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Climate Change – A Challenge for the Global Democratic System

The Inkosi Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre in Durban - host venue for the 2011 United Nations Conference on Climate Change

Recently, EU climate action commissioner Connie Hedegaard announced that “no legally binding agreement deal will be done” at the next annual UN climate meeting this December in Durban, South Africa.  Her declaration did not generate front-page headlines.  This is surprising, for reasons she herself has previously expressed.

Speaking before one of Durban’s predecessors, the 2009 UN meeting in Copenhagen, Hedegaard, then Danish Minister for Climate and Energy, stated: “If the whole world comes to Copenhagen and leaves without making the needed political agreement, then I think it’s a failure that is not just about climate. Then it’s the whole global democratic system not being able to deliver results in one of the defining challenges of our century. And that . . . should not be a possibility.”

Of course, like its predecessors Bali and Poznan, Copenhagen did not deliver, and neither did its immediate successor Cancun.  Durban was supposed to be the next great hope, the meeting that did not leave the hard questions for later, but rose to the challenge.  Hedegaard’s downgrading of expectations should therefore be big news.  If the global system is failing to deal with a defining challenge of our century, shouldn’t this be a dominant topic of public and political discussion?  Shouldn’t silence “not be a possibility” too?

Unfortunately, silence is predictable.  In my view, climate change is ultimately an ethical problem that involves the intersection of three major challenges to morally defensible action.  This ‘perfect moral storm’ is genuinely global, dominantly intergenerational, and takes place in a setting where our prescriptive theories are weak.  Moreover, our major institutions were not designed with such a problem in mind, and do not seem particularly well-equipped to cope.

One sign of this disorder is that public discussion persists in focusing on peripheral scientific and economic questions; another is that we tend to see the political problem as a relatively short-term geopolitical one facing nation states, as if these institutions can be relied upon to collectively represent the interests of their future citizens (not to mention the rest of nature) in perpetuity.

By contrast, the most central issue in climate change is the ethical one that, because of the long time lags inherent in the climate system, the current generation, and especially the most affluent, are in a position to pass most of the negative impacts of their behavior on to the global poor, future generations and non-human nature.  We can light the fuse, but many of the bombs will go off elsewhere, and after we are dead.  Because the next generation faces the same prospect, over time more fuses get lit, escalating the explosions of the future.

This “tyranny of the contemporary” is the most unsettling component of the perfect moral storm.  In particular, it has a worse structure than the more familiar “tragedy of the commons” model that dominates intellectual discussion of environmental affairs, and so is more difficult to resolve.  Moreover, neither our major institutions nor our theoretical models seem particularly well-placed to confront it.  Though the market, short-term election cycles, and stories about cooperation for mutual advantage may be good for many things, they have trouble taking genuinely intergenerational concerns seriously.

The perfect moral storm diagnosis helps to explain the on-going failures of international climate policy.  It also suggests a troubling feature of collective complacency.  If the current generation can pass its messes onto the further future without fear of being held accountable, then it has a (not very nice) reason for doing so.

But acknowledging this is morally uncomfortable.  So, we have a further (and also not very nice) reason not to do that.  Surely then it would be far better to play up (distorted and unconvincing) complaints about “lack of scientific certainty”, or (theoretically dubious) projections of long-term economic impacts, and avoid the ethical issues.

Better still, let us distract ourselves by arguing that the UN process is on track and will ultimately lead to a solution, dressing up its hollow commitments (e.g., to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference” with the climate system (Rio 1992), and limit the overall global average temperature rise to 2 degrees C (Cancun 2010)) as real and substantial progress, while ignoring the fact that global emissions continue to rise at an alarming rate (e.g., up more than 30% since 1990), that continues to accelerate (e.g. from 1-2% per year in the 1990s to 2-3 % more recently).

Above all, don’t mention the ethics.  In the perfect moral storm, blindness to the implications of Hedegaard’s declarations makes all too perfect sense (for us).

About Stephen Gardiner

Stephen Gardiner
Stephen M. Gardiner is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the Program on Values in Society at the University of Washington, Seattle. He specializes in ethics, political philosophy and environmental ethics. He also has interests in ancient philosophy, bioethics, and the philosophy of economics. He received his PhD. in Philosophy from Cornell University in 1999 for a dissertation on Aristotelian virtue ethics, supervised by Terence Irwin. He also has an M.A. from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and a B.A. from Oxford University in Politics, Philosophy and Economics.

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