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Unavoided impacts raise many questions of justice. Prominent among these is the controversy surrounding past emissions. This dispute cuts across the so-called “ethics” and “policy” camps. Notably, the view that corrective justice should be applied to climate change is a minority position in climate ethics: most maintain that responsibility for past emissions is limited to post-1990 emissions, and for similar reasons to the Chicago lawyers. Still, I do not mind defending “corrective justice,” since this is one place where I disagree with the majority.

Three Presumptive Arguments

I will focus on three kinds of ethical argument. The first appeals to causal principles of moral responsibility, invoking commonsense ideals such as “you broke it, you fix it” and “clean up your own mess.” The core idea is that, other things being equal, those who are causally responsible for creating a problem have an obligation to rectify it, and also assume additional liabilities, such as for compensation, if the problem imposes costs or harms on others. Such principles are familiar in general, and prominent in international environmental law where (among other things) they form the basis of various “polluter pays” principles.

Another kind of argument appeals to fair access. Suppose that environmental services, such as the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gases without adverse effects, are limited resources that should be shared or held in common. Given this, and other things being equal, if some agents use up the resource, and in doing so deny others access to it, then compensation is owed because the latecomers have been deprived of their fair share. This “appropriator pays” approach has similarities to polluter pays. However, there are also potential differences (e.g., “polluter pays” often suggests that at the heart of the matter is a further and independently identifiable cost or harm—a “pollution”).

A third kind of argument for the relevance of past emissions rests on the net benefits of establishing a general practice of liability. For instance, such a practice often makes potential polluters more careful about their activities, and so reduces unnecessary costs. This may be so even if occasionally some polluters are held responsible in ways that violate other ethical desiderata (such as perfect fairness).

Sometimes the importance of the benefits outweighs the ethical violations (e.g., if the violations are much less serious, or can be dealt with in another way).

These three kinds of argument each provide a strong prima facie reason for regarding past emissions as relevant to future climate policy. Although none establishes that past emissions are the only or decisive consideration, each constitutes a significant presumption in favor taking them seriously. Moreover, they are in principle compatible and potentially mutually reinforcing, so that one need not necessarily pick between them. Again, there is potential for an overlapping (perhaps rough) consensus. In my view, the main objections to taking past emissions seriously begin by acknowledging this presumption, but then aim to rebut it.

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