Interview with Professor Stephen M. Gardiner
Climate Crisis & Institutional Denialism
This Monday the Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas of the University of Oslo presented an engaging discussion on climate change and challenges for future generations with Professor Stephen M. Gardiner, a philosopher and realist, author of numerous writings on environmental ethics.
Teams of Universitas and Inter Universitas jointly organized an interview with Professor Gardiner to let you get some more insights into this topic of fundamental importance – climate change. You can read the extracts from our interesting conversation here below.
– Professor Gardiner, could you tell us, what happens if we do nothing to stop climate change?
– This question is best addressed by scientists than by a philosopher. But what the scientists tell us is that the scale of the change that might happen is really large and it's comparable to an Ice Age shift, but in a direction of being warmer rather than colder. And it's going to happen pretty quickly, over a few decades, a century or so, which is much-much quicker than previous shifts. Those shifts occurred when humanity and civilization were not around, so it'll be a big challenge for us to manage that shift, to adapt in any reasonable way. That’s a huge magnitude of change and even if it’s only half of that magnitude, that’s still a very significant thing. That is why it's been agreed internationally that it is dangerous to go beyond 1.5° or 2°C.
– The issue you are talking about is so dramatic. But why do so many policymakers still deny the fact that present and future generations are in danger?
It's a complicated business. Some of it is probably simple as wishful thinking and short-termism, some of it ranges all the way through to corruption in various forms. I think in the background there is a philosophical confusion as well going on in the public. Often what we see in those arguments about denial is that people say: “Oh there is this uncertainty! Oh there's that uncertainty”. The scientists assert that there is not much uncertainty about the things that really matter for understanding the problem. I'd also say from a philosophical point of view that we make all sorts of decisions all the time, where there are big uncertainties, and we don’t let them prevent us. Especially we don't and shouldn’t let these uncertainties prevent us when there is a very major threat of the kind I`ve just mentioned. It seems like abdication of moral responsibilities to keep saying that there'll be no action when there's some uncertainty, as if we really need certainty in order to act. If I tell you that the building is on fire, it's down the hall right now, but it's coming this way. And you just say that you refuse to go and look, refuse to move, saying: “I am not certain. It could be that the smoke is coming from elsewhere or it could be the next building on fire or in any case the fire brigade would come here first”. Then we all would look at you as if you were a bit crazy. The building is on fire, there's a really strong sign of it. We should act! Let's do something now, maybe you'll turn out to be right and the problem will be a bit less than we thought. But that's absolutely not a reason for us not to get out of this building, because frankly it is on fire. An ethical problem is that we do not simply decide for ourselves to leave the burning building. We are deciding on behalf of all other people around the world, our children, grandchildren.
– In philosophical literature it is possible to see a wording “intergenerational theft”. Do you believe that we are stealing the future from the generations to come?
– We are at high risk of doing that and we certainly expose them to much more risk than ought to have done. However, there are still opportunities to minimise this risk. But if we don't start acting on a really dramatic scale in the next ten or twenty years, then I think we could say that we are stealing the future from the generations to come or just giving them a future that nobody in a right mind would want.
– What were your opinion and the reaction of American environmentalists when the former US President Donald Trump promoted the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement? (one of the most relevant and important international legal document that addresses the problem of climate change)
– You don't have to be an environmentalist to say that it was a terrible thing to do. Any person worried about the future of humanity would be very concerned about this withdrawal. In particular because the Paris Agreement and the whole process was driven to a significant extent by the United States. The US played a substantial role in shaping the Agreement, so a sudden withdrawal was very disappointing, and it was a wrong signal. I reject the ethics behind his (the former US President's) reasoning. A famous slogan that came out of his speech announcing the withdrawal was “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris”. It was a challenging idea that it was in the US's national interest to withdraw. I think it`s just wrong. But it just cannot be in the national interest of the United States or any other state to have a climate shift comparable to an Ice Age in 100 years or less. Our ways of life would be destructed in deep and serious ways if we go down that path. The ethical framing was wrong, Trump may have had some legitimate criticism of the Paris Agreement, but the engagement should have been the answer, he should have been trying to build it up, improve it, not just throwing the whole thing away.
– Don't you believe that in the modern perspective all the states (especially China that emitted 27% of the world's greenhouse gasses in 2019, according to BBC Report) should equally contribute to mitigation of the climate change impact?
– From my first paper on this topic I've argued that everybody has a responsibility to act on this problem and contribute to the solution. The reason why this question comes up historically is because China transitioned from being poor to being richer, from low-polluting to much higher-polluting. So, I definitely think they are on the hook as much as other countries, including most of the big emitters. There are a lot of countries around the world that historically emitted very little and continue to do so, especially per capita. Their responsibilities should be different, but they still have responsibilities. There's a place for historical responsibility – if you've been one of those states that polluted a lot over time, then your contributions for solving the problem should be higher. There is also a difference how to discharge the responsibilities – prospering high-emitting states have the greater capacity, technological “know-how” and social structures and resources to help other countries to develop without fossil fuels and to help them with negative impacts. It's a matter of ethical consensus that richer and higher emitting countries should bear much stronger burdens in solving this problem than poor, low-living states.
– Climate psychologists (i.e. Per Espen Stoknes, Karen O'Brien) have taught us that doomsday prophets aren’t very helpful, when it comes to mobilise people to act on change. What is your opinion on how we communicate the climate crisis?
