Who will bear the burdens (and benefits) of climate change? The principles of distributive justice may provide insight.
Across the globe, it is broadly (though not universally) recognized that the earth’s climate is undergoing vast changes at an alarming rate. It is also commonly held that these dramatic changes in the earth’s climate are, for the most part, the consequences of human activity. Some scientists propose that the geological and climatic magnitude of the effects of human activity suggest that the world has entered a new historical geological era, the age of the “Anthropocene” (Crutzen 2006). Anthropogenic climatic change will also have profound implications for human society and the distribution of environmental costs and benefits.
In their Fifth Assessment Report, published in 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) outlined and described the current and predicted effects of climate change. The most serious and notable effects will include rising sea-levels around the globe, which will affect coastline infrastructure, particularly in densely-populated low-lying areas like Guangzhou, Miami, New York, New Orleans, and Mumbai, as well as less-developed places like Bangladesh and the island nations of the Maldives. Higher sea-levels will also lead to greater risk of destructive “storm surges,” like Hurricane Sandy in New York in 2012. Other dire effects from climate change and global warming include the intensification of the hydrological cycle, which will undoubtedly lead to higher incidences of deaths due to drought and malnutrition. At the same time, other areas will be more prone to increased rainfall that may lead to severe and destructive flooding, as well as higher rates of infectious diseases like malaria and cholera. Despite all of the research that predicts the future effects of climate change, climate scientists maintain that we should also expect to see more unpredictable weather and “freak” events as the climate continues to undergo profound changes.
A major concern raised by the IPCC and others is that the most vulnerable and weak populations in the world will be hit hardest and suffer the most from the effects of climate change. This may exacerbate current inequalities across the globe. At the same time, other regions could benefit from climatic shifts and rises in temperature that may increase the available amount of arable land (IPCC 2014).
Upon considering these salient and pressing challenges, the issue of climate change and its many consequences raise several important questions related to distributive justice. Who will bear the burdens (and benefits) of climate change? Do some people deserve protection from or compensation for climate change? Whose duty is it to protect or compensate them? Are some to be held more responsible for anthropogenic climate change than others? How are we to determine responsibility for anthropogenic climate change, and once those responsible are identified, what are the obligations to which they should be held? What if some of those who are to be held responsible are long dead—is their responsibility nullified upon their death, or is it passed along (and, if so, then to whom)? How should we consider and deal with the history of emissions, in which some parties have contributed more than others? How will future emissions rights be regulated and distributed? How do we weigh the current costs versus future benefits of climate prevention measures? More specifically, how will the burdens and effects of climate change be distributed among future generations?
These are a few of the many questions of distributive justice raised by climate change. To begin to answer them, I draw on John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, which describes the basic principles distributive justice. My aim is to explore how some of the key principles Rawls establishes might be used to address questions of distributive justice raised by climate change. In doing so, I will explore the principles and theories of climate justice postulated by Simon Caney, and compare how these principles might fit into Rawls’s overall normative framework. Because the worst effects of climate change remain in the future—and because many of its causes are already in the past—I will also examine Eric Posner and David Weisbach’s work on intergenerational climate justice. It is my contention that the principles outlined by Rawls, Caney, and Posner and Weisbach, are compatible and can be synthesized to guide questions of distributive justice and climate change towards just solutions that have the potential to bring about a more just and sustainable world.
This paper is not meant to be a concrete guide to solutions regarding the multitude of complex questions and concerns raised by global climate change. Such topics deserve deeper exploration and closer attention from policy experts, scientists, philosophers, and other professionals across disciplines. (However, it is my strong contention that while further and ongoing research into climate change and its effects is essential, we cannot wait for all the answers before choosing to act. To do so would be morally unjust, but I will go into this later). Rather, this paper is meant to be a critical examination, review, and reflection of certain principles of distributive justice and how they might relate to issues of climate change.
