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A Call for a Global Constitutional Convention Focused on Future Generations

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 September 2014


The Carnegie Council's work “is rooted in the premise that the incorporation of ethical concerns into discussions of international affairs will yield more effective policies both in the United States and abroad.” In honor of the Council's centenary, we have been asked to (briefly) present our views on the ethical and policy issues posed by climate change, focusing on what people need to know that they probably do not already know, and what should be done. In that spirit, this essay argues that climate change poses a profound ethical challenge, that the ongoing evasion of this challenge produces ineffective policy, and, therefore, that a fundamental paradigm shift is needed. More specifically, I maintain that the climate problem is usually misdiagnosed as a traditional tragedy of the commons, that this obscures two deeper and distinctively ethical challenges (what I call the tyranny of the contemporary and the perfect moral storm), and that we should address these challenges head on, by calling for a global constitutional convention focused on future generations.

Roundtable: The Facts, Fictions, and Future of Climate Change
Copyright © Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs 2014 

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1 Connie Hedegaard, Danish Minister for Climate and Energy (and subsequently EU commissioner on climate action), speaking two months before Copenhagen; cited in Michael Von Bulow, “Failure in Copenhagen is Not an Option”. COP-15 Web Site (October 2, 2009).

2 Carnegie Council mission statement, available at (accessed 5/19/2014).

3 These share a common core; however, real differences remain. See Gardiner, Storm, chapter 4.

4 One issue may be the ambiguity between the generic use of the phrase “tragedy of the commons” (to mean “any tragedy involving some commons”) and the more specific sense associated with the model. For instance, I once used the generic sense to refer to a tyranny of the contemporary as “the real tragedy of the commons” in an attempt to signal that it is a deeper “commons problem,” and has more relevance to our current predicament, than Hardin's model. However, I now see that this may mislead. (See Gardiner, , “The Real Tragedy of the Commons,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 30.4 (2001), pp. 387416 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.)

5 This assumption is shared by many of its main rivals (though sometimes with reservations). See, for example, Elinor Ostrom, “A Polycentric Approach for Coping with Climate Change” (World Bank, 2009); Keohane, Robert O. and Victor, David G., “The Regime Complex for Climate Change,” Perspectives on Politics 9.1 (2010), pp. 723 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Archer, David et al. , “Fate of Fossil Fuel CO2 in Geologic Time,” Journal of Geophysical Research 110 (2006), pp. 16 Google Scholar.

7 The tyranny of the contemporary comes in many forms. One paradigm is the pure intergenerational problem (see Gardiner, Storm, chapter 5).

8 Gardiner, Storm, chapters 3–4; see also Gardiner, Stephen M., “The Global Warming Tragedy and the Dangerous Illusion of the Kyoto Protocol,” Ethics & International Affairs 18.1 (2004), pp. 2339 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 This is not to say that those who advance the model are themselves motivated by buck-passing or corruption. Instead, the idea is that some framings tend to be accepted too readily in settings like the perfect storm.

10 Note that the need to combat self-interest itself presupposes an ethical outlook that goes beyond it.

11 Perfect Storm, p. 3.

12 In my own view, the driving out of ecological concern is also very important, but I address it only briefly here (in the last guideline below).

13 One way to facilitate a tyranny of the contemporary is to assign problems that encourage this tyranny to inadequate institutions.

14 Drawn from the Oxford English Dictionary.

15 Waluchow, Wil, “Constitutionalism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2012)Google Scholar.

16 Gardiner, “The Global Warming Tragedy”; Barrett, Scott, Environment and Statecraft (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 See, for example, Dobson, Andrew, “Representative Democracy and the Environment,” in Lafferty, W.M. and Meadowcraft, J., eds., Democracy and the Environment (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 1996), pp. 124–39Google Scholar; Read, Rupert, Guardians of the Future: A Constitutional Case for Representing and Protecting Future People (Weymouth, U. K.: Green House, 2012)Google Scholar; Thompson, Dennis F., “Representing Future Generations: Political Presentism and Democratic Trusteeship,” Critical Review of International and Political Philosophy 13(1) (2010), pp. 1737 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For an instructive overview, see Beckman, Ludvig, “Do Climate Change and the Interests of Future Generations Have Implications for Democracy?Environmental Politics, 17:4 (2008), pp. 610624 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 In Rawlsian terms, one might think of the bare proposal as advancing the concept of a global constitutional convention and the internal debate as concerning specific conceptions.

19 Each guideline may be questioned, and I make no attempt at completeness. The idea is to further discussion by proposing standards to which more concrete visions of the global constitutional convention are answerable. Though some otherwise sympathetic to the general call may reject them, there is some burden on them to explain their reasons and defend alternatives.

20 Shepherd, John et al. 2009, Geoengineering the Climate: Science, Governance and Uncertainty (Royal Society, 2009)Google Scholar; cf. Gardiner, , “Some Early Ethics of Geoengineering,” Environmental Values 20 (2011), pp. 163188 CrossRefGoogle Scholar at p. 165.

21 Report of the United Nations Secretary-General, Intergenerational Solidarity and the Needs of Future Generations, 2013.

22 See my account of the salience of “generations” in Perfect Storm, chapter 5.

23 Another reason is that nation-states are too diverse in size, population, and power to make them appropriate organizational units.

24 March 25, 1787. Quoted by Gouverneur Morris in Ferrand's Records of the Federal Convention of 1787.