If a Climate Emergency is Possible, is Everything Permitted?

Professor Stephen Gardiner, Professor of Philosophy and Ben Rabinowitz Endowed Professor of Human Dimensions of the Environment, University of Washington

Co-presented with the Sydney Environment Institute

29 July 2014

In the face of escalating climate change, some scientists are pushing for a serious research program on a dramatic global ‘techno-fix’: the injection of sulphate particles into the stratosphere to block incoming sunlight. This approach to geoengineering - roughly, the ‘intentional manipulation of the planetary environment’ - is often justified by appeal to the threat of a climate emergency.

I argue that this argument threatens to be ethically short-sighted and to encourage creative myopia. It also underestimates what some opponents mean when they refer to sulfate injection as ‘a necessary evil’. As a result, even if the emergency argument is in some sense valid, it misses much of what is at stake in thinking about geoengineering, especially from an ethical point of view.

Responses by Professor Jim Falk, Professorial Fellow at the Melbourne School of Land and Environment and Lauren Rickards, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, at the University of Melbourne.

Professor Stephen Gardiner

Professor Stephen M. Gardiner is Professor of Philosophy and Ben Rabinowitz Endowed Professor of Human Dimensions of the Environment at the University of Washington, Seattle. His main areas of interest are ethical theory, political philosophy and environmental ethics. His research focuses on global environmental problems (especially climate change), future generations, and virtue ethics.

Steve is the author of A Perfect Moral Storm: the Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change (2011), the coordinating co-editor of Climate Ethics: Essential Readings (2010), and the editor of Virtue Ethics: Old and New (2005). His articles have appeared in journals such as Ethics, the Journal of Political Philosophy, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, and Philosophy and Public Affairs.

Steve has published on a diverse range of topics including intergenerational justice, the ethics of geoengineering, the precautionary principle, climate justice, Aristotle’s account of the reciprocity of the virtues, Seneca’s approach to virtuous moral rules, and Socrates’ political philosophy. He is currently co-writing Debating Climate Ethics (forthcoming), a “for and against” book on climate justice, with David Weisbach of the University of Chicago Law School, and co-editing the Oxford Handbook on Environmental Ethics with Allen Thompson of Oregon State University.