Before I begin to explore and analyze normative questions relating to climate change and distributive justice, it will be useful to review some of the ethical questions raised by global climate change. In his forthcoming article in the Oxford Handbook of Distributive Justice, “Distributive Justice and Climate,” Simon Caney describes the ethical dilemma of climate justice as follows: “permitting climatic changes imposes harm on people . . . yet also preventing harmful climatic changes also imposes burdens on people.” Therefore, there are two groups of actors Caney is interested in: the people who may be harmed by climate change and the people who may be burdened by preventing climate change. More specifically, because he seeks to address problems of climate change using a normative approach and distributive justice, Caney is concerned about elucidating the rights and obligations to which both of these groups have claim. In order to construct that framework, Caney addresses two general questions related to distributive justice and climate change. He refers to them as the Just Target Question and the Just Burden Question.
The Just Target Question revolves around the dilemma of how to protect people from the effects of climate change in a way that doesn’t place onerous demands on those whose duty it is to help protect them. Caney argues that “it is imperative to have a normative framework for adjudicating between the claims of would-be victims and the claims of the putative duty-bearers, and for striking a balance between them” (30). In his 2010 article titled “Climate change and the duties of the advantaged”, Simon Caney also stresses the same point and argues that any compelling theory of justice must incorporate and accommodate “both the concern of the rights-bearers (we wish that our rights be upheld) and the concerns of the duty-bearers (the duties entailed by the rights should not be unreasonable)” (Caney 209: 2015). These are the two main moral agents in discussions about the distributive justice of climate change, and they will therefore be the two main characters in my discussion of climate justice.
Caney’s first question, (the Just Target Question), seeks to define how the normative relationship between these two moral agents impacts decisions and policy related to distributive climate justice. The Just Target question seeks “the fair distribution of burdens and benefits” between the rights-bearers and duty-bearers in regards to climate change (Caney 2: forthcoming). In other words, how do we evaluate and assess the duties and rights of climate change victims in conjunction with the rights and duties of those obligated to help them?
There are a number of more specific questions that fall under the category of the Just Target Question. However, for the sake of brevity and clarity, I will focus on one version of this question, which has to do with the historical dimension of distributive climate justice. How should we assess and deal with emissions that were produced in the past? Caney asks, “Is it permissible to pass some of the burdens of combating climate change on to future generations?” (7: forthcoming). For our purposes, we must further inquire as to how different generations relate to each other as moral actors in terms of historic emissions. Are current generations to be held responsible for past emissions? Do generations have rights and obligations to other generations? If so, what are they?
In order to formulate just principles to inform answers to these questions, we must first establish a normative framework from which we can determine whether proposed principles of climate justice are truly just or not. John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, originally published in 1971 and revised in 1999, is a definitive text for contemporary explorations into questions of distributive justice. Therefore, I will examine how his theories and principles of normative distributive justice would inform questions of distributive climate justice.
To begin with, because of its instrumental role in Rawls’s methodology of deliberating and determining what can be rightfully regarded as just, I will first examine Rawls’s theoretical device of “the veil of ignorance” in the “original position.” In the following passage, Rawls defines the veil of ignorance and the original position of theoretical equality:
In justice as fairness the original position of equality . . . [is] a purely hypothetical situation . . . [in which] no one knows his place in society, his class position or status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like . . . the principles of justice are to be chosen behind a veil of ignorance. This ensures that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or contingency of social circumstances. (11)
Rawls uses the veil of ignorance as a theoretical device to judge whether a principle or policy is just or not. By denying individuals knowledge about “morally irrelevant” factors (such as inherited financial or social status, capabilities, even preferences), the veil of ignorance is meant to ensure that principles of justice chosen in the original position are impartial and do not unjustly advantage some and/or disadvantage others.
