Climate Change, Intergenerational Ethics, & Political Responsibility, with Stephen Gardiner

Oct 3, 2019

University of Washington's Professor Stephen Gardiner discusses the ethics of climate change from intergenerational, political, and personal perspectives. Should individuals feel bad for using plastic straws or eating meat? What should the UN and its member states do? And how can older generations make up for "a massive failure in leadership" that has led, in part, to the current crisis?

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to Global Ethics Weekly. I'm Alex Woodson from Carnegie Council in New York City.

Earlier this week, we posted my talk with Janos Pasztor, Carnegie Council senior fellow and executive director of the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative or C2G. Janos gave an update on his initiative and we also spoke about the role of the UN, nature-based solutions, and climate change fatigue.

Now, for our second podcast this week, I spoke to Stephen Gardiner, professor of philosophy and Ben Rabinowitz Endowed Professor of Human Dimensions of the Environment at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Stephen and I talked about the ethics of climate change from a few different angles. We touched on individual vs collective responsibility, intergenerational challenges, and, as we spoke at the end of the UN General Assembly, we discussed the role of that organization and its member states.

For more from Stephen, you can go to for a 2015 interview on many of these same issues. That interview is text-only and was with Irene Pedruelo, then the editor of Policy Innovations, an online magazine that Carnegie Council published from 2006 to 2016.

Stephen has also written for our quarterly academic journal Ethics & International Affairs and he is the author of A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change, published in 2013.

But for now, calling in from Seattle, Washington, here’s my talk with Stephen Gardiner.

Thank you so much for speaking with me. I'm looking forward to this.


ALEX WOODSON: The first question—this is something that we've seen a lot; it might be a little overdone at this point, but I think it might be an interesting way to get into the conversation—is what I'll call "the plastic straw issue." When climate change is this huge global crisis that's happening right now, how should we feel individually about things like using plastic straws, eating meat, and driving cars? As a philosopher, as someone who thinks about ethics a lot, what's your take on these issues and how individuals should hold themselves responsible for an issue like climate change?

STEPHEN GARDINER: Philosophers actually are engaged in a spirited debate about that. Not everyone is of the same point of view. My personal point of view is that we have to focus on the fact that climate change is a massive, global, intergenerational, collective action problem and has to be dealt with primarily at the social and political levels.

Personally, I dislike to focus on individual consumption and lifestyle choices because while individual consumption choices can make a difference, they're not going to solve the problem; not even close, in my view. I worry that the huge weight that, in the social sphere, seems to be put on individual behavior and individual solutions risks what I call "moral corruption." It's as if we all suddenly decided to become anarchists in our political philosophy but only for this one issue, which just happens to be an issue where anarchism is the least likely to work because it's a genuinely global, intergenerational problem.

I would say, if we're going to talk about what individuals should do, we should first be talking about political responsibility. Here maybe I should note a couple of quick examples. First, I think a bit of focus at this point might be to say that it's deeply morally wrong to support climate-destructive politicians, governments, and the institutions that enable them. So, individuals should not vote for them, and civil society should disavow them. That's a pretty strong claim to be making, but I think it's the right sort of claim around individual responsibility.

I also think it's morally troubling to sit on the sidelines being complacent, thinking that something will turn up or someone else will do something to solve the problem. It runs dangerously close to being a kind of complicity or climate appeasement, if you like, and that also I think should be morally unacceptable in our times.

Third, I think we should also stop being glib about the climate threat in public life and in our interactions with other people, as if it's only some fringe issue. In my view, it should probably be the number one political priority, and if you don't see that, if you don't understand it that way, then I think there's an individual obligation to explain to yourself why you don't see it that way, when what the scientists are saying and what's happening in the political world seem to make it very clear that it has that kind of priority.

ALEX WOODSON: This leads into my next question, which is about the Green New Deal. We've seen since 2018 midterm elections that that has been the priority of several members of Congress. Some people argue that it's going to change society in ways that'll take away rights from people. There are lots of different arguments for and against something like the Green New Deal, but I think it's clear that to really tackle climate change, society needs to change in big ways.

How can governments deal ethically with something like the Green New Deal that, if enacted—not even the Green New Deal, but any type of climate change legislation that goes further than what we've done already—what's the ethical way for governments to enact policies like that?

STEPHEN GARDINER: I think that raises a really good question. If what we need is a social, political transformation and a transformation in our economy, then I think the key idea that needs to be respected is, the whole point of that transition would be to protect current and future generations against certain kinds of threats. The transition itself also ought to protect individual interests and rights against those threats and similar kinds of things so that the policy itself doesn't make things worse and actually succeeds.

