic problem of fairness, the traditional model underestimates the nature of the relevant “tragedy.”

Even more importantly, the traditional model obscures the temporal aspect of the perfect moral storm. Once emitted, a substantial proportion of climate emissions typically remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, and some persist for tens—even hundreds—of thousands. This means that the current generation takes benefits now, but spreads the costs of its behavior far into the future.

Worse, many of these benefits are comparatively modest (e.g., those of bigger and more powerful vehicles), and many of the projected costs are severe, even catastrophic (e.g., severe flooding and famine). Worse still, the problem is iterated: The same temptation to take modest benefits now even in the face of severe costs to the future is repeated for subsequent generations as they come to hold the reins of power. Hence, there are cumulative impacts further in the future. Worst of all, such impacts may eventually provoke the equivalent of an intergenerational arms race. Perhaps some future generations will face such appalling environmental conditions that they are entitled to emit more in self-defense, even foreseeing that this behavior makes matters even worse for their successors. And so it goes on.

The third storm exacerbates the situation. Climate change brings together many areas in which our best theories are far from robust, such as intergenerational ethics, global justice, scientific uncertainty, and humanity’s relationship to nature. The problem here is not that we do not have any guidance at all. For example, the idea that imposing catastrophe on the future for the sake of our own modest benefits is not a defensible way to behave is a relatively secure basic ethical intuition. Rather, the problem is that it is difficult to move beyond those basic intuitions to deal with the details, and we are too easily distracted by counterarguments, especially from theories that have merits in other contexts, but fail to take the future seriously enough.

For example, some influential economists claim the current generation is justified in moving slowly on climate change because future people will be richer due to economic growth, and so should pay more. But are we entitled to assume that the future will be richer even in a climate catastrophe? And even if they are, why should they pay to clean up our mess?

We face a profound challenge that current institutions and theories were not designed to meet.

 

This worry about distraction leads to a further important result. The intersection of the global, intergenerational, and theoretical storms threatens to undermine public discourse. We in the current generation—and especially the more affluent—are in a position to continue taking modest benefits for ourselves, while passing nasty costs onto the poor, future generations, and nature. However, pointing this out is morally uncomfortable. Better, then, to cover it up with clever but shallow arguments that distort public discussion, and solutions that do little to get at the core problems. After all, most of the victims are poorly placed to hold us to account—being very poor, not yet born, or nonhuman.

Unfortunately, there is ample evidence for such shenanigans in the climate arena. If existing institutions are good at representing only the interests of their current members—or, worse, of the current generation of political and economic leaders—then we would expect agreements that reflect this. In particular, we might expect a succession of “shadow solutions” to the climate problem: processes, proposals, and agreements that pay lip service to wider ideals but ultimately deliver very little in the way of substance.

Sadly, this seems all too plausible a reading of the sorry history of international climate policy. The road from Rio to Kyoto to Bali to Copenhagen to Cancun is littered with procrastination, obfuscation, and empty promises. For example, all major countries including the United States agreed to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which took effect in 1994, and so committed themselves to “protect the climate system for present and future generations.” However, global emissions are now up more than 40 percent since 1990, and more than 17 percent in the United States. Similarly, in 2009 in Copenhagen, the global community publicly committed itself to limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. However, it left the hard question of who should do what to a subsequent national pledge system that does not get close to that target, and few have any confidence such a system will actually be implemented. (Witness, for example, the U.S. pledge of a 17-percent reduction on 2005 levels by 2020, which rests on legislation that has since been abandoned).

Most recently, we see headlines such as “Cancún deal leaves hard climate tasks to Durban summit in 2011” (in the Guardian on Dec. 14, 2010), followed by “Durban climate deal impossible, say US and EU envoys” (in the same publication on April 18, 2011). Alas, given the temptations of the global and intergenerational storms, such dithering is all too predictable, and highly convenient.