From this hypothetical situation of unbiased equality, Rawls argues, individuals would choose a division of advantages and burdens based upon just schemes, rather than principles based on certain things that are “irrelevant from the standpoint of justice” (17). These social and natural contingencies, Rawls maintains, are not morally relevant, and therefore would not be selected as criteria for just distribution under the veil of ignorance. Instead of distributing according to these morally arbitrary considerations, Rawls holds that income and wealth, and “the good things in life generally, should be distributed according to moral desert” (273). In this way, Rawls argues that people should not benefit from ‘morally arbitrary’ things for which they are not responsible, like their gender or the color of their skin or the particular country in which they were born. People as moral agents cannot help these things, and therefore it would be morally unjust to distribute according to these conditions.
Let us consider an example that Rawls provides to illustrate how the veil of ignorance might be used to inform principles of distributive justice. Rawls explains; “if a man knew that he was wealthy, he might find it rational to advance the principle that various taxes for welfare measures be counted unjust; if he knew that he was poor, he would most likely propose the contrary principle” (17). In this passage, Rawls points out how distribution schemes based on morally irrelevant considerations like one’s financial wealth can lead to unjust principles. There is another question implied here on the issue of unjust benefits. I will address this issue later on.
The veil of ignorance precludes unjust biases by depriving individuals of information about their social status or other information that is “irrelevant from the standpoint of justice” (Rawls 17). Under the veil of ignorance, the man in this situation would not know his own financial status, and thereby would not be swayed by morally arbitrary details about his personal finances when considering general principles of justice.
Now, to borrow Rawls’s example here, let us rephrase this thought experiment to consider issues related climate change. Similar arguments could be made about the original position regarding greenhouse gas emissions and anthropogenic climate change. In one iteration, the argument might go as follows: If a man knew that he was wealthy as a result of emitting greenhouse gases, he might find it rational to advance the principle that measures to mitigate emissions like carbon taxes be counted unjust; if he knew he was poor and would be negatively affected by the effects of climate change, he would most likely propose the contrary principle. In this version of Rawls’ example, the unequal distribution of the advantages and disadvantages of greenhouse gas emissions may lead to the formation of unjust principles. Therefore, when considering how to design principles of climate justice, it is important that those principles are analyzed from the original position of equality under the veil of ignorance.
In yet another version of a similar example, individuals are advantaged or disadvantaged based not on their social or financial position in society, but by their temporal position. In other words, the generation one is born into has implications for the distribution of advantages and disadvantages across time and generations. When considering the history of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, one could pose the dilemma as follows: If a man knew that he was born in a generation before the deleterious effects of climate change, he might find it rational to advance the principle that emissions mitigations measures be counted unjust; if he knew he was born in a future generation burdened by the costs and consequences of destructive climate change, he would most likely propose the contrary principle.
This last example explicitly deals with questions regarding intergenerational justice. How are advantages and disadvantages to be justly distributed among generations? If we consider historical fortune as morally arbitrary, is information regarding one’s temporal position also hidden under the veil of ignorance? If so, what principles of intergenerational justice might be agreed upon under the veil of ignorance?
Rawls foresees this problem and addresses it. He writes that persons can “favor their generation by refusing to make any sacrifices at all for their successor,” as is the case in the previous example, in which a man might choose to continue to emit greenhouse gases, despite the climatic consequences (Rawls 121). Therefore, the veil of ignorance, as Rawls has described it thus far, fails to address concerns about intergenerational justice. In order to accommodate for questions of intergenerational justice under the veil of ignorance, Rawls adds an extra stipulation that under the veil of ignorance, moral actors shall adopt principles that “they wish all preceding generations to have followed” (111). Therefore, since this extra stipulation requires that principles be based on a theoretical assumption of historical equality between generations, “no generation is able to formulate principles especially designed to advance its own cause” (121). As such, Rawls keeps the historical record closed to individuals under the veil of ignorance, so that questions of intergenerational justice can be considered from a temporally unbiased and theoretical position of equality. But how might this principle affect questions of intergenerational climate justice, in which the causes and consequences fall unequally across generations?
