Most helpful positive review
29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on July 16, 2011
This is a very thoughtful and systematic analysis of the moral aspects of climate change. Gardiner is a moral philospher and appropriately approaches climate change as an ethical challenge. This book is a serious and largely successful attempt to lay out the ethical dimensions of climate change, and in particular, why it is such a challenging problem. Gardiner argues well that a conjunction of 3 major and mutually reinforcing factors make addressing climate change particularly challenging, leading to what he calls a "perfect moral storm." One is that it is a truly global problem requiring an unprecendented degree of international cooperation in a world of nation-states with markedly different aims and an international system with only rudimentary institutions for the required endeavour. The second, and as he points out, somewhat related major problem is that this is an intergenerational problem. A lot of the book is devoted to working out the details of climate change as a particularly difficult intergenerational issue. Finally, and in perhaps the most novel section, Gardiner argues that climate change presents a "theoretical" challenge. The different types of theories we possess in political philosophy, moral philosophy, and policy analysis are poorly suited to addressing climate change. Individually, each of these three components is formidable, put together, the problem of developing an adequate response is beyond daunting.
A lot of the descritption and analysis of each component is very good. The global problem analysis, for example, contains a nice summary of the history and failures of major climate change negotiations over the past 2 decades. The intergenerational problem analysis is a very thorough discussion of this issue from several angles and probably the strongest piece of sustained reasoning in this book. The theoretical analysis section makes a number of very cogent points. Moral philosophers, for example, haven't devoted much effort to intergenerational issues and political philosophy has been more concerned with ideal theory. In one of the best sections of the book, there is a sustained critique of the major policy analysis tool, economic cost-benefit analysis, which comes under a very effective attack, much of it pioneered by talented economists like John Broome and Martin Weitzmann. If you're looking for a nice discussion of the difficult topic of discount rates, this is the place to go.
An important point made by Gardiner is that difficulties of these combined 3 problems leads fairly easily to a form of moral corruption in which it is easy to avoid dealing with the major issues. Gardiner has good discussion of how not dealing with all aspects of the problem can lead to self-deluding pseudo-solutions and general avoidance of confronting the really knotty issues. Gardiner has a good discussion of geo-engineering a potential example of such self-deluding corruption that could divert attention from the crucial problems.
There are also some defects to this book. A minor defect is Gardiner's discussion of the drawbacks of alternative ways of looking at climate change as a moral problem. Gardiner expends a significant number of pages on analysis of game theoretic models like the prisoner's dilemma and also on Hardin's famous tragedy of the commons. A lot of this discussion is quite shrewd and the focus is understandable given that Gardiner is a professional moral philosopher. These are issues, I think, of considerable interest to him and his professional colleagues. In a book which is apparently written for a wide audience, I'm not sure how much they add.
While I endorse Gardiner's efforts to center discussions of climate change as a moral problem and I think his moral analyses are perceptive, I'm not sure he has characterized the background accurately. He complains that most prior discussions of climate change have focused on scientific and economic issues. I don't think this is correct in several senses. First, the discussion of scientific issues, at least as discussed in front of the American public and before policy makers, has not really been a scientific discussion in any conventional sense but rather an immoral effort to discredit scientific findings and corresponding defenses of the science. More important, while his efforts to bring the global and intergenerational ethical problems to the forefront are laudable, I don't think its fair to say that these aspects have actually been neglected. The great majority of people who've thought about this problem objectively have reached these conclusions pretty quickly and they are, in fact, the implicit basis for the (so far largely ineffective) efforts to do something about climate change. Gardiner implicitly acknowledges this fact in his discussion of the UN Framework agreements.
Gardiner clearly wrote this book in the hope that by grounding climate change as a moral issue, he could have a positive impact on policy formation. His efforts do him credit but he also exhibits some naivete. In the beginning of the book, he writes, "If climate change is a perfect moral storm, it is concerns about what we are doing to the poor, future generations, and nature that justify most of what needs to be done. I am optimistic that most of us have such concerns, and take them seriously." Well - facta non verba. The lametable record of inaction and actual obstruction on climate change issues are reasonable evidence that we don't take these concerns seriously. A shrewd comment by the late Don Fehrenbacher about antebellum American attitudes to slavery applies here, "slavery was an interest and anti-slavery was a sentiment." As Gardiner himself writes, climate change constitutes a stringent "Global Test" of our political, social, and economic institutions. Its a test we're failing badly.