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Feasibility arguments are a slim reed on which to base corrective justice claims. Even a cursory examination of the feasibility of compensation in the climate context shows that it is as unrealistic as asking for compensation for the unequal allocation of oil, diamonds, rare minerals, forests and most other resources.

A back of the envelope calculation shows the problem. We want to estimate the payments that would be due under a corrective justice theory. Suppose that each nation has an obligation to make a payment or has the right to receive a payment based on any difference for any year between its per capita emissions and the global average per capita emissions during that year. The payment would be the excess use multiplied by a price per ton of CO2, and the receipt would be the opposite. For example, if the global average of emissions in a year is one ton per person, and a nation emitted 1.5 tons per person, the nation would owe compensation based on the excess half ton per person, multiplied by the number of people living there and the price per ton. If a nation had emissions lower than the global average it would similarly have a right to receive compensation. We would do this for each nation and each year to arrive at a total amount.

If we perform this calculation going back to 1850 and if the price of CO2 is $35/ton (which is the price currently used in the United States when making climate change policy), the United States would owe just under $12.4 trillion (that’s $12,400,000,000,000).27 The United States currently gives about $20 billion in foreign aid, so it would have to agree to pay more than six hundred years of foreign aid as part of the proposed climate treaty.

The numbers are similarly daunting for other nations. The EU would owe $4.2 trillion. India would have a right to receive $10.8 trillion and China would have a right to receive $9.9 trillion. Brazil would owe $1.6 trillion because of its massive deforestation. Russia would owe $3.4 trillion. Transfers of this size are not likely now, or ever. Feasibility cannot distinguish the climate from many other unevenly shared resources.

The response might be that poor nations will not agree to a climate treaty unless it is fair, so in fact feasibility concerns cut the other way: only a treaty that addresses the prior unjust use of the atmosphere is feasible.28 Crudely, India could say that it will not agree to a climate treaty unless it receives the payment of the $10.8 trillion that is owed.

This possibility is borne out in what are known as ultimatum games. In these games, one person is given an amount of money, say $10. He can keep as much as he likes and give the rest to a second person. The second person has the choice of accepting the money or refusing it. If the second person refuses it, nobody gets anything. From a purely rational standpoint, the second person is better off even if he only gets one penny and the first person keeps $9.99. He ought to accept any amount other than zero because he will get something rather than nothing. What actually happens is that the second person most often rejects the offer unless the split is reasonably fair. Poor nations may similarly reject a climate treaty that is otherwise in their interest if they do not perceive it to be fair.

If this is the case, then we are in a very bad spot because payments of the sort demanded by corrective justice are not going to be forthcoming. Rich nations will not agree to payments of this magnitude, particularly if the reason is that poor nations are demanding the payment to agree to a climate treaty that is otherwise in their own interest. The resulting stand-off would mean that emissions go uncontrolled, hurting everyone. Poor nations would suffer from climate change and will not get the payments they hope for.

I am hopeful that this will not come to pass. Nations are made better off by reducing emissions. Poor nations, those most likely to receive corrective justice payments, may in particular stand to benefit from global emissions reductions. If these nations make demands for additional payments that prevent the world from reaching a climate treaty, they hurt themselves more than they hurt others.

To recap, the internal logic of the corrective justice claim only holds together on feasibility grounds. This is the only way to distinguish the atmosphere from other resources, as commentators such as Peter Singer recognize. If a treaty based on corrective justice is not feasible, the theory fails. But such a treaty is not remotely feasible.

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