In chapter seven of their book Climate Change Justice, Eric Posner and David Weisbach discuss questions of intergenerational justice in specific relation to issues of climate change. They claim that the ethical dilemma of intergenerational justice in regards to climate change is a matter of balancing between “future benefits and present costs” (144: 2010). More specifically, Posner and Weisbach are interested in the question of how policymakers should weigh the future benefits of emissions reductions against the present costs of reductions policy. They claim that “discounting” the future damage of climate change means that actors “may be willing to spend only a very small amount today to prevent these serious harms in the future” (153). Should the concerns present generation be considered more pressing and important than the concerns of future generations? Should future effects of climate change, or efforts to mitigate it, be discounted? Does this mean that future generations will be discounted? How do we distribute the costs and burdens of related to climate change across generations?
The main problem with discounting, Posner and Weisbach point out, is that the cost and benefits of taking action to reduce the effects of climate change “come at different times” (Posner 146). By “different times,” what Posner and Weisbach are actually concerned about is that the costs will be borne by persons of different generations. To make the temporal aspect of Posner and Weisbach’s argument more clear, it is important to identify that we are talking specifically about different generations, since this is a discussion about the rights and duties of people, not abstract historical periods. If we interpret different “times” to signal different people of different generations, the issue of discounting suddenly becomes more familiar. For instead of considering how the costs and benefits of dealing with climate change will be distributed across “time,” we can now concretely consider how the costs and benefits will be distributed among people in different generations.
By framing the question in this way, it becomes clear how the issue of discounting across generations is closely analogous to the question of distributing costs and benefits across individuals in a society, except that with discounting, as Posner and Weisbach maintain, “the distribution is across time instead of space” (Posner, 145). They plainly state that the discounting problem is more familiar than it seems, since it represents “an intertemporal version of the distributive justice problem” (168). Following this line of argument, Posner and Weisbach critique discounting because they insist that people in current generations “should not be treated as more valuable” than those in future generations (144). Instead, they accept a principle of intergenerational neutrality by which the current generation is considered no more valuable than the next.
Let us now return to Rawls and discuss his arguments about intergenerational justice and see how they compare to Posner and Weisbach’s considerations of intergenerational justice. As established, Rawls maintains that under the veil of ignorance, individuals are not aware of their temporal position. Rawls asserts, “from a moral point of view there are no grounds for discounting the future well-being on the basis of pure time preference” (Rawls 253). With this consideration in mind, Rawls proclaims that generations “are not to subordinate to one another any more than individuals are” (257). This stipulation under Rawls’s veil of ignorance follows the exact same logic as Posner and Weisbach principle of intergenerational neutrality. In other words, under the veil of ignorance, the principle of intergenerational neutrality forecloses the opportunity for generations to formulate principles that give undue advantages or disadvantages based on climate change.
So then what justice is owed between generations? Using the difference principle, Rawls argues that the distribution in society should be arranged so as to have the greatest benefit to the least advantaged persons. In the same way that persons in this society are bound to each other by rights and responsibilities, Rawls argues that “persons in different generations” also have “duties and obligations to one another” (257). However, as Rawls points out, certain questions of intergenerational justice complicate the difference principle, since “there is no way for later generations to help the situation of the least fortunate earlier generation” (254). But because this is a natural limitation of time that is universal and unalterable, the question of justice does not arise in this case.
Where the question of justice does arise is as to how to insure that each generation “receives its due from its predecessors and does its fair share for those to come” (254). Therefore, in order to apply a temporal version of the difference principle, Rawls establishes the principle of just savings, by which each generation “makes a contribution to those coming later and receives from its predecessors” (254). As such, Rawls’s conception of the just savings principle is an intergenerational version of the difference principle that embodies “an understanding between generations to carry their fair share of the burden of realizing and preserving a just society” (257). Therefore, to ignore one’s obligation to other generations would be unjust. In terms of climate change, it would be unjust not to take action, because the choices made by current generations not to curb emissions are made in full knowledge of how those decisions would compromise the welfare of and place undue burdens on future generations. Therefore, Rawls’s principle of just savings and moral equality of generations formulated under the veil of ignorance are consistent with Posner and Weisbach’s principle of intergenerational neutrality, in that they both argue that generations are bound to each other by sets of rights and obligations.
