THE THEORETICAL STORM
The fourth storm is theoretical: we are extremely ill equipped to deal with many problems characteristic of the long-term future. In my view, even our best theories—whether economic, political, or moral—struggle to address basic issues such as intergenerational equity, contingent persons, nonhuman animals and nature. Climate change involves all these and more. Given this, humanity appears to be charging into an area where we are theoretically inept, in the (nonpejorative) sense of being unsuited for (e.g., poorly adapted to), or lacking the basic skills and competence to complete, the task.
This criticism applies directly, and particularly seriously, to the dominant approach in public policy today (and incidentally the favorite of the Chicago lawyers): standard economic cost-benefit analysis (Market CBA). I develop this criticism in chapter 3. Mirroring economic realist complaints about ethics, my claim will be that Market CBA lacks the tools for the job at least without ethical underpinnings. Consequently, particular cost-benefit analyses tend to hide their own ethical assumptions from view, rather than making them explicit and thereby subject to scrutiny. As a result, such analyses often risk violating basic ethical constraints.
These concerns suggest that taking ethics seriously is essential to resolving the theoretical storm. Still, mine is not a partisan claim. In my view, the theoretical storm also afflicts major theories in moral and political philosophy, such as utilitarianism, Rawlsian liberalism, human rights theory, libertarianism, virtue ethics, and so on. I conceive of such theories as major research programs that evolve over time (rather than, say, as sets of propositions). Whatever their other merits, in their current forms these research programs appear to lack the resources needed to deal with problems like climate change. Moreover, it seems likely that in evolving to meet them, they will be substantially, and perhaps radically, transformed.35
Importantly, I am not claiming that in principle such theories have nothing to say. On the contrary, at a superficial level, it is relatively easy for the standard research programs to assert that their favored values are relevant to climate change and license condemnation of political inertia. Severe and catastrophic forms of climate change pose a big enough threat that it is plausible to claim that most important values (e.g., happiness, human rights, freedom, property rights, etc.) are threatened. Surely, then, proponents of such values will think that something should be done. Nevertheless, in my view the more important questions are how precisely to understand the threat, and what should be done to address it. On such topics, the standard research programs seem curiously oblivious, complacent, opaque, even evasive. In particular, so far they have offered little guidance on the central question of the kinds of institutions that are needed to confront the problem, and the specific norms that should govern those institutions. Though this situation is starting to change as theoretical attention shifts (after twenty-five years of waiting), there is still a very long way to go.
Of course, none of this implies that ethics has nothing to offer even in these early days. As we wait for suitably robust theories—whether economic, political, or moral— to emerge, moral and political philosophy can be useful in guiding an ethics of the transition. For instance, concepts such as justice can put limits on how we should think about the problem, even if those limits are not yet fully articulated. (As Amartya Sen once put it, sometimes “it is better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong.”) They are also seeds from which fuller theories (including more ideal theories) can grow, and their historical development in other contexts can provide meaningful guidelines. Nevertheless, we should admit from the outset that we are not there yet, and much work remains to be done. Sometimes an ethics of the transition must take on the task of guiding us forward even when we are not sure precisely where to go.