Interview: Stephen Gardiner on the ethical concerns of climate change

Submitted by Kate Goldyn on
Stephen Gardiner

Stephen Gardiner was interviewed by the Organization for Defending Victims of Violence to discuss the ethical concerns of climate change and the efficacy of international frameworks to address effects of global warming and extreme weather on human rights.

Q: In your different writings and speeches, you’ve discussed the ethical considerations of climate change and raised the concept of the tyranny of the contemporary. In the underprivileged and developing societies where the most immediate priority of the average family is to heat up their houses in the harsh cold of the winter or ensure the next meal is on the table, and few people are concerned about a warming planet, should the ethical considerations be interpreted similarly by saying the communities are putting today’s benefit first and neglecting the principle of offsetting the costs for the future generations?

A: Clearly, people shouldn’t be put in a situation where they have to choose between inflicting severe harms on the future, or inflicting similar harms on themselves. That’s a tragic scenario that the world in general has strong moral reasons to avoid. Indeed, I’ve argued that inflicting it on others is itself a serious injustice.

Still, we need to be careful here. Many countries around the world are not stuck in an extreme scenario where their immediate need for shelter and food does and should swamp everything else. Many rich people living in poor countries are not in that situation either. Moreover, those communities who are genuinely in that kind of extreme bind are probably contributing very little to climate change right now. Given this, I’m concerned about the rest of us, who aren’t in such dire circumstances, using the plight of the most vulnerable to justify our own high emissions, when our communities are in very different circumstances. Some communities today might invoke what I call a right of generational self-defense, but only if the harms imposed on them through complying with climate goals that protect the future would really be extreme. Nevertheless, notice that even a right like this would come with sharp limits.

Read the whole interview on the Organization for Defending Victims of Violence’s website: “Poorer nations are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.”