At bottom, I do think what we're talking about, really, is an issue of ethics and justice about what it takes to protect people in a free society against these kinds of threats, and that's an ethical conversation we need to have.

ALEX WOODSON: We're speaking now as Climate Week and the UN General Assembly in New York are winding down. What has been your general impression of the work the United Nations has been doing on climate change, not just this week but in the four or so years since the Paris Agreement?

STEPHEN GARDINER: In my view, the history of international climate policy has been a pretty bad history and indeed a dangerous history for the future of humanity. Many of the people involved are very well-intentioned, I think, and have made small amounts of progress but nothing like the kind of progress that we need to see.

In my view, Paris in particular is woefully inadequate in its structure and in the substance of what it delivers. Paris lacks sufficient ambition, and I just don't think the voluntary self-declared targets are going to work for a challenge of this magnitude and the way the world is falling behind even the inadequate Paris goals. We need to see much greater ambition, and I think that includes institutional ambition.

To be honest, I'm not sure that the United Nations, as currently constituted, is up to this kind of task. In that vein, over the last few years I've been arguing that we need a global constitutional convention focused on future generations. What I mean by this is something similar to the American Constitutional Convention of 1787, which established the constitutional structure of the United States. I think we need such a forum for discussion focused on our obligations to the future, where we think very seriously about what kinds of institutions would be able to deliver strong climate actions that would actually protect people and societies, while also furthering freedom and protecting important cultural values as well.

ALEX WOODSON: What has been the reception to this idea when you talk about it with your colleagues and with people outside of the academic community?

STEPHEN GARDINER: I think there are a couple of different reactions. Often the initial reaction is one of skepticism that we're capable of pulling off something like a global constitutional convention.

Then, the second reaction comes about when I insist that we have to take seriously both the need to confront this problem, and the scale and importance of this problem, and the likelihood of other, less ambitious solutions delivering. Because, usually the only thing that people have to offer, other than this kind of approach, is some kind of business-as-usual institutional approach, where we hope that national governments will just suddenly see the light and start spontaneously cooperating at the required level; or we hope that individuals—billions of people all around the world—will suddenly change their individual behavior and solve the problem; or we hope that the UN process will, after 25–30 years of trying, will suddenly take a dramatic new turn—but none of those options actually look all that realistic.

If our standard is what looks politically realistic for solving the problem, I think my proposal is actually in better shape than many of the implicit other proposals.

ALEX WOODSON: I want to ask about climate migrants. We have an article on our website that we published last week about climate migrants and how they're not currently offered the same protections as people fleeing war or persecution in their countries. I would assume that climate migrants would be something that would fall under this convention that you're proposing.

I wonder, in the meantime, what do you think could be done better to help protect people who are fleeing due to climate change?

STEPHEN GARDINER: Mass migration driven by environmental destruction and its effects is likely to be one of the most visible effects of the climate crisis, on the ground, as it evolves over the rest of this century. Most experts say that current refugee law is inadequate—indeed, woefully inadequate—to deal with these kinds of cases. It seems like something new is going to be needed. Clearly, there's a huge moral pressure on those who do the most to bring on the climate crisis to take responsibility, and take some leadership role here.

Personally, I think we should be talking about climate passports or passports for climate refugees that are somewhat analogous to the Nansen passports issued after World War I. Some people have been talking about this a bit in the literature. Obviously, in the current political climate around issues of migration, something like that seems pretty difficult to achieve, but I think it is the sort of direction we're going to need to go in, especially if we continue not to do much about climate change.

You might say that one reason that you might want to do a lot about climate change is that, if you don't, the political world is going to be challenged in dramatic ways by things like migration. So, even if you're not a fan of mass migration, you might have reasons to act very swiftly on climate change so as to reduce those pressures.

ALEX WOODSON: This is something that has also come up with one of our Senior Fellows, Nick Gvosdev. He has written a couple of articles about the optimistic view that climate change will lead to a kind of universal ethic, where everyone realizes the problem, and everyone's working together. The other side of that is it could lead to a winner-take-all approach to governing when food and water become more scarce. When you talk about the political difficulties, is that something you're worrying about as well?

STEPHEN GARDINER: I would frame it differently. I don't like the language of "winner takes all" because I'm not sure there are any winners here. We have to remember we're talking about something of the magnitude of an Ice Age-like shift in just a few decades. The last time we had an Ice Age-like shift, when we were colder by about this magnitude, there was a kilometer of ice over major American cities like Seattle and New York.