– There are a lot of concerns about “what works”. Honesty and integrity are what matters most. If you genuinely think, which I do, that there's a really serious threat of a major catastrophe, not just for particular communities, but globally for humanity as a whole, then I think you have an obligation to tell the truth about the problem. You actually owe to people to tell them the truth. There is a question in psychology of how people react to bad news, especially very bad news about an impending threat. To be honest, I think there's some ethical responsibility on the part of those people. Of course, it can be distressing, difficult, especially for young people these days looking into the future. That’s why we should be very aware of that and try to support them through that, including students. We just need to acknowledge that it is scary, and we need to take care of each other. Humanity has already confronted such big problems and we can do it again!
– Do you think that such doomsday prophets could lead to polarisation in the society?
Clearly, one can go too far, one can exaggerate the science, one can do all manner of things, and I wouldn’t want to see that. But I think an honest, scientifically informed discussion on where we are and where we are headed if we don't do something is warranted. I don't honestly see why it should lead to polarisation. One thing about the nature of this problem is that it strongly emphasizes the way on which humanity as such is all on this together, it's a common problem. If there's, we could all unite around it, addressing this common issue. People could feel more included, if it's done right.
– How do we find the right balance between communicating the seriousness of the situation and at the same time make sure people don't just give up?
– That's a good question, though it stroke me actually with this phrase “people don't just give up”. Most people aren't doing very much right now. This notion of “giving up” usually suggests that people are doing lots of things. However, I understand the problem of fatalism, that the issue could seem overwhelming. Psychologically we need to support each other and consider that there'd be moments of doubt and despair. But some of it is normal in life – if you confront something difficult, sometimes you have moments of despair and you want to give up. I'm sure all of us in terms of university have been doing some kind of assignment and felt like that. It's normal, it's human. In fact many people in the future are counting on us, our children, grandchildren and non-human nature as well. There are many things we value, love or things at stake here. We don't want to despair too quickly. Take care of ourselves emotionally - yes! But also get back in the game.
– Talking about actions, what is the most important thing a person can do for the climate?
– I suspect it's not the same thing for everyone. We see all these recommendations about little or bigger things that we could do around, like changing light bulbs or getting an electrical car. I'd emphasize a different thing – think about your own talents, your interests, what gets you motivated and helps keep you going. Think how you can use that and turn that in the way, which could be helpful with respect to this big problem. The answer would be different for different people. For example, writing a book on climate change is a great contribution to raising awareness and making a difference. Again, you have to see what your talents are.
– What are your thoughts on the fact that Norway is one of UNEPs (United Nations Environment Programme) biggest funders but at the same time produces oil?
– It's a difficult tightrope to walk, isn't it? You ask me the question, but it almost answers itself. It's a complicated paradoxical position to be in – to be a nation on the one hand doing a very good job, supporting academic work and UNEP, international organisations that are very serious about the problem of climate change, but on the other hand the basic business model of the country depends on fossil fuels. If Norway is very serious about climate change as a country, you'd want to take the advice, understanding the science and the policy related stuff that has been presented by the international organisations you support. How is it going to look from the point of view of future generations? At the end of the century when young Norwegians look back – what are they going to think of the Norwegian policy right now? Are they going to be pleased for the support of the UNEP? Are they going to think that justified the ongoing pursuit of fossil fuels? It seems that the burden to explain this to them would be on the current generation.
– Oil is a hot topic in Norway. When do you believe we should end oil production?
– This is probably one of these questions I am not just qualified to answer, because it depends on all sorts of stuff. Let's put it this way, I'd say that the presumption for someone who's not a specialist is as soon as possible, sooner rather than later! What a specialist would owe us is some good explanation of why it's going to take longer. It might be a justification for a limited period of time, if you think that whole society would collapse, if we stopped using oil tomorrow or next week. Then it would be a reason not to do it tomorrow or next week, because we don't want to cause such a humanitarian disaster. But maybe you can't say this about 5 years or 10 years’ time. Since 1990 we've had a lot of fair warnings that it was going to be a problem. We had 30 years, so it starts to look that we are not just reasonably waiting, because the transition is difficult, we are simply refusing to make the transition. It seems unethical given the circumstances.
– How do we process green transition and how much renewable energy do we need to put an end to climate change?
– It's important that the transition is seen through the lens of justice. There are lots of the transitions we could make that would improve things with respect to the climate change, but would be very unjust and cause different sorts of problems we are trying to avoid. For example, it'd cause really severe harms for marginalised communities and probably racism would be deeply involved. Justice and support to the communities and individuals through the transition are very important. We don't want to sacrifice anyone on the altar of climate action. The second part of the question about how much renewable energy we need I find interesting. Most conventional modelling goes on the assumption that we`ll consume at least as much energy as we do now and probably more, assuming that quality of life depends deeply on energy. We shouldn't assume that we are entitled to maintain an increase in quality of life indefinitely. If the price is severe harms to people in the future, including our children and grandchildren, why would we assume that? So, we might have to do with less energy even than we have now, especially less than we would aspire to use. We should think about energy and our need for it through the lens of ethics, our well-being and considerations of justice. Thank you!
Professor Gardiner is not afraid to tell the bitter truth about the climate crisis we are facing and has been willing to share his impressive experience in the field of climate change research both through this interview and through the Zoom discussion session on Monday. Those of you who want to know more about environmental rights and climate change from an ethical point of view, and who couldn't attend the lecture on Monday, can view the recording which will soon be published on the Exphil lecture webpage. Watch it here.