Now let us take into consideration how Rawls’s just savings principle might guide questions regarding climate change and the duties of the current generation. Rawls charges current generations with the duty to set aside a “suitable amount of real capital accumulation” (252). But perhaps ‘capital’ is not the only resource that should be set aside for the benefit of future generations. Instead, I argue, in regards to climate change, a just savings principle would not only set aside financial capital for future generations, but also natural capital and emissions rights. By natural capital, I mean natural resources like clean water and forests, but also natural services like the nutrient and hydrological cycles, carbon sinks, and yes, even the earth’s climate and its capacity to absorb carbon dioxide. When considering how future generations might be disadvantaged by the inordinate greenhouse gas emitted by previous generations, current generations have a duty to set aside natural resources like the climate’s ability to absorb carbon, as well as carbon sinks, so that future generations are not unjustly denied equal opportunity to produce and emit greenhouse gases. Each generation has rights and duties when it comes to carbon emissions, and they must respect their obligations to other generations. By using Rawls’s principle of just savings, one could argue that the current generation is obligated to respect the rights of future generations to produce emissions and live in a world with a stable climate.
So what happens if certain generations ignore their obligations and impinge on the rights of other generations? Especially if, in the case of climate change, those countries responsible for the majority of historic greenhouse gas emissions, like England and the United States, have enjoyed great economic benefit from fossil-fuel-based development that is largely responsible for anthropogenic climate change. How should we consider the fact that they benefits they enjoy will place undue burdens on future generations?
Rawls’s conceptualization of “natural” or “native” endowments may be useful here in characterizing the normative question posed above regarding those who have historically benefited from the production of greenhouse gases that will place undue burdens on future generations in the form of global anthropogenic climate change. If one were rewarded or enjoyed benefits for something morally arbitrary factor “that has made their development possible,” and did so in a way that “[did] not contribute to the advantages of others,” Rawls would consider this this distribution an “unjust benefit” (89). It is unjust because this sort of distribution of benefits would not be selected under the hypothetical position of equality under the veil of ignorance. Rawls asserts that “we do not deserve our place in the distribution of native endowments, any more than we deserve our initial starting place in society” (89). In this way, Rawls might argue that industrialized nations do not deserve the economic and developmental benefits they have enjoyed as a result of historical climate-change-inducing emissions, because it has not contributed to the development of advantages for other countries.
But the nature of climate change is slightly different, because no matter how aggressively current generations cut back on emissions, the momentum and accompanying burdens of anthropogenic climate change will continue for at least another century. Therefore, based on scientific evidence, we can be certain that future generations will suffer from the effects of climate change as result of previous and contemporary emitters’ use of fossil-fuels. So climate change is not a neutral issue; the emission of greenhouse gases will lead to future harm in the form of destructive climate change. Posner and Weisbach argue that it is unjust if a generation “enriches itself while subjecting future generations to catastrophic harm” (154). The inevitability of the impending catastrophe of climate thus forces us to reconsider Rawls’s conceptualization of unjust benefits, since it is now an issue that involves not just distributive justice, but historical corrective justice.
In order to modify Rawls’s arguments about unjust benefits to accommodate the specific issue of historical greenhouse gas emissions, I will turn to Simon Caney’s article “Climate change and the duties of the advantaged.” Caney argues that those who have benefitted from historical emissions cannot claim that it is unjust to make them bear the costs and burdens of climate mitigation and adaptation, because the fact that their historical “behavior that causes the harm to others also brings them benefits . . . considerably changes the situation” (210). While it may be true that current generations cannot be held responsible for the emissions of their predecessors, Caney maintains that “the key point is that somewhere along the historical chain of events leading them to their own current holdings there have been climate injustices” (215). The historically-inherited benefits that current generations have received “because of the commission of injustices,” are therefore unjust benefits.
