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Some claim that issues of ethics, justice, and fairness are inevitable in a climate treaty because poor or low-polluting nations will not accept a treaty that treats them unfairly.21 Poor nations have argued that they should be compensated for past use of the atmosphere by rich nations, that they have a right to use fossil fuels to develop, and that rich nations should shoulder most of the burden of emissions reductions because they are rich. Because poor nations will demand a just treaty and because we cannot limit climate change without the participation of poor nations, issues of justice are, some argue, unavoidable.

The problem with this argument is that it is not the same as an argument that a theory of justice should apply to determine the shape of a climate treaty. Consider the contrast:

Theory of justice applies: There is a theory of justice that determines what nations should do to reduce emissions.

Nations are obligated to consult this theory to determine what to do.

Nations bargain based on perceived notions of fairness: A set of nations bargains for a treaty outcome based on a demand for fair treatment. Other nations may reject this view of fairness and bargain based on other grounds. A treaty is reached on common ground.

The two cases are not the same. In the first case, a theory of justice tells people or nations how they ought to behave. We could read philosophical treatises to determine what we must do. In the second case, nations are simply bargaining based on what they want to get out of the treaty. We could substitute just about any other view about what is desirable in a climate treaty in place of fairness and nothing would change in the second case but the first case would be completely gutted. For example suppose that some nations bargain based on racial hatred, long-simmering resentments about past wrongs, aggressive territorial expansion, or religiously inspired altruism toward the future. If we think this sort of bargaining is inevitable, we would conclude that climate change is a racial-hatred-related or religious or some other kind of problem. Nations might be inspired by patriotic music and bargain harder because of this inspiration. Climate change would then be a musical problem.

It strikes me that this is not what people mean when they say that climate change is an ethics problem. Instead, they mean it in the first sense given above: that there is a set of ethical views that determines what obligations nations have to reduce emissions. Simply because some nations might demand what they view as fair treatment does not convert the problem into an ethics problem.

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