The Moral Challenge of Dangerous Climate Change

By Bryan Walker 22/04/2014


The combination of a recently acquired desktop video magnifier and a kindle has for the time being restored some ease to my reading. Hence this review. I was drawn by the title The Moral Challenge of Dangerous Climate Change: Values, Poverty and Policy, since I can’t see the resistance to energy reform mounted by powerful fossil fuel interests being overcome without some kind of moral determination by a significant portion of the population. I was also attracted by the fact that the author, Darrel Moellendorf is a political and moral philosopher and I was curious to read a philosophical perspective on the climate change issue.

Although the book is intended to be accessible to readers who are not versed in the discipline of philosophy it is no light read. The discussions of the various policy issues it addresses are exhaustive and rigorous. There are no ringing calls, just appeals to humane rationality. But the conclusions are no less compelling for that.

Moellendorf is heavily focused on the poverty in which a large proportion of the human race currently lives: “It should be scandalous that nearly half the world’s population lives in desperate poverty, especially while many lavish in such plenty.”  He declares the problem of global poverty to be central to climate change policy. The two issues cannot be separated.  In this respect he parallels Nicholas Stern who in his book The Global Deal similarly coupled combating climate change with poverty reduction as the two greatest challenges of the century and claimed that we shall succeed or fail on them together – to tackle only one is to undermine the other.

In Moellendorf’s view it is vital that climate change policy should not put restrictions on poverty-eradicating human development. He introduces what he calls the anti-poverty principle as a standard against which the actions proposed to address climate change should be measured. It’s no surprise then that the primary responsibility for action rests with the highly developed rich countries, as recognised by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. On those countries rests the responsibility of sharply curtailing greenhouse gas emissions, not through a steep reduction in economic activity but through the promotion of a technological revolution in energy. Subsidising the growth of renewable energy in the least-developed economies may well be part of this responsibility.

Moellendorf frequently refers to the UNFCC as an important source of norms and principles in determining climate change action and defends several of those principles in the course of his book. The convention provides compass and continuity in international negotiations.

Moellendorf fully understands the scientific consensus about the warming world and the risks it poses for humanity. He sets the risks out in some detail, acknowledging the uncertainties but seeing them as all the more reason to be concerned. He writes of the possibility of cascading uncertainties if various positive feedbacks are triggered by the warming. Climate change, he concludes, poses risks of catastrophic changes to human communities and ecosystems. The risks are particularly dangerous to people made vulnerable by the coincidence of poverty and geography, whether in the great river deltas of North Africa and East Asia, the glacier-fed rivers in Asia and South America or the  arid regions of central and southern Africa.

All of this points to a precautionary approach in attempting to mitigate climate change. It would be dangerous to gamble on a lower climate sensitivity than predicted by the science. The cost of mitigation, estimated at 2 percent of GDP, is low when set against the threat of a 3 degree rise in global temperature.

Moellendorf is not impressed by economists who attempt to discount the need for present action based on the supposition that future populations will be better off than we are and therefore better placed to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The likely severity of climate change casts doubt on the assumption that economic growth will continue at its current levels. Moellendorf’s clear appreciation of what the science portends contrasts with the bland assumption that economic growth will ensure later generations will be  up to the task of late mitigation.

An interesting chapter on the value of biodiversity explores not merely its economic importance but also the value of the “delight, wonder and awe at nature” which matter to human life. Moellendorf quotes a memorable statement of biologist E.O. Wilson with approval, and I can’t forbear to repeat it here: “This is the assembly of life that took a billion years to evolve. It has eaten the storms – folded them into its genes – and created the world that created us. It holds us steady.”

What results from Moellendorf’s painstaking discussions is entirely consonant with what many who are alarmed by the human impacts of climate change have felt for a number of years. Put through close philosophic scrutiny the concerns emerge as rational and humane responses to a grave threat to the human future.

But rationality and humanity have a rough time in the political world where negotiations towards a global solution (the only sort there is for our common atmosphere) are supposedly proceeding. One has only to think of the ranting of many Republican congress members in the US or, closer to home, of our own government’s policies mired in contradiction yet energetically defended by ministers. Moellendorf is not blind to this reality and faces it squarely in his final chapter on urgency – “the fierce urgency of now” as one of his headings describes it. Against the fossil fuel industry and its political allies he looks to civil society movements and political organisations to use their organising skills to mobilise support for climate change mitigation in states currently lacking mitigation ambition. It’s a big ask, but we might remember that the moral challenge has informed powerful movements of ordinary citizens in the past which have overcome entrenched interests. The abolition of the slave trade and the emancipation of slaves come to mind for me.

Moellendorf is ever mindful that climate change affects the lives and well-being of billions of people both now and in the future. Morality is to do with what we owe other people. The energy revolution we require to constrain climate change may be technological, but the motivation to demand it is profoundly moral. His patient exposition of this imperative is most welcome.