Using this conceptualization of unjust benefits, based on the intergenerational neutrality and just savings principles developed under the veil of ignorance from a theoretical perspective of equality, we now have a normative framework for addressing the Just Target and and Just Burden Questions raised earlier. Caney extends Rawls’s principles and arguments to develop normative principles of climate justice. Caney’s first principle directly addresses the issues of unjust benefits using a modified “polluter-pays principle,” which is itself based on a modified “strict-liability principle.” According to a strict liability principle, if a moral actor caused a problem, they are morally responsible to for the costs his actions placed on others. The polluter-pays principle applies this argument to climate change; those who are responsible for anthropogenic climate change should be obligated to make amends. In this way, the strict-liability / polluter-pays principle focuses on how to correct for past climate injustices.
However, there are several objections that can be raised to these principles. The first raises the question of if it is fair to hold people responsible for their emissions when they were “excusably ignorant” of the harmful climatic effects it would have. The other objection relates to the Just Target Question, since it raises the concern that policies to address climate change will place unfair costs on the duty-bearers. To address both of these concerns, Caney adopts a modified strict liability or poverty-sensitive polluter pays principle. Caney elucidates the principle thus:
If people engage in activities which jeopardize other people’s fundamental interest by emitting excessive amounts of greenhouse gases then (i) they should bear the costs of their actions even if they were excusably ignorant of the effects of their actions if they have benefited from those harmful activities and (ii) their costs should correspond to the benefits they have derived. (210)
Using this principle, Caney argues that those who are responsible for historical emissions (or have inherited advantages and, thus, responsibility) are obligated to pay. However, he includes two modified stipulations. The first has a double implication. It addresses the objection that people who were “excusably ignorant” of the deleterious effects of their emissions, since regardless of what they knew or not, the burdens will inevitably fall on future generations. Also past ignorance does not excuse current ignorance or the current failure to act on the knowledge of climate change. The other implication addresses the concern of people who might be forced to pay for their emissions, even if they didn’t actually receive any benefit from emitting.
Caney’s second stipulation addresses the concern that policies to address climate will be unjustly onerous for those who bear the burden of paying. By Caney’s principle, the costs will not be unduly onerous because they will directly “correspond” to the advantageous benefits they’ve inherited from the same behavior. More simply put, Caney argues that “persons should bear the burden of climate change that they have caused so long as doing so does not push them beneath a decent standard of living” (Caney 217: 2015). The combination of these two stipulations prevent situations in which the potential duty-bearer is obligated to pay large costs even if they only received minimal unjust benefits or gains. For example, during international conferences on climate change, the United States often complains that China emits more than the U.S. and therefore should be granted lower future emissions rights and should be forced to pay more costs associated with mitigation and adaptation policies. First, historically, the United States has produced more emissions than China. And while it is true that, as a nation, China currently emits more greenhouse gases than the United States, the per-capita rate of emissions in China is dramatically lower than that of the United States. As such, forcing China to bear greater costs for climate mitigation and adaptation policies might compromise the welfare of the disadvantaged people in China who, on average per person, emit far less carbon dioxide than the average American.
Therefore, according to Caney’s poverty-sensitive polluter-pays principle, obligating people to pay for the costs of their actions in a way that threatens their well-being and might leave them in poverty is unjust. By assuring that mitigation policies will be enacted to prevent people from suffering harmful climatic changes, and that the costs of those mitigations policies are not unfairly onerous to the duty-bearers, Caney’s poverty-sensitive polluter pays principle can be used as a normative guide to approach the Just Target Question of how to apportion the rights and duties of climate change mitigation.
