Stephen Gardiner and "The Treat of Intergenerational Extortion: On the Temptation to Become the Climate Mafia, While Masquerading as an Intergenerational Robin Hood"

On Monday, Feb. 27, Stephen Gardiner—professor of Human Dimensions of the Environment and director of the Program on Values in Society in the Philosophy Department at the University of Washington, Seattle—spoke about the intergenerational ethics of climate change.

Gardiner’s talk, “The Treat of Intergenerational Extortion: On the Temptation to Become the Climate Mafia, While Masquerading as an Intergenerational Robin Hood,” challenged the argument for, as he said, “making the grandchildren pay.”

The argument for “making the grandchildren pay” is derived from the “polluted pays” principle, said Gardiner. In contrast to the idea that the primary contributors to climate change should compensate those who have contributed less but will suffer the consequences more, the “polluted pays” principle calls for the opposite. It acknowledges that vulnerable nations have the most to gain from emissions abatement, while large polluters, such as the United States, have the most to lose. Therefore, some argue, vulnerable nations should pay the big polluters to abate.

The “polluted pays” principle can be applied intergenerationally, said Gardiner. This idea suggests that, since the current generation will need to sacrifice profit by curbing fossil fuel use in order to prevent “climate catastrophe,” we should be incentivized to do so by increasing our consumption in other ways. According to Gardiner, this increased consumption will saddle future generations with debt. However, the argument goes, future generations will have a higher standard of living than we have today, so transferring some of their wealth to the current generation is only fair.

Gardiner disagreed. He called this extortion.

Gardiner broke down his argument with pop culture examples, such as The Sopranos and Save Toby. His talk was approachable and entertaining, even for those with no experience in philosophy. According to Gardiner, extortion is bribery without consent. Extortion is worse than robbery, said Gardiner, because it is theft that pretends to be virtuous.

Beyond the fact that future generations have no say in whether or not they compensate the current generation to lower emissions, the “grandchildren pay” principle may be a slippery slope. Gardiner argued that the compensation could take the form of resources such as biodiversity or water, potentially triggering other environmental crises. Once the current generation realizes it can push debt onto future generations in return for ameliorating any time-delayed problem, what’s to stop us from finding “creative ways to impose more threats”? Such are the risks of extortion, said Gardiner.

“Extortion is a clear threat,” Gardiner warned, that is “manifest in existing proposals in climate policy.” Therefore, Gardiner argued, climate change is not just a policy problem, but an ethics problem.

Find articles and books by Stephen Gardiner here.

– Sophia Schmidt ’17