A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change

Co-presented with the Environmental Humanities Group, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney

Professor Stephen Gardiner
4 July, 2011

Despite decades of awareness, we are currently accelerating hard into the climate problem in a way that defies standard explanations. This suggests that our current focus on the scientific and economic questions is too narrow, and that the tendency to see the political problem as a traditional tragedy of the commons facing nation states is too optimistic. Instead, we should recognise that climate change is genuinely global, dominantly intergenerational, and takes place in a setting where our prescriptive theories are weak.

This “perfect moral storm” poses a profound challenge to humanity. The key issue is that the current generation is in a position to pass on most of the costs of its behaviour (and especially the most serious harms) to the global poor, future generations and nonhuman nature. This “tyranny of the contemporary” helps to explain both the past failures of international climate policy, and the current push towards geoengineering. Part of the solution is better public ethics. We must work harder on articulating both the ethical problem, and moral constraints on solutions. In addition, there is a role for “defensive” moral and political philosophy, aimed at preserving the quality of public discourse.


Professor Stephen Gardiner

Stephen Gardiner is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the Program on Values in Society at the University of Washington, Seattle. He specialises in ethics, political philosophy and environmental ethics. Steve's current research focuses on future generations, global environmental problems (especially climate change), and Aristotelian virtue ethics. He received his PhD. in Philosophy from Cornell University in 1999 and has an M.A. from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and a B.A. from Oxford University in Politics, Philosophy and Economics.

Steve is the editor of Virtue Ethics, Old and New (2005), and the coordinating co-editor (with Dale Jamieson, Simon Caney and Henry Shue) of Climate Ethics (2010). His most recent book is A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change (2011).

Australia’s best know ethicist, Professor Peter Singer, said of the book: “ Stephen Gardiner takes to a new level our understanding of the moral dimensions of climate change. A Perfect Moral Storm argues convincingly that climate change is the greatest moral challenge our species has ever faced - and that the problem goes even deeper than we think."