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Resource Isolationism

A final objection returns us to the issue of isolation. Even if past injustice is relevant, isn’t it arbitrary to single out carbon emissions from other global resources (e.g., land, oil, coal, uranium, gold, diamonds), and from the general legacy of international wrongdoing (e.g., the slave trade, colonialism)?39 Simon Caney, for instance, vigorously objects to the “method of isolation,” insisting that “someone who is committed to equality of commonly held natural resources should embrace a principle granting everyone an equal share of the total value of all these global resources combined.”40

I agree that in some ways this is a serious challenge. It affects not only ideal theory, but also some forms of the ethics of the transition. One way to respond would be to embrace an all-inclusive approach. For example, cosmopolitan individualists often propose solutions to the general resource problem (such as a global tax on natural resources, or a global resources dividend) that might form part of an ethics of the transition.41 Whether a more isolationist approach is a better strategy remains an open question.

Still, there are grounds for treating climate separately. First, pragmatically, the current state system explicitly regards a large number of these resource justice questions (e.g., oil, gold) as largely settled, and because of the principle of territorial rights. However, the atmosphere is not like this. It is no one’s territory, and until recently people assumed that its capacity to absorb greenhouse gases was unlimited and so raised no issues of fairness in distribution (“free for all”). Unlike the other “resources,” then, what to say about this one—as a matter of international law and politics—is very much up for grabs. Moreover, what is said has major implications for other global “resources” as human impact grows.

Second, treating climate differently may make theoretical sense. Specifically, I suspect that it is a mistake to view the atmosphere as a “resource” at all, and especially a resource for “dumping things into.” For instance, a better way to look at our natural environment might be as a background condition against which we live and other things can count as resources. If so, the atmosphere is not really akin to gold or oil. Its role is deeper. One aspect, of course, is basic life support; but there are others, including serving as part of the fabric of the place where we live, and which partly determines who we are and what we can do.

Such thoughts might serve as the seeds of a more robust philosophical position in climate ethics. For instance, they may explain part of the extortion claim: why holding the climate hostage is not just a matter of bare resources, or mere money. This is not the place to fully develop such an ethics.42 Still, I will pursue the issue just a little, to motivate an anti-extortion approach. To do so, let us turn to the trajectory question.

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