November 19, 2021

CRITIQUE Exchange: Interview with Professor Stephen M. Gardiner on climate change and philosophy

Green moss

This conversation took place following Prof Gardiner’s virtual visit to Edinburgh University in September 2021. Members of CRITIQUE’s Environmental Working Group, Joseph Conrad, Grace Garland, and Talia Shoval, asked Prof Gardiner about moral corruption, the recent COP26 event in Glasgow, non-anthropocentric dimensions of climate justice, and the public role of philosophy in this context.

Prof Gardiner offered a profound reflection on the risk of severe moral censure by younger generations against older, and identified sources of hope. He also shared a personal story of his first visceral encounter with climate catastrophe, namely the smoke from wildfires in the western United States. An edited transcript of the interview is provided below.

Stephen M. Gardiner is a Professor of Philosophy and Ben Rabinowitz Endowed Professor of Human Dimensions of the Environment at the University of Washington.


On moral corruption and climate change negotiations

Joseph Conrad [JC]: In your 2011 book, A Perfect Moral Storm, you write that affluent groups are particularly vulnerable to what you call “moral corruption”, because they—or indeed we—are incentivized to downplay, ignore, or willfully misunderstand the scientific evidence calling for a radical change to the societal status quo. It is now 2021, ten years later. Looking at the climate negotiations that took place for COP26, do you think we are doing any better in accepting the necessity of changing the status quo, or is this moral corruption still a significant problem?

Stephen Gardiner [SG]: I think it is a huge problem still. I’ve been saying very similar things for about 20 years now. One thing about moral corruption is this general tendency to accept very distorted framings of the problem and of the kinds of solutions that are required. I think in the early days, and still today, it’s often manifested in terms of denying basic science. But there are lots of other ways to manifest moral corruption. One, for example, would be to emphasize very strongly that we’re doing something now and to act as if we can’t be corrupt because we’re doing something. But when you look at the ‘somethings’ we’re doing, they’re both inadequate against any reasonable standard, and they’re often themselves compromised. They are promises about what we will do, and they are rosy pictures of what we are doing. Often what we will do is decades down the road, and the nearer term things, when you start to prod around what they really are, are much less than they are initially presented as being.

So, these seem prime examples of moral corruption to me, and its ongoing. In fact, the rhetoric around the Paris Agreement in 2015 was extremely positive in ways that were simply not justified. This had the effect, perhaps for many people in the wider world, of reassuring us that we are making good steps, because we now have this framework in place, and it is going to lead to big progress. But if you look carefully at that framework, it more reflected past failed agreements than moved beyond them. Indeed, in some cases, it introduced new problems—which is not to say it did nothing. But doing better than nothing is not the relevant criterion here and pretending that it is might itself be manifesting moral corruption.

So, sadly, Glasgow lived down to my expectations. There were a few positive sounds around some concepts, but again, I don’t think it’s a situation where we should be emphasizing the positives. I think it’s a situation where we should be emphasizing how far the positives fall short of meeting the moment and meeting the trajectory we need. I mean, we have major organizations and analyses and the Secretary General of the United Nations saying we need to be reducing emissions by six or seven percent every single year, globally, for the rest of the decade.

And no one thinks that Glasgow got us anywhere close to that. In fact, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if over the decade we would see only a very small decrease, and it wouldn’t be that surprising if we actually saw an increase still. Whereas, what we need is a 50 percent cut on global emissions in that time frame. There’s no sign from Glasgow that that is happening and that we’re putting things in place to make it happen. And if we keep telling ourselves the same story at each COP, a falsely positive story, I think we’d just be repeating the mistakes of the past. At the very, very least, it will be highly complacent to think we’re making anything like the relevant kind of progress.

On climate justice and non-anthropocentric ethics

Grace Garland [GG]: In the scholarly debates around the environment at the moment, the word “climate justice” gets a lot of airtime and is taking up quite a lot of space. Does that have a sidelining effect on environmental ethics, particularly non-anthropocentric approaches?

