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Each of the major philosophical arguments about the proper shape of climate policy suffers from basic flaws. Some suffer from idiosyncratic, internal logical problems but the focus here has been on systematic problems common to all of the arguments. By thinking of the problem as part of the “ethics of climate change,” people ignore the fact that climate change policy is just part of a web of policies, including policies to help the poor and policies concerning ownership of resources. They operate with climate change blinders. Removing these blinders shows that the recommendations from climate ethics do not follow from the arguments.

Moreover, the arguments tend to produce conclusions that are not within the realm of feasibility. It is sometimes good for ethical arguments to be aspirational, to ask us to stretch beyond what we think we can do. But suggestions that will simply never happen are not helpful, particularly when we face an immediate global threat.


1. Gardiner’s list of the theories of justice that are most applicable to climate change is made up of procedural justice, distributive justice, and corrective justice. See Gardiner, “Climate Justice,” in The Oxford Handbook of Climate Justice and Society, eds. John S. Dryzek, Richard B. Norgaard, and David

Schlosberg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 310. I do not discuss procedural justice and separate equality from distributive justice. Gardiner refers to theories of equality separately on p. 315.

  • 2. Much of the material in this chapter is taken from Posner and Weisbach, Climate Change Justice (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).
  • 3. For a brief overview of this vast subject, see Julian Lamont

and Christi Favor, “Distributive Justice,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, Stanford, CA: 2008,


  • 4. Henry Shue, “Subsistence Emissions and Luxury Emissions,” Law & Policy 15, no. 1 (1993): 39-59. Shue unfortunately injects concerns about animal cruelty via feedlots into the discussion, arguably confounding the appeal of the pure distributive argument with the appeal of concerns about the treatment of animals.
  • 5. Paul G. Harris, World Ethics and Climate Change: From International to Global Justice, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 131-132.
  • 6. Stephen M. Gardiner, A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 314-315.
  • 7. For other examples of claims from distributive justice see Henry Shue, “Global Environment and International Inequality,” International Affairs 75, no. 3 (1999): 537-540; Peter Singer, One World: The Ethics of Globalization (New Haven: Yale University Press: 2002); Garvey, The Ethics of Climate Change, 81-83.
  • 8. Garvey, The Ethics of Climate Change. London: Continuum, 2008, 871-882.
  • 9. An additional requirement for applying any theory of justice to climate change is some form of cosmopolitanism. We have to believe that people who live in one nation owe duties to people who live in other nations, or perhaps nations owe duties to other nations or to people in other nations. While this view is contested, I will take it as correct.
  • 10. For example, the Millennium Challenge Corporation has very specific governance requirements for nations to qualify for aid in order to ensure that the money is well spent. See Curt Tarnoff, “Millennium Challenge Corporation,” CRS Report for Congress (Washington DC: Congressional Research Service, 2015), RL32427.pdf.
  • 11. Shue, “Global Environment and International Inequality,” 537.
  • 12. Mathias Frisch, “Climate Change Justice,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 40, no. 3 (2012): 230-231.
  • 13. Darrell Moellendorf, “Climate Change and Global Justice,” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 3, no. 2 (2012): 131-138.
  • 14. Gardiner, Stephen M. “Ethics and Global Climate Change.” Ethics 114, no. 3 (2004): 579. This statement comes at the beginning of a section of his paper on responsibility for past emissions but it not clear whether Gardiner believes the statement to be supported only by a theory of responsibility or whether the consensus view is supported more generally, including by theories of distributive justice. In the next paragraph he notes a lack of consensus on backward-looking considerations, which is the core issue of responsibility.
  • 15. Gardiner, “Climate Justice,” 314.
  • 16. Singer, One World: The Ethics of Globalization, 33-34.
  • 17. See Steve Vanderheiden, Atmospheric Justice, A Political Theory of Climate Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); Garvey, The Ethics of Climate Change; Harris, World Ethics and Climate Change, From International to Global Justice; Stephen M. Gardiner, et al., Climate Ethics: Essential Reading (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Eric Neumayer, “In Defence of Historical Accountability for Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” Ecological Economics 33, no. 2 (2000): 185-192.
  • 18. Shue, “Global Environment and International Inequality,” 533-537.
  • 19. Gardiner, “Ethics and Global Climate Change,” 583.
  • 20. Posner and Weisbach, Climate Change Justice, 99-118.
  • 21. See Stephen M. Gardiner, A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 418.
  • 22. For example, Simon Caney, “Cosmopolitan Justice, Responsibility, and Global Climate Change,” Leiden Journal of International Law 18, no. 4 (2005): 747-775 (see p. 757: the beneficiary pays principle “is not a revision of the ‘polluter pays’ approach, it is an abandonment of it.”)
  • 23. Singer, One World: The Ethics of Globalization.
  • 24. Ibid.
  • 25. Gardiner, “Ethics and Global Climate Change,” 582.
  • 26. Singer, One World: The Ethics of Globalization.
  • 27. I use the data from Michel den Elzen, et al., “Countries’ Contributions to Climate Change,” Climatic Change 121, no. 2 (November 1, 2013): 397-412, available for download at to-climate-change. The numbers were computed by taking the difference between cumulative emissions for a country divided by the total number of lives in that country during the time period and cumulative global emissions divided by total lives during the same time period. This gives the excess per person emissions. This amount was multiplied by the total lives in the country and by the carbon price. Calculations are available from the author. The carbon price is not adjusted for time. The reason is that the carbon price should increase over time at roughly a constant rate. This means that the price in a prior year should be the current price discounted by that constant rate. But the amount would have been owed in that prior year so the amount owed today is the future value of that amount. Taking discounted values and future values at the same rate offsets, we can simply use the current price and add up the total amounts.
  • 28. Shue, Climate Justice, 4; Gardiner, A Perfect Moral Storm, 419.
  • 29. Paul Baer, “Equity, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, and Global Common Resources,” in Climate Change Policy: A Survey, ed. Stephen Schneider (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2002), 393-408. Note that Baer no longer advocates for equal per capita rights. See also Paul Baer, et al., “Greenhouse Development Rights: A Proposal for a Fair Global Climate

