Article 4:

(Essay) Climate Change and Global Justice

By Michael Gillespie, University of Washington, Bothell

The prospect of human-caused global climate change and the likely consequences of such change present the peoples of the world, and of the U.S. in particular, with serious moral challenges. The range and complexity of requisite responses is immense, including global treaties (such as the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the Convention on Climate Change) to reduce emissions as well as changes in our own use of resources at home and in our communities. All commitments to change our individual and collective behavior can be based on a moral commitment to environmental sustainability, motivated by a deeply-held concern for the well-being of future generations, other living beings, and Earth systems. A key component of such a commitment is recognition of the demands of justice; that we should do what is required to bring about a world that works for all. Further, the people of the U.S. have a special obligation to respond effectively to the threat of global climate change. The opposition of the U.S. government to any endorsement of international agreements on global climate change is unjust and cannot, in the long run, succeed. To see why, let us consider some of the general principles involved.

Three lines of reasoning support the moral imperative for the U.S. and other highly industrialized nations to shoulder the greatest burden for creating and paying for solutions to mitigate for anthropogenic climate change (Shue 1999). First, those countries that have most contributed to the problem should bear the greatest costs. Indeed, historically the rich states have profited greatly from industrialization, but have imposed costs on others. According to Shue (1999): “Unilateral initiatives by the so-called developed countries (DCs) have made them rich, while leaving the less developed countries (LDCs) poor. In the process, the industrial activities and accompanying lifestyles of the DCs have inflicted major global damage upon the earth’s atmosphere.” Further, Shue (1999) suggests that we must accede to a principle of equity that is stronger than the related “polluter pays principle”:

When a party has in the past taken an unfair advantage of others by imposing costs upon them without their consent, those who have been unilaterally put at a disadvantage are entitled to demand that in the future the offending party shoulder burdens that are unequal at least to the extent of the unfair advantage previously taken, in order to restore equality.

Second, those countries with the greater ability to pay should willingly carry more of the costs. If the first principle is based in an insight into why an initial inequality is unfair, the second applies regardless of whether the initial inequality is fair or not—it focuses on preventing “existing inequality from becoming worse through any infliction of an unfair additional disadvantage upon those at the bottom.”

Third, industrialized nations should commit to overcoming radical inequality by taking steps that allow for greater development in the poorest nations by making greater sacrifices themselves. Shue (1999) states:

When some people have less than enough for a decent human life, other people have far more than enough, and the total resources available are so great that everyone could have at least is unfair not to guarantee everyone at least an adequate minimum.

We live in a world in which “the wealthy states remain content to watch hundreds of thousands of children die each year in the poor states for lack of material necessities, which the total resources in the world could remedy many times over” (Shue 1999). In such a world, it is unfair to expect poor states to turn their attention away from their own severe problems toward ones like stratospheric ozone depletion and global climate change.

These three principles of equity are different in origin and are best justified by different lines of reasoning. Shue’s (1999) claim is that even though they are different, each encapsulates a commonly-held view of justice, and they all lead to the same conclusion: “Whatever needs to be done by wealthy industrialized states or by poor non-industrialized states about global environmental problems like ozone destruction and global warming, the costs should initially be borne by the wealthy industrialized states.”

Athanasiou and Baer (2002) add yet one more line of reasoning to Shue’s: “The rich must pay, and not only because they’re responsible for the problem—because only they can, and because if they don’t, the warming will quite certainly prove unstoppable.”

Many have argued that we waste our time in attempting to awaken people’s ethical values and to come to terms with fundamental inequalities. It is “unrealistic,” it is said, to hope efforts in the real world will be guided by principles of environmental ethics and justice. There are two meaningful replies to this sort of objection. First, as U.S. and world citizens it is important to think through our basic commitments, to discuss them with one another and attempt to make our values real. If “unrealistic” means that we find that our deepest convictions are not close to what most believe or what usually is done, that is no surprise. It just means that a lot of effort will be required to make long-term changes. It is difficult to rethink assumptions about commitments to future generations or to ecosystems, both of which have frequently been ignored. Yet we might say that we now have a special obligation to take these obligations seriously. It is time to take it upon ourselves to consider what we really think our, and our government’s, obligations ought to be.

The second reply to the objection is that the situation can be read the other way around—far from being “unrealistic” perhaps the only thing that can work is to take account of justice in the way negotiations are carried out, the terms of the agreements, and aid in coping with the outcomes of global climate change. Using international negotiations as an example, if we take a view from the perspective of LDCs “it is easy to see why most developing countries are unwilling even to think about controlling their emissions until they see some real progress on the part of the developed countries in reducing theirs” (Jamieson 2001). It would be unreasonable to expect the poorer of the less developed countries to agree to an approach that did not aid them in coping with the results as well as prevention of future emissions (Shue 1992). This point becomes all the more salient once we realize that we have moved beyond the time of prevention of global climate change; mitigation and adaptation should have our full attention.

The “realistic” and the “just” converge when we look at climate change mitigation and adaptation in the long term (Athanasiou and Baer 2002). We know we cannot prevent global climate change; many impacts are now inevitable. So the question is: How can we hope to achieve enough cooperation to avoid the worst results? The answer: Only by following principles of justice.

What is morally compelling and what is likely to happen are two different matters. If China, India, and other developing countries burn all their coal we are beyond any hope of avoiding the worst consequences of global climate change. But this should not lead us to conclude—as has often been done by U.S. leaders—that the U.S. should refuse or be reluctant to endorse international cooperation agreements until there are guarantees by developing countries such as China to avoid the worst dangers of industrialism and high levels of consumption. These are not exclusive alternatives; we should indeed be concerned about global climate change implications of economic development in, say, China, and we should agree that the U.S. must take responsibility to lead the way toward a sustainable future. According to Speth (2003),

We are at the early stages of the journey to sustainability. Meanwhile, the forward momentum of the drivers of environmental deterioration is great. Former Presidential Science Advisor John Gibbons is fond of saying, “If we don’t change direction, we’ll end up where we’re headed.” And today we are moving rapidly to a swift and appalling deterioration of our environmental assets. There is still world enough and time, but the decades immediately ahead are crucial.

During these next crucial decades we must be open to large changes in our own lives and be prepared to make sacrifices because of our commitments to Earth, future generations, and to justice.

Literature Cited

Athanasiou T and P. Baer. 2002. Dead Heat: Global Justice and Global Warming. Seven Stories Press, New York.

Jamieson, D. 2001. Climate change and global environmental justice. In C.A. Miller and P. N. Edwards (eds.), Changing the Atmosphere: Expert Knowledge and Environmental Governance, pp. 288–307. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Shue, H. 1999. Global Environment and International Inequality. International Affairs 75, Reprinted in D. Schmidtz, and E. Willott. 2002. Environmental Ethics: What Really Matters, What Really Works. Oxford University. Press, New York.