Lehigh's campus during the fall season.

Lehigh's campus during the fall season.

Stephen Gardiner Addresses Climate Change as an Ethical Crisis

“Protecting the younger generation is one of the most important tasks,” Gardiner tells attendees of the Peter S. Hagerman '61 Lecture in Ethics.

Photography by

Ryan Hulvat

Stephen Gardiner, director of the Program on Ethics at the University of Washington, addressed what he said are institutional misdiagnoses, denialism and complacency surrounding the climate crisis and proposed a series of steps to mitigate it.

Gardiner, who delivered Lehigh’s Peter S. Hagerman '61 Lecture in Ethics, proposed that the steps culminate in the creation of a Global Constitution Convention focused on protecting future generations.

“Protecting the younger generation is one of the most important tasks,” he said.

Stephen Gardiner

Stephen Gardiner

Gardiner, professor of philosophy and Ben Rabinowitz Endowed professor of Human Dimensions of the Environment at the University of Washington, delivered his proposal as part of his lecture on “Climate Change as an Ethical and Institutional Crisis.” The event was sponsored by Lehigh’s Center for Ethics, which mediated a question-and-answer segment following Gardiner’s hour-long presentation.

Gardiner has authored several books including, “A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change” (2011), in which he denotes the climate crisis as an ethical failure. He explains the convergence of several factors, or “storms”–global, intergenerational, ecological and theoretical–challenge the prospects for ethically responsible behavior. Because of this, he said, “we are being unreasonably complacent."

Gardiner argued the way climate change is widely framed distorts its reality. Despite consistent, scientific evidence about the threat of climate change, he said, there is a lot of resistance, doubt, illusion and distraction that has presented a major obstacle to positive change.

Political and analytical complacency are part of the crisis, he said.

Politically, he said, the focus has been on defending inadequate agreements, such as the international Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, instead of pushing for fundamental reform of the system. The agreements only present an illusion that progress is being made, he said.

Analytically, he said, the nature of the climate problem has been misdiagnosed as a tragedy of the commons among countries. The tragedy of the commons refers to a situation where individuals have access to shared resources and act in their own interests, ultimately depleting the resource. Each country has the power to decide to restrain their footprint but prefers not to.

He said this analysis is problematic because it ignores ethics and justice considerations. These effects can last hundreds and thousands of years-–nothing that current generations will fully experience.

He said existing institutions hinder progress on the issue as they are more focused on short-term, often narrow economic, gains.

“Climate change has a strong indicator of intergenerational bondage,” he said. “The idea that current institutions and current governments are really good at protecting multiple generations of their people decades, hundreds, thousands of years in the future is a sort of thing we should laugh at."

Climate change has a strong indicator of intergenerational bondage. The idea that current institutions and current governments are really good at protecting multiple generations of their people decades, hundreds, thousands of years in the future is a sort of thing we should laugh at.

Stephen Gardiner

He said this presents a threat of a “tyranny of the contemporary,” in which earlier generations behave in ways that will bring them benefits in the short term and exploit future generations by passing on the costs.

“There’s a serious temptation toward ethically indefensible behavior,” he said. “If each generation does the same thing, then you’re likely to see an accumulation of really nasty impacts in the future.”

He said the tyranny of the contemporary presents a basic standard threat to society and it requires that systems or mechanisms be put in place to neutralize it. This ethical responsibility falls on the current generation.

However, he said, even though certain agreements are instituted, there is a tendency for them to be short-term and focused on economic considerations rather than ecological security. These failures of our current systems highlight a governance gap.

A next step, Gardiner said, would be to convene a minimal version of the Global Constitutional Convention. This would be “a representative body called together for some occasional or temporary purpose” and “constituted by statute to represent the people in their primary relations.”

The convention would exist as a set of norms that creates a structure of possibly defining the limits of government power. The role of the convention would be to discuss and make recommendations towards the establishment of the constitution; its subject matter would be intergenerational concern, protection of future generations, the promotion of their interests and the discharging of duties with respect to them.

He said this minimal convention would be more digestible than a global one because it would not go much further than recognizing the existence of the governance gap and advocating that appropriate measures be taken to address it.

He said further, more dramatic steps would come afterward, in the form of subsequent versions of the Global Constitutional Convention, proposals for its reform and strategies for its effective implementation.

To stop at the minimal version of the GCC would be an abdication of responsibility, he said.

“You at least need to say why and where you’re going to stop, and you need to explain what the better alternative path is crucially,” he said.

Gardiner said to admit defeat is to concede that there is nothing more that leaders can do that has any chance of success, which is irresponsible considering the seismic effects climate will have on the future.

Further, he explained that the GCC, as a set of institutions that work with the government and conduct global deliberations, would assess concrete proposals, compare different proposals and revise them. These proposals are likely to be received as more legitimate as opposed to coming from one person or one country.

The Hagerman Lecture and the Center for Ethics is funded in part by the endowment fund for the Teaching of Ethical Decision-Making. The Center of Ethics has a goal to promote ethics education.

Lehigh Provost Nathan Urban thanked the Class of 1961 for its commitment to ethics education at Lehigh.

“Through [the Class of 1961’s] generosity, we are able to invite world-class speakers to campus and engage students in discussions of ethical matters of current interest,” Urban said. “I would also like to express my gratitude to Dr. Michael Gusmano, the director of the Center for Ethics. It is through Michael’s leadership and vision that the center successfully moved to be under the auspices of the Office of the Provost, and continues to promote the discussion of, scholarship in, and commitment to ethics education on campus.”

– Story by Christina Perrier ‘23

Photography by

Ryan Hulvat

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