Treaty,” Ethics, Place & Environment 12, no. 3 (2009): 267-281; Paul Baer, “The Greenhouse Development Rights Framework for Global Burden Sharing: Reflection on Principles and Prospects,” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 4, no. 1 (2013): 61-71.

  • 30. Paul Baer, et al., “Equity and Greenhouse Gas Responsibility,” Science 289, no. 5488 (2000): 2287.
  • 31. Michael Grubb, “The Greenhouse Effect: Negotiating Targets,” International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs) 66, no. 1 (1990): 67. Support in the philosophical literature includes Gardiner, et al., Climate Ethics, Essential Reading, 271-272; Sven Bode, “Equal Emissions per Capita over Time—a Proposal to Combine Responsibility and Equity of Rights for Post-2012 GHG Emission Entitlement Allocation,” European Environment 14, no. 5 (2004): 300316; Singer, One World: The Ethics of Globalization.
  • 32. For example, as noted, Paul Baer, a prominent proponent of equal per capita rights, has since abandoned the approach. Gardiner rejects the approach for the reasons similar to those discussed in the text. See Gardiner, A Perfect Moral Storm, 422-423; Simon Caney, “Climate Change, Energy Rights and Equality,” in The Ethics of Climate Change, ed. Denis Arnold (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 10. Moellendorf, “Climate Change and Global Justice,” 138-139.
  • 33. Amartya Sen, Inequality Reexamined (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992).
  • 34. Peter Westen, “The Empty Idea of Equality,” Harvard Law Review 95, no. 3 (1982): 537-596.
  • 35. Gardiner, A Perfect Moral Storm, 422.
  • 36. Ibid., 423.
  • 37. A global cap-and-trade system would generate emissions reductions, so the numbers would not exactly reflect what would happen but the reductions would very likely be modest in the short run. So this calculation gives a reasonable estimate of the transfers that would occur in the early years of such a program.
  • 38. I used data from the World Resources Institute database, available at Accessed February 27, 2014.
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