Monday, June 13, 2011

Stephen Gardiner's "A Perfect Moral Storm"

Stephen Gardiner is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the Program on Values in Society, University of Washington, Seattle.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change, and reported the following:
I'd say that the Page 99 Test fails for my book.

The book is about why climate change poses a profound challenge to ethical action, because it is genuinely global, severely intergenerational, and takes place in a setting where our theories are weak. These three problems are seen as distinct "storms" that converge on humanity in a mutually reinforcing way, analogous to the way in which three real storms converged on the fishing boat the Andrea Gail, as recounted in Sebastian Junger's book 'The Perfect Storm'. One upshot is that there is a threat to our public discourse on the climate challenge: since we benefit from our escalating emissions, and since the global poor, future generations, and nonhuman nature will disproportionately bear the brunt of them, there is a strong incentive towards inaction supported by distraction, selective attention, and bad arguments. I illustrate this in the book by drawing a parallel between the current climate conversation and a classic case of moral corruption described by Jane Austen in Sense and Sensibility. I also discuss how it infects how we talk about both climate economics, and the move towards direct, intentional and large-scale intervention in the climate system ('geoengineering'), such as through injecting sulphate aerosols in the atmosphere to try to cool the surface of the planet down.

Page 99 occurs in my chapter 3, which is about why climate change cannot be 'somebody else's problem' in the sense that it might be solved by a small group of countries (e.g., those who supposedly tried to reduce their emissions under the Kyoto Protocol) while the rest continue with business as usual. Page 99 concerns the narrow question of why other, noncooperating countries, would have incentives to break a ceiling on global emissions that any smaller group tried to maintain. (One sign that the Page 99 thesis fails is that at the top of my page 99 I say 'this section may be safely skipped by those uninterested in technicalities'.) The basic idea is that most countries have not yet fully realized the potential short-term gains from emitting more than they currently do, because they are constrained by their lack of resources to emit more. This will change as countries get richer. It is also likely to be affected by a smaller group emitting less, as other things being equal, this will reduce the price of fossil fuels to outsiders.

There is a footnote on page 99 which does capture something central about the book (though nothing like the whole thesis). The note says:
There is no end in sight. As we saw above, given that most countries are far from American (or even European) levels of per capita emissions, they are far from achieving even the current (perceived) gains from the cheap energy associated with high emissions. Furthermore, even those with high per capita emissions rates do not think that they have exhausted the gains from energy consumption. We might add to this that the gains from emissions are tangible, immediate, and accrue directly to those consuming, whereas the costs of extra consumption—the increased risk of negative climate impacts—are intangible, deferred, shared across all countries, and accrue disproportionately to the world’s poor and future generations. Given this, growth in emissions is a natural default position.
Learn more about A Perfect Moral Storm at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue