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Outsourcing Justice

Presumably, the Chicago lawyers do not intend to condone extortion. Still it is unclear how they propose to avoid it. This is partly because in their writings the threat is obscured by three factors. First, they do not straightforwardly declare who should pay off the big emitters in the kind of ambitious treaty they claim to favor. This results in a (strategically helpful?) ambiguity: while the basic logic of International Paretianism implies the most vulnerable should pay (as the quotations attest), the background appeal to global welfare leaves room to argue that other rich nations ought to “compensate” the United States and China for altruistic or ethical reasons, in order to promote a more robust climate policy.

The latter approach is, of course, more morally appealing than extorting the most vulnerable. Yet, since it involves a major concession to ethics, it is not clear that Posner and Weisbach in particular can endorse it. One reason is that they explicitly claim that the zone available for ethics likely covers “only a small portion of the surplus,” implying that International Paretianism is a tight constraint and the realm for “polluted pay” large. A second reason is that, if welfarism must come to the rescue anyway, Posner and Weisbach would have to explain why it cannot be invoked more directly—to imply that the big emitters ought to take on the burden of the shortfall themselves, and give up any thoughts of being “compensated” by anyone. A third reason is that economic realists would have to explain why they believe that the idea of the big emitters (e.g., China, the United States) being paid off by their ethically motivated geopolitical rivals (e.g., Russia? Japan? Europe?) is more politically feasible than a triumph of ethical motivation within the big emitters themselves.

The second obscuring factor is that the policy focus of the Chicago lawyers is heavily on rapidly emerging economic powerhouses (e.g., China, India, and Brazil). By contrast, the most vulnerable countries (e.g., Bangladesh, Haiti, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Nepal, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Afghanistan) are barely mentioned, so that their plight under “polluted pay” remains largely hidden. Unfortunately, in a perfect moral storm neglect of their (very different) perspectives is sadly predictable (see also section 3.2a).

The third, and perhaps most important obscuring factor, is that the Chicago lawyers attempt to blunt distributive criticisms of their climate policy by endorsing a “two-track” approach: climate should be dealt with by one treaty, and distributive matters by another, “foreign aid,” treaty. This approach, they suggest, will lead to the most efficient pursuit of global welfare.

Unfortunately, the two-track approach has a credibility problem. First, the basic idea seems far-fetched. Why suppose that the most powerful nations, having resisted climate justice (and instead demanded an unjust climate deal) will then turn around and endorse a robust global welfare treaty? Why is this suddenly politically “feasible”?

Second, the approach may actually make benefiting the poor more difficult by changing the relevant baseline. Consider a simplistic illustration. Suppose the United States starts with one hundred resources and Haiti ten. If fifteen is the minimum threshold for decent social wellbeing, the US should (morally) give Haiti five in aid (5% of its resources). However, if Haiti first gives the US five to act on climate, the United States has 105 and Haiti five, and the United States must now supply ten in aid (9.1% of its new resources). Presumably, since the United States must sacrifice more (both relatively and in absolute terms) from its new position, the (alleged) self-interest constraint bites harder, making decency harder to achieve.

Third, the two-track approach encourages worries of a “bait and switch.” Perhaps it is easy to persuade the affluent that dealing with poverty is more important than climate when they have no intention of doing much about either. If so, the “foregone” opportunity of “more efficient” poverty reduction is spurious, except to facilitate moral corruption. Consider, for example, the worrying equating of the “poverty track” with foreign aid. At 0.2% of gross national income, current US aid is far below the level recommended by the United Nations (0.7%), and less than many other countries (e.g., Sweden and Norway at 1%). It is also frequently targeted at strategic objectives rather than those most in need (e.g., in 2012, the biggest recipients were Afghanistan and Israel). Given this, outsourcing climate justice to a hypothetical foreign aid agreement is likely to extinguish it as a serious policy objective. Consequently, even Peter Singer, arguably the world’s most serious advocate for assisting the poor, suggests that climate action may be the best available strategy, even if it is second-best overall.7

In conclusion, the presumptions against the Chicago approach are strong. In principle, it supports an extortionate approach to climate policy; in practice, the apparent remedy—outsourcing ethics to a global welfare treaty— seems dangerously naive.

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