[SG]: Climate justice has become a buzzword. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, in this case it’s probably a good thing. It’s a recognizable thing in the debate at all levels. All the way from the grassroots up to the highest levels of policymaking, everybody has heard it, everybody knows it stands for something important, so that’s a good thing.

But like a lot of buzzwords, people understand it differently or at least emphasize different parts of it. So, for some, climate justice is coming from environmental justice, which they interpret as coming out of movements particularly in the United States around discriminatory environmental practices that especially harm marginalized peoples, particularly populations of color. That’s a reasonable extension—you can make that extension and it can be quite illuminating. But I also think that climate justice includes a lot more. It’s all the justice-related elements that are relevant to climate change. And for me that includes anthropocentric things like future generations and our duties to them and other moral attitudes that we also have towards them. But it also includes our relationships with the natural world, with non-humans in particular.

I am a pluralist about the sorts of things that should be valued in general and in relation to the environment. I think it should be obvious and probably is obvious to most people that non-human entities matter morally and can be treated in ways that are bad. There are some theorists that would withhold the term “justice” from them for technical reasons, just as I would hope we would withhold the term justice in lots of other spheres where we regularly use the term. But I think, at least for colloquial purposes and, from my point of view theoretically as well, it’s perfectly fine to use the term justice to refer to those (non-human) things.

I haven’t written extensively on non-anthropocentric climate ethics, as some people would call it. In fact, in general I think too little has been written in those areas despite the fact that we have fairly well-sized communities of people who work on non-anthropocentric value more generally. I would also say that some of the stuff that’s been written on it has tended to problematize making the value argument for non-humans, which is somewhat surprising. I do worry that we have a tendency to problematize arguments based on the value of non-humans, and especially kinds of natural value, in a way that we don’t problematize the value arguments for humans, whereas there are lots of philosophical controversies around the value of humans as well.

This connects to the background issue of moral corruption, which we mentioned earlier. My point is not that there aren’t significant philosophical and even skeptical questions lurking here that philosophy should be interested in—I’m not focusing on that. I’m saying: Why do we seem to have very different standards for when the skepticisms are relevant? And part of my worry is, in the case of future generations and non-human animals, it’s often because there is moral corruption and we’re primed to favour framings that make the whole thing less demanding on us.

On the role of philosophy in different communication contexts

[GG]: Let’s talk about the role of political and moral philosophers in this whole climate change discourse. Is there something about the urgency of the issue that brings a flavor of activism to what we’re doing?

[SG]: I don’t know if activism is the right word. I think moral and political philosophers in a broad sense have always tried to do work that is relevant to human problems and social problems over the long term. From the very macro scale of how to design a just society to more micro scale problems of what to say about free speech or particular political issues. So, I think it’s always been that, and I wouldn’t exactly characterize that as activism, though, I suppose, in the very long term, it has the element of trying to affect the real world. A lot of it is motivated by moral concerns, say, for justice and the desire to improve the world through investigating. So, I don’t think there’s a radical difference in kind there.

I do think there is a difference in terms of how moral and political philosophers go about their business. I think we must be conscious of the settings we are operating in and the different audiences we are trying to reach. In other words, I think there are some kinds of arguments that are appropriate to the academic seminar room, but those same arguments would not be appropriate for an op-ed or an interview on the BBC where the audience is the general public. There are ethical considerations about how we comport ourselves in the wider debate to ensure that our work isn’t used for bad purposes. Scientists have struggled with this around climate science for a while, too. It’s an essential part of science that there be criticism and review, and that sometimes people take unorthodox positions, even if they’re not comfortable with the implications, to see how they play out. But effectively communicating that is something else. Scientists have had to also realize that you don’t want to undermine the scientific consensus as a whole or to appear to undermine it when that’s not warranted.

