One reason that an ethics of the transition is urgently needed is that the convergence of the four storms creates a further threat, this time to the way we think and talk about climate change. Faced with the temptations of the global, intergenerational and ecological storms, and the cover provided by the theoretical storm, it is easy for our reasoning to become distorted and perverted. Public discourse in particular is under threat.36 As Robert Samuelson puts it in another intergenerational context, “There’s a quiet clamor for hypocrisy and deception; and pragmatic politicians respond with ... schemes that seem to promise something for nothing. Please, spare us the truth.”37 Given this, there is a role for “defensive ethics” that combats such tendencies.
Corruption of the ways in which we think and talk can be facilitated in a number of ways, including distraction, complacency, unreasonable doubt, selective attention, delusion, pandering, false witness, and hypocrisy. Merely listing such strategies is probably sufficient to make my main point. (Close observers of climate politics will recognize many of them.) So, here let me offer just two illustrations.
The first concerns unreasonable doubt. At the time of writing, the basic science underlying concern about climate change is the subject of a widespread, enduring and strengthening consensus that has been repeatedly stressed in international reports, and endorsed by the national academies of major nations.38 Nevertheless, in the political and broader public realms, the level of doubt, distrust, and even outright hostility to this consensus has, if anything, increased as scientific understanding has developed. It is often (rightly) said that this is partly due to campaigns of disinformation, and a widespread misunderstanding within the media and broader public of the role of legitimate skepticism within science.39 Still it is surprising that we are quite so vulnerable to such influences, to the extent that the collective response has been to allow a huge increase in emissions even as the mainstream science has solidified. Indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking that the more evidence we get, the more we demand, and the more reckless our behavior becomes. In the abstract, this seems bizarre; amid the temptations of the perfect moral storm, it is sadly predictable.40
The second illustration involves selective attention. Since climate change involves a complex convergence of problems, it is easy to engage in manipulative or self-deceptive behavior by applying one’s attention only to some considerations that make the situation difficult. At the level of practical politics, such strategies are all too familiar. However, selective attention strategies may also manifest themselves in the theoretical realm. For instance, consider this unpleasant thought. Perhaps the dominance of the tragedy of the commons model (and the global storm approach more generally) is not due to mere obliviousness to the tyranny of the contemporary, but is instead encouraged by its background presence. After all, the current generation may find it highly advantageous to draw attention toward various geopolitical issues that tend to problematize action, and away from issues of intergenerational ethics, which demand it. From this point of view, the standard tragedy of the commons account fits the bill nicely. It essentially assumes away the critical intergenerational dimension, by taking the relevant actors to be nation-states who represent the interests of their citizens in perpetuity. In addition, by focusing on countries and not generations, it suggests that failures to act count as self-inflicted and self-destructive harms, rather than injustices we inflict on future people.
The problem of moral corruption also reveals a broader sense in which climate change may be a perfect moral storm. Its complexity may turn out to be perfectly convenient for us, the current generation, and indeed for each successor generation as it comes to power. It provides each generation with the cover under which it can seem to be taking the issue seriously—by negotiating weak global accords that lack substance, for example, and then heralding them as great achievements41—when really it is simply exploiting its temporal position. Moreover, all of this can occur without the guilty generation actually having to acknowledge that this is what it is doing. By avoiding overtly selfish behavior, an earlier generation can take advantage of the future without the unpleasantness of admitting it—either to others, or, perhaps more importantly, to itself.