Book Review–A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change

Posted by on Nov 2, 2017
Book Review–A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change

A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change, Stephen M. Gardiner (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 489 pages.

Stephen Gardiner’s book A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change is influential in environmental ethics. Climate change is the most intractable environmental issue. It is not only a technical, economic, and political challenge, but also a moral one. It poses a great challenge for us as to what we should do at both individual and collective levels. Rather than providing solutions to climate change, Gardiner’s goal is to identify the problem properly. He is right: having a proper understanding of the problem is the first step toward finding a solution.

Gardiner aptly uses the term “a perfect moral storm” to capture the significant climate change problem as the confluence of three major practical and theoretical storms. The first is the global dimension of climate change. Around the world people emit greenhouse gasses and these concentrations accumulate in the atmosphere as a whole and affect living conditions everywhere. Moreover, there is no overarching global governance to ensure everyone work together and do his or her part in curbing behaviors or lifestyles that exacerbate climate change. The problem here reflects the famous Prisoner’s dilemma: It is collectively rational to cooperate and restrict overall pollution. Each agent prefers the outcome produced by everyone restricting his or her individual pollution over the outcome produced by no one doing so. Yet it is also individually rational not to restrict one’s own pollution. When each agent has the power to decide whether or not she will restrict her pollution, each prefers no to do so, whatever the others do. Yet the following four factors aggravate the situation: first, the uncertainty about the precise magnitude and distribution of effects, especially at the national level. Second, economic interests: Burning fossil fuel supports existing economics. Third, status quo bias in the face of uncertainty. And lastly, the rich versus the poor. Acting on climate change creates a moral risk for the rich and developed countries, because it reminds them that they also have responsibility to address issues such as global poverty and human rights violation. If they don’t want to engage in these issues, this seems to offer them a reason to avoid the climate change issue.

The second storm that contributes to the perfect moral storm is the intergenerational dimension of climate change. Carbon dioxide is long-lived, thus decisions about reducing emissions involve concern for future generations. Although very few of us would openly advocate giving no concern for future generations, we often harbor (perhaps unintentionally) bias toward the present. The very fact that the benefit is enjoyed by the present while the cost is suffered by the future only contributes to our lack of incentive to act now. However, climate change is aggregative. If we delay handling it, it only adds extra costs. Our inaction or ineffective action in fact violates the harm principle in ethics by making future generations suffer unnecessarily.

The last serious difficulty that contributes to the perfect moral storm is theoretical. We are ill equipped to deal with many problems characteristic of the long-term future. Scholars in the humanities (and ethicists in particular) have yet to articulate a compelling picture of climate change that allows moral sensitivity, compassion, and care that transcends the boundaries of nations and different generations to surface and to provide guidance for effective action.

Gardiner argues that these three storms—the global, the intergenerational, and the theoretical—together makes us extremely vulnerable to moral corruption. By moral corruption he means the following behavior or tendency: complacency, unreasonable doubt, selective attention, delusion, pandering, false witness, and hypocrisy. He argues that we are particularly vulnerable to unreasonable doubt, because we tend to behave in a way that the more evidence we get, the more we demand, and yet the more reckless our behavior becomes. Selective attention seems to me equally damaging as the unreasonable doubt. Gardiner thinks that by drawing our attention to the global storm, not the intergeneration one, we avoid appearing overly selfish, thereby off the hook and do not address the real issue at all.

His discussion of moral corruption reminds me of virtue ethics. Very roughly, virtue ethics is a moral theory that says virtue or moral character is the focal point of morality—what we should do is understood in terms of virtue. In fact Gardiner points out that virtue ethics is the precedent of his project in ethics. “Who we are” is not just a significant ethical issue, it also has considerable bearing on climate change. However, given his goal in this book is to analyze and present the problem properly, he does not develop a full-blown application of virtue ethics in climate change.

Reading this book can be frustrating and even depressing, as the reader realizes how devastating the whole problem is and how ill equipped we are—not only our rational capacity is limited but also the way we exercise our rational capacity at both individual and collective levels. But, as Gardiner intends to show, adequately understanding the problem is the first step toward solving it. Moreover, most learning and improvement of oneself starts with the painful recognition of one’s own deficiency. We need this thought-provoking book with subtle analysis in order to adequately and efficiently address climate change.


is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Rice University with a specialization in normative ethics and value theory. She is interested in social and political philosophy, history of ethics, applied ethics (esp. biomedical ethics and environmental philosophy), and comparative Western and Chinese ethical theories.