- Debating Climate Ethics by Stephen M. Gardiner and David A. Weisbach
Stephen Gardiner and David Weisbach's recent Debating Climate Ethics takes up an urgent and important question: is ethics relevant to climate policy? Or rather, the book takes up several, closely related versions of that question we do well to distinguish clearly:
1. Are ethical considerations relevant to climate policy?
2. Do ethical theories philosophers defend have implications regarding climate policy?
3. Does climate ethics provide policy analysts any useful guidance? Or, in other words, should climate policy analysts pay any attention to climate ethics?
Weisbach's remarks about the role of ethics in climate policy in §5.4 and about distributive and corrective justice in Chapter 7 suggest he actually agrees with Gardiner that the answer to both question (1) and question (2) is "yes," so my sense is that the discussion is best understood as centering on question (3), with Gardiner defending an affirmative and Weisbach a negative answer—the latter claiming, among other things, that "the ethical arguments that have been made about climate change add little or nothing" because they "suffer from basic logical problems and propose solutions that are infeasible" (242). So understood, the question the book addresses is not so much whether ethicists have anything to say to climate policy analysts, but whether what they have to say is at all helpful.
Ultimately, Gardiner's affirmative answer is more compelling, but Weisbach's remarks amount to a challenging reminder both of the difficulty [End Page 71] of making philosophy relevant to policy and of the careful attention to political reality that kind of philosophical work demands. Readers will thus find this volume worthwhile regardless of their antecedent views on its central question.
Gardiner and Weisbach's exchange begins, in Part I, with Gardiner defending the relevance of climate ethics to policy and continues, in Part II, with Weisbach arguing that climate ethicists have thus far failed to produce any recommendations useful to policymakers and policy analysts. Finally, in part III, each author offers a brief response to the other.
Gardiner's portion begins, in Chapter 2, with an argument that will be familiar to readers of his earlier work, especially his 2011 book, A Perfect Moral Storm: Climate Change, Intergenerational Ethics and the Problem of Moral Corruption. Climate change, Gardiner argues, presents us with ecological, global, intergenerational, and theoretical problems that combine to make climate change an exceptionally difficult moral challenge—a "perfect moral storm." He also disputes the appropriateness of conceptualizing climate change as a kind of tragedy of the commons or a form of prisoners' dilemma and warns of the possibility of moral corruption, a kind of distortion or perversion of our thinking about climate change that helps us avoid facing the difficult realities of the climate challenge. This last creates space for what Gardiner calls a "defensive ethics," the purpose of which is to notice and name moral corruption when and where we succumb to it (40). In Chapter 3, he responds to a variety of arguments against the relevance of ethics to climate policy, highlighting the diversity and sometimes inchoate nature of these objections. Finally, in Chapter 4, he makes the case that the fact that climate change presents ethicists (and others) with myriad difficult theoretical problems (what Gardiner calls "the theoretical storm") should not be taken to entail the irrelevance of ethics to climate policy.
Gardiner makes a number of points that, taken together, make for a very strong case for the relevance of ethics to climate policy. For the sake of brevity, I mention only two.
Consider first Gardiner's claim that climate policy solutions are subject to ethical "intelligibility constraints" (10–13, 48). The point here is that we cannot properly formulate the problem climate policy is supposed to solve without appealing to ethical considerations. A clear example of this is the widely accepted goal of keeping total warming to less than two degrees Celsius. How exactly is that goal supposed to be justified if not by concerns that are ultimately ethical...