Malcolm Bull’s review in the L.R.B. of A Perfect Moral Storm: The ethical tragedy of climate change by Stephen Gardiner (Oxford, 2011) poses the moral problematic of climate change in a profoundly fallacious way. The crux of his confusion is his idea that climate change is as remote as possible–temporally, spatially and humanly–from those who are called upon to care. The gesture is necessary for converting an issue with immediate stakes into what amounts to the economists’ unsolvable math problem of discount rates, which is to say, a technical method for determining how much we should care about climate change in financial terms.
One may surmise that posing a moral question in economic terms makes for suspect premises, but it is a lot more than that. For example, in his review, uncertainty starts as a scientific problem, but then becomes the presumption of distant climate effects which, strangely and wrongly, for Bull seem to bea priori unknowable. It is also apparent in the complete ambiguity of his use of the first person plural. Who is ‘we,’ in this essay, when one asks about climate change in concrete terms? Perhaps we should talk about the massive floods that pulsed through Bangkok last year, leaving some $54 billion in damages, most of it uninsured, and prompting the Thai government to promise foreign investors a taxpayer-backed $1.6 billion insurance pool to preempt complaints of under-funded and mismanaged public infrastructure. Rainfall that year has been estimated at almost three standard deviations above normal. Why are Thais paying for global capital’s weather risk, and why are insurers so severely underfunded?
Bull’s ultimate fallacy is the assumption that we are in a position to decide how much we are going to spend on climate change. But this is a joke. What have been the economic consequences of the Texas drought and wildfires, or the fires that have ripped across Russia? What are the economic stakes of Australia’s intense and as-yet unsolvable water problems? If for Bull the moral question of climate change is why we should care about other people, remote in time and space, it is because he systematically misrecognizes the immediacy of the stakes of climate change already underway and fast outpacing our ability to plan and anticipate.
One last thing holds together the tenuous fallacies of Bull’s moral quandary, and that is the incessant focus on atmospheric emissions. It is one thing to understand atmospheric CO2 as a driver or chemical mechanism, but it is a bit of fetishism to think it is the cause of climate change. The stakes of the Arctic are a case in point. “The ice that has long maintained the Arctic as a uniquely placid international space is receding rapidly,” write the authors of ‘Climate Change and International Security: The Arctic as Bellwether.’ They document the massive remilitarization of the Arctic and, in particular, Russia’s explicit national interest in exploiting vast, frozen fossil fuel reserves. Exxon has already signed a very large contract, on the order of hundreds of billions, with one of Gazprom’s subsidiaries.
These are some of the immediate, concrete manifestations of climate change itself. The newest petrostates are Canada and Russia, both of whom have recently rejected the Kyoto Protocol. Fossil energy extraction already accounts for some 20% of Russia’s GDP; the authors of that report quote Dmitry Medvedev claiming, “Our first and main priority is to turn the Arctic into Russia’s resource base for the twentieth century.” One might say that waiting for the ice to thaw in order to unearth those resources amounts to a practice of climate change per se. It’s not about the atmosphere, it’s about the geology–not the carbon footprint but the fossil bootprint.
One suspects, then, that posing climate change as a moral problem already is a mistake. It is a political problem of the first order, which means it is not an issue of how much we care about hypothetical others but how—in what ways—we may still be able to care for ourselves. That makes it a problem not of calculation but of work, achievement or commitment.