I think there’s real value in letting people know what’s actually happening and what’s at stake morally. I sometimes get into trouble for saying this because I give talks that are, you know, pessimistic, though I would say they’re realistic. Obviously, we have to be aware that there can be stress involved and anxiety, even depression. So, there’s a lot of mental health stuff potentially lurking here and that requires some sensitivity. However, the stakes are very high, especially for young people in the longer term anyway. So, we have to put that into the equation as well. Lying to people or withholding truth and withholding evidence is a very bad way to proceed here.

On apathy and the justified rage of the young and future generations

[JC]: We want to end with a bit more personal question: has the experience of engaging theoretically in questions about climate meltdown changed over the course of your career? Is there something that keeps you up at night these days that didn’t before?

[SG]: One thing that has improved over all these years is that the general public is much more informed on, or primed to talk about, many of these things, so that’s an improvement. And that’s partly because climate change can get very immediate and personal, and it can do so quite quickly, once you’ve had an encounter with it.

For me, for example, a few years ago, the smoke was here in Seattle, sometimes for weeks on end. In a particular period, we were literally told to stay inside for a week: “Ddon’t open any windows, only go out to go to the grocery store”. This was very jarring at the time because it was pre-pandemics, so we weren’t used to any kind of restriction of this sort. And you’d have days of looking outside the window and you couldn’t see very far because there’s just smoke hovering in your yard, just a few feet from your window. Sometimes it’s glowing whitish grey smoke, but one day when I woke up it was orange. We had had bad air quality up here before, but even “hazardous” didn’t come close to this. The EPA and the authorities hadn’t developed a taxonomy to cope with that level of bad air quality. It was the result of the forests in the western United States all being on fire.

There was something very visceral and not at all theoretical about that experience. And yet, of course, we have such short attention spans, all of us. Within a month or two, the winds had blown away the smoke and people got very much back to normal. People were saying, “Oh no, this is the new normal, this is going to happen, not all the time, but it’s predictable. It’s going to happen every few years at least.” But people also knew it’s not really the new normal. Because it’s going to get warmer and warmer, and it’s not actually that warm yet compared to how warm it’s going to get. So, even though the time to minimize the damage is now, over the next decade especially, we seem not to be able to focus our attention, even when the bad things are very visible. I’ve always been a bit dubious about the idea that “once things get bad, people will act”. And, having experienced aftermath of the smoke, I’m even more concerned that things getting bad might not be quite enough. So, that sometimes keeps me up at night.

Something that has always kept me up at night is that I really worry about the kind of moral criticism that’s going to come to us from younger people. Young people and other future generations later in this century, and then the next century. I think they might be pretty scathing about us. I think there’s a lot of philosophical work that goes into explaining why we’re not as blamable as we might think, and maybe some of that work is right. But I don’t think future generations are going to care that much about the nuances. I don’t think they’re going to give us massive amounts of slack. And even if some of it is going to be unjustified, it’s difficult for me to blame them.

I think that’s something we should take very seriously. On the flip side, to the extent that we can act and that we make progress and commit ourselves to doing something about this problem, future people could feel good about us. Those of us who try, anyway, and especially if we succeed (although they might not be quite so enthusiastic if we try and still fail, as we’ve been doing so far). So, we’re not completely powerless with respect to this kind of criticism, and I think there’s something a little bit inspiring about that. It’s not all gloom.

On his latest project

I just completed, with a friend of mine, an intro book on climate justice of a different form, with the aim of reaching a wider audience. It’s a series of conversations around the journey of a young climate activist—who we call Hope—starting from her younger self as a beginning graduate student [see Dialogues on Climate Justice, Routledge: forthcoming]. Through the story, some of the essential issues are brought in, including issues of what kind of problem we’re really dealing with; various kinds of skepticism; conversations with people who are not sympathetic to there even being a problem; individual responsibility; justice internationally; and justice with respect to things like big geoengineering fixes. Also, how we think about things from the perspective of the future, later in the century, how might things look then and how they look now. So that’s a project that’s trying to connect with students and with a wider audience to give people a resource to have the right kinds of conversations. That’s something I think is very important.