Book Review– Debating Climate Ethics

Posted by on Feb 13, 2019
Book Review– Debating Climate Ethics

Debating Climate Ethics, by Stephen Gardiner and David Weisbach. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 272 pages.

Does ethics contribute to climate policy? This is the core question that the debate between Stephen Gardiner and David Weisbach centers on. Gardiner’s short answer to the question is yes, while Weisbach holds the opposite view. Gardiner’s central claim is that, however economic realists (such as Weisbach) denounce ethics, they inevitably rely on value judgments that are grounded in ethics to advance their arguments and conduct their empirical research. Contrary to economic realists’ claim, we need ethical concepts to identify relevant problems and to structure our solutions. Weisbach, on the other hand, argue mainly that climate ethicists’ proposals are not feasible and the concern for self-interest is enough for demanding aggressive climate policies.

The book has a very clear structure: the first part is Gardiner’s positive account, followed by Weisbach’s view. Then the book ends with their responses to each other’s criticisms. At what follows I will outline each chapter and make some comments. I then end with an overall evaluation of the book.

After a preliminary introduction to the issue, in Chapter 2, Gardiner lays out his key claims and arguments as well as some key ideas from his landmark book, A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). (I won’t reiterate his key ideas in that book here, as I did a book review on that book.) His three key claims are: first, “ethics gets the problem right; ” second, “the economic realists get the problem wrong, and dangerously so; ” third, “the official rejection of ethics prevents us from raising central questions that need to be discussed” (pp. 8-9). These claims boil down to the theme that ethics plays a fundamental role in making climate policies. Gardiner then makes three argumentative moves that support the theme: First, in dealing with climate change, we are dealing with value judgments that ground our evaluation and utilization of empirical data. What grounds value judgments? Our ethical concerns. Second, when we draft our policy, we are addressing questions with ethical dimensions. For example, when we decide where to set a global ceiling on emission for a particular time, we cannot make the decision without considering how the interests of current generation are weighed against those of future generations. Third, economic realist approach involves some misguided ethical considerations. Without explicitly addressing the underlying operating ethical considerations, we are on a dangerous path to unclear reasoning that results in inchoate policy.

In Chapter 3, Gardiner lays out and rebuts six objections to granting ethics a role in climate policy. Here are the objections: (1) Pure policy: climate change is a “pure policy” issue, to be addressed by empirical studies because they focus on “what works.” (2) Scientific Imperialism: Ethical considerations only create holes or gaps in “pure policy arguments,” because the ends and means of climate policy derives directly from the sciences. (3) Feasibility: Ethical considerations only render our policy infeasible. The concept of feasibility that operates here seems to be what people are willing to do. For example, “Posner and Weisbach repeatedly emphasize that climate justice is infeasible because Americans will not accept its burdens” (p. 55). (4) Self-interest: Purely self-interest approach will solve the problem. (5) Institutional Optimism: Our current institutions will solve the problem. (6) Welfarism: Whatever role ethics might have played is already accounted for by economists’ welfarist approach. I will not detail Gardiner’s rebuttal one by one, but I want to point out that his responses center on the moves he made in Chapter 2, that is, all objections involve tacit value judgments which are grounded upon ethics. Instead of avoiding ethics, economic realists are operating on ethics. The danger of their move of sidestepping ethical discussion is that they operate on elusive ethical considerations that make their view unstable and even inconsistent.

In Chapter 4, Gardiner addresses an important issue of whether climate policy can do without the consideration of justice. Contrary to what economic realists argue, Gardiner argues that an adequate climate policy cannot do without concerns for distributive and corrective justice. For example, some suggest that based on the feasibility constraint, the constraint that states that any good climate policy must be feasible, “the polluted” (i.e., countries are the most vulnerable, poor, and low-emitting) should pay off the polluters (the high-emitting countries such as US and China). Gardiner argues that such a proposal amounts to climate “extortion” and violates the deontological moral considerations such as fairness and respect (pp. 90-93). He ends this chapter with ethically acceptable and quasi-pragmatic suggestions.

Like Gardiner, Weisbach begins his case with his key claims drawing from his provocative book, coauthored with Eric Posner, Climate Change Justice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007). His thesis is based on feasibility and self-interest: climate ethics is unnecessary because the concern for self-interest alone demands aggressive climate policies. And proposals raised by climate ethicists are not feasible, anyway. Yet still, he acknowledges that we need to engage in philosophy. It is just that the problems we need to solve are not particularly philosophical (p. 155)

In Chapter 6, Weisbach elaborates his claim that self-interest alone is enough for aggressive climate policies. He claims that the idea of self-interest he relies on is clear: stop hitting yourself in the head with a hammer because doing so is in your self-interest (p.197). Yet telling people to do something for their self-interest might not be enough to motivate them to do the action in question, unless the need to act is serious and immediate. Weisbach thus attempts to establish that climate change problem is serious and needs to be tackled now. Given that the nature of the climate change problem is serious and the problem calls for our immediate action, self-interest alone is enough to motivate us to adopt aggressive climate policies. However, notice that the idea of self-interest Weisbach operates on is strictly  not each person’s own interest. Rather, it is a pretty broad idea that resorts to interest of people living today, interest of their children, and interest of their grandchildren (p.170). Although his strategy of resorting to self-interest sounds convincing, it is not clear whether it is indeed effective facing the international tragedy of the commons. Can resorting to interest of people living today, their children and their grandchildren successfully block people’s tendency to free ride on others’ mitigation efforts? It seems not, otherwise we already have acted effectively and aggressively in dealing with the climate change.

In Chapter 7 Weisbach advances his arguments against philosophers applying theories of justice to climate policies. He goes through theories of distributive justice, theories of corrective justice, and theories based on equality, demonstrating that applying these theories of justice in climate policies is not feasible and doing so is just putting on “climate change blinders.” He argues that, for example, even if we have an obligation to help poor countries based on concerns for distributive justice, it does not mean that we must fulfill our obligation in forms of combating climate change. If we think that distributive justice requires us to act in forms of combating climate change, we are putting on “climate change blinders,” ignorant of other ways available in fulfilling the obligation ( . 205-211). Although I agree with him that we have different ways to fulfill our obligation to poor countries based on distributive justice, I doubt he puts wrong emphasis. The issue is not how to distribute the money we plan to help poor countries. Rather, the issue is that we need to allocate resources specifically combating climate change. I can imagine Weisbach respond by saying my way of thinking is exactly what he argues against: we should not put the climate change blinders on. But again, if we don’t specifically address climate change, how can we say that we do something about it? If it is not sensible when you responded your spouse’s request of taking out the garbage by arguing that you already did the dishes (suppose you and your spouse have an agreement that you do both), then it is not sensible to push aside aggressive climate policies because you have done something else unrelated to combating climate change. Yet I want to emphasize that I am not saying that we should set aside Weisbach’s proposal. Quite on the contrary, I think he proposes very interesting arguments worthwhile to think more deeply about. In the next chapter he summaries his view. The last section of the book is where Gardiner and Weisbach responds to each other’s criticisms. I will leave readers to decide who wins the debate. For me, the more important thing is to explore the engaging and highly accessible arguments they put forward that spark further reflection and discussion. No doubt that this is a very useful book for whoever cares about climate change and wonders what we should do about it.