Book Review: ‘The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change’ by Stephen Gardiner

ethical tragedy climate change coverStephen Gardiner argues that climate change is a combination of the ‘prisoners dilemma’ and ‘tragedy of the commons.’

Stephen M. Gardiner regards climate change more or less as an ethical failure on the part of the human race, something that implicates our institutions’ moral and political theories alongside ourselves as supposedly moral beings.

He employs the well known philosophical perspectives the ‘prisoners dilemma’ and the ‘tragedy of the commons’ to support his argument, demonstrating the idea that while it is individually rational to not to cooperate with attempts to curtail climate change, such a stance simultaneously means that we all suffer as a result.

Passing the Buck

He also argues that these two perspectives are in themselves insufficient to describe climate change since the immorality of global warming is ‘inter-generational,’ or in other words, we are ‘passing the buck’ to future generations. This means that the solutions to the previously mentioned philosophical problems are not actually available to us in this particular instance.

Gardiner also refers to ‘game theory’ – the idea that climate change is a problem that focuses on the individual self-interest of nations. Yet he suggests that the drive towards green energy cancels this out since with a green economy there is no tragedy of the commons and no intergenerational prejudice.

The Layman

I’m not a particular convert to the philosophical approach to climate change politics myself, having read a number of psychological texts on the issue. I find therefore that Gardiner’s book is rather a complex mix of theoretical assumptions, models and hypotheses which, while interesting to the academic, would certainly serve to deter the layman.

I find the most convincing argument put forward by Gardiner to be the intergenerational prejudice idea, something that I have encountered before and fully accept. He also correctly identifies the prospect for abrupt, sudden climate change, the nightmare prospect of runaway global warming, being exacerbated in itself by three very difficult blocking factors – economics, psychology and the intergenerational problem, all of which serve to create a sense of political inertia that rather stifles action for change.

Ethical motivation

This is all rather deep stuff and it can be difficult to wade through at times, but nevertheless Gardiner has expertly explored some very instinctual and vitally important considerations which cannot realistically be ignored. In his conclusion he argues that self-interested consumption and group-focused politics is unlikely to meet the challenge. Rather he proposes a channeling of ethical motivation through political groups and institutions and thereby into people’s individual character.

He nevertheless warns the reader that, though essential, this is a major task which requires the participation of all disciplines, particularly psychology, law, economics, political science and sociology.

The most positive function of the book, ultimately, is to argue urgently that the major business of the day is to confront and challenge the notion of ‘business-as-usual’. Although, I suspect somehow that most of us already realise this, it’s just that not many of us are quite sure how to go about it.

In essence, difficult but required reading.

‘ A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change’ by Stephen M. Gardiner, published by Oxford University Press, UK, 2011

Reviewed by Robin Whitlock, a freelance writer and researcher with a special interest in environmental issues – particularly climate change and energy – as well as mythology and history. Based in Bristol, UK. Robin blogs at:

More Book Reviews on Green Prophet:
Book Review: Plastiki – Across the Pacific Ocean on Plastic
Book Review: A No-Nonsense Guide to Climate Change
Book Review: Strategy for Sustainability by Adam Werbach

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One thought on “Book Review: ‘The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change’ by Stephen Gardiner”

  1. Brad Arnold says:

    The author is clearly not aware of this new clean energy technology that is far cheaper than dirty fossil fuel. I am just an activist, but this technology is revolutionary – nickel using LENR is half a million times as energy dense as oil!

    There is a new clean energy technology that is 1/10th the cost of coal. Don’t believe me? Watch this video by a Nobel prize winner in physics:

    Still don’t believe me? It convinced the Swedish Skeptics Society:

    LENR using nickel. Incredibly: Ni+H+K2CO3(heated under pressure)=Cu+lots of heat. Here is a detailed description of the device and formula from a US government contract:

    By the way, here is a current survey of all the companies that are bringing LENR to commercialization:

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