As bad as this news is, there may be worse to come. We should not expect a buck-passing strategy to limit itself to inaction and distraction, but rather to evolve over time. Given this, as the overall situation worsens, we might predict that the current generation will begin to press for a quick technological fix to hold off the worst impacts, at least until after they have exited the scene. In doing so they might even strive to seize the ethical high ground by declaring such a fix a “necessary” and “lesser” evil to prevent climate catastrophe. (Implausible? Welcome to the emerging debate about geoengineering.)

This is a grim state of affairs. However, recognizing the shape of the perfect moral storm can help us to make progress. We face a profound global and intergenerational challenge that current institutions and theories were not designed to meet. Given this, we need to move beyond the short-term economic and geopolitical framings that dominate current public discussion. We must acknowledge the global and intergenerational power that we yield and take responsibility for it, rather than taking solace in comfortable distraction. No one will stop us from exploiting that power but us. This is why ethics is at the heart of the matter.

Response to Stephen Gardiner’s A Perfect Moral Storm
by Adam Yarinsky

 

The situation that confronts us now, in respect to both the dire consequences and ethical dilemma of climate change, reminds me of the harrowing events of Apollo 13 (as depicted in the Ron Howard film). The scene that comes to mind is when Ed Harris (portraying Gene Kranz, the leader of Mission Control) faces multiple catastrophic failures that jeopardize the lives of the astronauts due to an explosion on the command module. As this seemingly hopeless situation becomes fully apparent, he lights up a cigarette, inhales deeply, and asks his team (with a mixture of resignation and steadfast optimism in the problem solving process), “What do we have on the spacecraft that’s good?” Faced with the absolute necessity to mitigate climate change, what do humans have to work with? And more specifically, what can architects do to engage this challenge? I believe that the foundation for our ethical behavior lies in architecture’s core attributes as a practice.

Taking Responsibility
As Gardiner has explained, separation in space and time between action and consequence is a major aspect of the ethical dilemma of climate change—it appears that no one is responsible. Architects are, or should be, responsible to many. Perhaps different than some other professionals, our responsibility extends far beyond self-fulfillment and meeting the needs of a “client” (whoever compensates us). Our responsibility includes all people who are affected by our work—directly or indirectly, now and in the future. Particularly in the public realm, this includes “users,” “stakeholders,” and other people not involved in the project.

Acting Holistically
Gardiner described the ethical predicament of climate change relative to human behavior today; we are failing to transcend our narrow interests. This is compounded by the fact that the scale and complexity of the problem makes it especially difficult. Architects are, or should be, working holistically as we engage the full context associated with a project. Vitruvius’ The Ten Books on Architecture set forth that architecture must integrate three essential qualities: solidity, utility, and beauty. Beyond Vitruvius’ triad, mitigating climate change requires architects to bridge between silos of highly technical information related to building performance. Also, it is necessary to design across scales, from the individual building to the city to entire regions and ecosystems. This requires relational thinking so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Working Together
As Gardiner concludes, addressing the challenge of climate change requires human beings to work together to establish new social and political structures that encompass the entire planet. This collective effort demands active participation. Architects are, or should be, collaborative—this is true at the simplest level because we do not generally build what we design. Therefore, we have to work with others to achieve our objectives. But more important now, this is essential to tackle the complex problems that architects are called upon to resolve. Visionary leadership of a collaborative process is crucial to unite the efforts of many around the world.

Effecting Change
Understood to be fundamentally grounded in responsibility, holistic thinking and collaboration, architects have the capacity to effect change; to transform the status quo and create something different than what presently exists. These are not simply broad, admirable qualities but rather constitute expertise that defines both our methodology and conceptual framework. Ultimately, our means and ends cohere; architecture as a process and result helps to achieve larger social goals, from the mission of an institution to the growth of a city.

Cities as Catalysts
All of this brings me to cities as a locus for our efforts. Creating equitable, livable cities requires engaging complex physical and social issues arising from living in close proximity. Architects’ capabilities, if we choose to direct them toward these ends, are increasingly relevant in a world that is becoming more urban.