To develop a normative framework for addressing the Just Burden Question of how the costs of addressing future climate change should be allocated among the duty-bearers, let us examine Caney’s second principle. While the previous principle is based on a modified strict-liability and polluter-pays principle, the second principle is based on a modified ‘ability to pay’ principle. While the poverty-sensitive polluter-pays principle focuses on the question of how we should correct for past climatic injustices and design climate mitigation policies, Caney’s second principle addresses how to deal with adapting to future climate change. The first principle focuses on the question of who did it. The second principle focuses on the question of who is most able to help.
The poverty-sensitive polluter-pays principle is based on a modified strict-liability principle that assigns obligations based on historical actions (in proportion to how much they benefited). However, the Just Burden Question is concerned about the costs of future actions to adaptation to climate change. Therefore, because of the future trajectory of the question, the principle Caney develops to address it does not assign obligations strictly based historical accounts of previous actions. Instead, it assigns and organizes duties and obligations based on people’s ability to pay. According to this principle, Caney argues, “the duties [adaptation to climate change] should be borne by the wealthy but we should distinguish between two groups— (i) those whose wealth came about in unjust ways, and (ii) those whose wealth did not come about in unjust ways—and we should apportion greater responsibility to (i) than to (ii)” (218).
Caney’s modified “history-sensitive, ability-to-pay principle” assigns obligations based on moral agent’s ability to pay (in proportion to how much their ability to pay is based on the accumulation of unjust benefits). Therefore, according to this principle, responsibility for climate adaptation should be assigned to the wealthy, whether or not they benefited from historical injustice like greenhouse gas emissions—but especially if they benefited from historical injustices.
I have examined several questions of distributive justice raised by climate change. By using Caney’s terminology, I organized these questions under the more general headings of the Just Target and Just Burden Questions. The Just Target Question asks how to balance and adjudicate between the rights-bearers and duty-bearers of climate change—how can we prevent people from being harmed from climate change in a way that doesn’t unfairly compromise other people’s just entitlements? The Just Burden Question asks how to distribute the costs of future climate adaptation among duty-bearers. Using Rawls’s theoretical device of the original position of hypothetical equality assumed under the veil of ignorance, I have examined and tested normative principles of distributive justice and how they might bear on issues of anthropogenic climate change. I explored Posner and Weisbach’s principle of intergenerational neutrality, and related it to Rawls’s stipulation that, under the veil of ignorance, people are unaware of their starting place and time in society. Then I applied the principle of intergenerational justice to Rawls’s just savings principle, and argued that generations are obligated to save not just financial, but natural capital (including resources as well as ecological and climatic services) to improve the advantages and wellbeing of future generations.
I then explored Rawls’s conceptualization of the accumulation of unjust benefits, and how this concept might apply to the behavior of industrialized developed nations that has benefitted them while externalizing costs across space and time. Upon establishing a normative framework for distributive justice and expanding it to include concerns raised by climate change, I then introduced Caney’s two principles of climate justice, and addressed certain objections to these principles. I argue that the “poverty-sensitive polluter-pays” and “history-sensitive ability to pay” principles are just principles for dealing with issues of climate change, that would be accepted and formulated in the original position under the veil of ignorance. By using the veil of ignorance as a theoretical device to determine whether these principles would be chosen in a situation of fairness and equality, it is my contention that the “poverty-sensitive polluter pays” and “history-sensitive ability to pay” principles can provide normative wisdom for dealing with the distributive justice of climate change and that has the potential to bring about a more just and sustainable world.
Caney, Simon. “Climate change and the duties of the advantaged.” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, vol. 13, no. 1, 2010, pp. 203-228.
Caney, Simon. “Distributive Justice and Climate Change.” Edited by Serena Olsaretti, Oxford Handbook of Distributive Justice. Oxford University Press, (forthcoming), pp. 1-34.
Crutzen, Paul J. “The Anthropocene.” Chapter 3 in Earth System Science in the Anthropocene. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2006, pp. 13-18.
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Posner, Eric A., Weisbach, David. “Future Generations: The Debate over Discounting.” Chapter 7 in Climate Change Justice. Princeton University Press, 2010, pp. 144-168.
Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Revised ed., Belknap Press, 1999.