Ethical Challenge

The third reason that ethics is fundamental is that climate change presents a severe ethical challenge. It throws down the gauntlet to us as ethical agents, and especially to our moral and political systems. Specifically, climate change is an early instance of a problem that poses a profound ethical test for humanity and its institutions. I call this problem, “the perfect moral storm.” The ongoing political inertia surrounding climate action suggests that so far we are failing that test.

Let us say that a perfect storm is an event constituted by an unusual convergence of independently harmful factors where this convergence is likely to result in substantial, and possibly catastrophic, negative outcomes. The phase “perfect storm” became prominent in popular culture through Sebastian Junger’s book and Wolfgang Peterson’s subsequent movie starring George Clooney.13 Junger’s tale is based on the true story of the Andrea Gail, a fishing vessel caught at sea during a convergence of several independently powerful storms. The sense of the analogy is that climate change is a perfect moral storm because it involves the convergence of a number of factors that threaten our ability to behave ethically.

As climate change is a complex phenomenon, I cannot hope to identify all of the ways in which its features create challenges for ethical behavior. Instead, I will highlight four especially salient threats—analogous to the storms that hit the Andrea Gail—that converge in the climate case. These “storms” arise in the global, intergenerational, ecological, and theoretical dimensions. Each is serious in its own right. However, their interaction also helps to exacerbate a lurking problem of moral corruption that may be of greater practical importance than any one storm considered in isolation.

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