Gardiner’s presentation concluded with a proposal for a Global Constitutional Convention. How do we get from here to there? Perhaps a helpful step is to shift from the global to the local. Just over half the world’s population live in cities, and this is predicted to be about 70 percent by 2050. Cities are going to bear the brunt of the impact of climate change and may already be bearing the consequences today. Many are in coastal, low-lying areas around the world. If they are not directly susceptible to rising sea levels or storm surge, then heat or drought will threaten infrastructure and vital services. Cities are also places where accountability is demanded of political institutions and leaders, regardless of partisan affiliations. And leaders of cities are beginning to recognize the need to transcend national boundaries to address climate change. The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group is a notable example of leading urban areas sharing information and collaborating to reduce carbon emissions.

Is a city an ethical context in which to begin to change humans’ responsibility? Might cities be an essential part of what Gardiner calls an “Ethics of the Transition”? How might the ethical framework of an urban inhabitant inform that of being a citizen of a larger nation, and in turn facilitate greater responsibility and action?  Might cities be catalysts for changing our relationship to each other and in turn, to the planet?

Joel Towers’ Response and a Question for Stephen Gardiner

 

Joel Towers: I spend most of my day trying to build up a tiny institution; it’s heavily bureaucratic and hard to change, and that’s just one tiny institution. We’re talking about a global constitutional convention. I’m curious about your sense of the temporal challenge that we face—the urgency, in a sense, to act in relationship to climate change and the need to build institutions that are crossing all sorts of boundaries. I think about boundary-crossing institutions that don’t work; things like the Port Authority, and that’s just between two states. These are institutions that are set up to try to work across certain boundaries, political and otherwise. Or the UN for that matter, which is the great example of a transnational institution that has been trying to deal with this challenge for some time.

How do we deal with the urgent question? We don’t have decades to build these institutions. We have to get going now. I’m curious how you marry those two things in your thinking.

Stephen Gardiner: This is a big part of the reason why I emphasize the ethics of the transition at least as much as, and often more so than, the institution building at a more ideal level. With respect to the climate change problem, it seems very likely that we are running out of time. The analysis is worthwhile because it helps to get us straight on the project of trying to fill gaps in lieu of more ideal institutions, which on the one hand helps to empower certain people to think about their activities in a way that they’re not conventionally encouraged to think about them.

One aspect of the ethics of transition that is very important is how to get an ethics of transition with respect to climate change that goes fast enough. That looks very difficult. However, we have had some examples in recent history where transitions that looked incredibly difficult did occur and did so quickly. South Africa is one example; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the Velvet Revolution, and so on. So we shouldn’t be too pessimistic. But I have this wider concern about the long-term trajectory associated with a constitutional convention, because this isn’t going to be the only “perfect moral storm” problem that we are going to face. It wasn’t that long ago that we had another major environmental problem, which is still going on in a way, with the ozone. Ocean acidification has some characteristics that look more like the “perfect moral storm” than the ozone hole does. I just doubt that, given the rapid expansion of human impact, we’re not going to discover more and more dimensions of that impact, especially the intergenerational dimension.

I also think that, even if we can’t quite get the constitutional convention done and the institutions in place quickly, thinking about what they would look like and how we might achieve them could help to guide us within the ethics of the transition.

As urgent as action is, I think a big part of the ethics of the transition is working out what we want to do, who should do it, and how it should be done. The “just do it” approach is not going to work here, and in order to articulate what it is that needs to be done we will need some deeper theorizing and deeper institutional action.

Stephen Gardiner is Professor of Philosophy and Ben Rabinowitz Endowed Professor of Human Dimensions of the Environment at the University of Washington, Seattle. His main areas of interest are ethical theory, political philosophy, and environmental ethics. His research focuses on global environmental problems (especially climate change), future generations, and virtue ethics. Gardiner is the author of A Perfect Moral Storm: the Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change (Oxford, 2011), the coordinating co-editor of Climate Ethics: Essential Readings (Oxford, 2010), and the editor of Virtue Ethics: Old and New (Cornell, 2005). His articles have appeared in journals such as Ethics, the Journal of Political PhilosophyOxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, and Philosophy and Public Affairs.

Adam Yarinsky is a principal of Architecture Research Office (ARO) in New York.

Joel Towers is the executive dean of Parsons The New School for Design.