A genuinely green generation would practice neither global nor intergenerational extortion. Moreover, ethical concepts such as respect, fairness, and rights—concepts strongly related to the more general notion of justice—seem central to avoiding them. The relevance of justice is unsurprising. Though only one part of ethics, it is often exalted as “the first virtue of social institutions,” where this implies that unjust institutions ought not to be tolerated except to avoid greater injustice.11 Furthermore, even those who doubt that it deserves quite such preeminence (e.g., indirect utilitarians), usually agree that justice remains a central concern.
The Burden Claim
Given this, can we move beyond clear violations, to claims likely to be the subject of an overlapping consensus? As a rough heuristic, let us assume that the basic questions of climate policy are: where to set a global ceiling on emissions, understood as a long-term trajectory consisting of a set of constraints at particular times (“the trajectory question”); how to distribute the emissions allowed under that ceiling at a particular time (“the allocation question”); and what to do about unavoided impacts (the “impacts question”). Of these, the allocation question has received by far the most attention so far from writers on justice. Although many proposals have been made, there seems to be a broad ethical consensus that richer, more developed countries should shoulder most of the burden of action, at least initially (“the burden claim”). Moreover, there is the sense that the agreements between rival views here are more politically important than their disagreements, because (it is assumed) almost any ethically-guided policy will take us in the same general direction (“the convergence claim”).
The basic grounds for these claims are readily apparent. Following Peter Singer, we might say that, at least at first glance, mainstream views of fairness all appear to support the consensus that developed countries should take the lead.12 First, historical theories do so because the more developed countries are responsible for the majority of cumulative emissions. For instance, from 1890-2007, the United States accounted for 28% of emissions; the E.U., 23%; Russia, 11%; China, 9%; and India, 3%.13
Second, theories sympathetic to basic moral equality between persons support the burden claim because the developed countries produce many more emissions per capita than developing countries. For example, in 2010 average global emissions were 4.9 metric tons of carbon dioxide per capita. However, the United States average stood at 17.6, the U.K. at 7.6, China at 6.2, India at 1.7, Bangladesh at 0.4, and Haiti at 0.2.14,15
Third, theories that prioritize the interests of the least well off endorse the consensus because developing countries are generally much poorer than developed countries. In 2013, average per capita income in the United States was $53,101, in the United Kingdom $37,307, in China $9,844, in India $4,077, Bangladesh $2,080, and Haiti $1,710.16 Moreover, averages conceal some of the worst problems. For instance, in 2010, “21% of people in the developing world lived at or below $1.25 a day [the extreme poverty level]” unable to meet their basic needs. This translates to 1.22 billion people, more than 15% of the world population.17
Finally, utilitarian theories appear to support the consensus because taking the previous considerations seriously seems likely to promote happiness. For example, Singer18 argues that “polluter pays” (as opposed to “polluted pay”) principles help to internalize incentives, that principles of equality help to reduce conflict, and that resources produce more well-being in the hands of those with little.19