That's a huge shift, and it's not clear to me that any society is going to emerge from that as winners, in any sense that we would recognize as winners. It might be true that some countries lose less than others initially, but in the end the indirect effects will likely be severe for people in all countries. What you're referring to as "winner takes all," I suspect is really something like a "race to the bottom."

ALEX WOODSON: Nick Gvosdev actually used that term as well.

STEPHEN GARDINER: Yes, where individual countries or groups—maybe elites within countries—try to make themselves closed communities in the hope of protecting themselves from what's going on in the world outside. That looks to me pretty unrealistic when we start talking about severe climate change.

We have to remember that the world is very interconnected right now, and a lot of things that make for the high quality of life in some parts of the world, depend on lots of other things that are going on elsewhere. Under severe climate change, there's huge pressure on all of that.

So really, the race to the bottom might really just turn out to be mutually assured destruction more than anything else, and I think that's what all of us—including those working in climate ethics and justice—are trying to avoid. I don't think it names an alternative to a more ethical approach, I think it labels some of the worst-case scenarios that everyone is trying to avoid.

ALEX WOODSON: I know you said in a previous answer that you haven't been too impressed with the UN's efforts over the last few years. Have you seen countries—big or small maybe—change their approach in a more ethical way and in a more positive direction despite the United Nations?

I know a few years ago there was—or maybe there still is—debate about how the United States was able to industrialize and build up its economy, but developing country X hasn't had that chance, and they're not going to get the chance because of climate change. How have you seen that conversation move over the last few years?

STEPHEN GARDINER: Like many previous rounds before Paris, the idea was that the UN process was trying to kick-start everybody moving in the direction of a green economy. Some developing countries signed up for that vision, but there has always been an expectation that the richer countries—and especially the United States—would take the lead in some ways by demonstrating that they were actually willing to do what's needed, which is to start this energy transformation, this transition.

But of course, what we have seen happening in the United States is not only have we not been living up to our Paris pledges, but we're moving quickly in the other direction; we're expanding fossil fuel use. That's our national policy at the moment, and that's a very difficult environment to make any sort of progress, including progress with the developing world. But we shouldn't make the mistake of thinking the developing world is gung-ho about fossil fuel development because, of course, they also stand to lose a lot in the future because of this kind of development.

One problem that I've emphasized in my previous work is that maybe we shouldn't see this problem as, primarily, one playing out between countries—because we tend to assume that the interests of those countries are understood far into the future—but it doesn't look as if it's in the future interests of any country to have severe climate change.

An alternative analysis is that part of what's going on is we're seeing conflicts between generations here. Maybe the current generation—particularly those in power, who tend to be older and only have a few decades left on the planet—are exploiting what's going on right now for their short-term gain and at the expense of future generations of their own populations, as well as elsewhere.

ALEX WOODSON: This leads into my final question. You're around college students at the University of Washington. A climate strike has been happening for over a year now. There were huge protests a week ago—today, we're speaking on a Friday.

I have a two-part question: I assume that your students have in some way been involved in climate strikes in Seattle. When you see your students involved in these types of things, does this make you hopeful? What do you think the effect of the climate strike will be in the greater climate change debates and discussions?

STEPHEN GARDINER: That's a good question. I think it's very unclear what's going to happen. I think a lot of young people are really scared, some are angry, others are sad—most are all of these things at the same time, once they understand what's going on.

It's clear to most people that we've let them down. There has been a massive failure of leadership and of institutions such that they feel betrayed by the older generations and those currently in charge. They're worried that the world they're going to grow into will be a radically different place, born by severe climate impact and by the social strife caused by those impacts.

They see it, in part, as a huge failure of intergenerational ethics. In part at least, the climate strikes are a cry from the younger generation for help from the older generation. In the past, I've worried that the young and future generations will come to see my generation and the one that came before it as what we might call ‘the scum of the earth," ethically speaking.

Greta Thunberg said at the United Nations that they may never forgive us, and for me that's an important source of ethical motivation for us to act. There's still time to make a big difference on climate. Though we've been failing, there's still time to make a dramatic difference in what this problem looks like for the future.

I think part of what should motivate us is: Does our generation really want to be remembered as the scum of the earth? I think the climate strike protesters are uttering a cry for help, but also calling us on that.

ALEX WOODSON: I would agree with that. That's a strong way to put it, but I think it's right.

Thank you so much. It has been great to talk to you.

STEPHEN GARDINER: Thank you very much.

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CREDIT: <a href="" target="_blank">Petter Rudwall</a>.

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