Whatever justice may positively require, it does not permit that poor nations be told to sell their blankets in order that the rich nations may keep their jewellery. —Henry Shue, 1992
On June 11, 2001, President George W. Bush refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty on climate change. Standing against lavish greenery and an American flag, he announced that the United States wouldn’t be part of a policy that wasn’t based on “global cooperation.” He was crying unfairness: China and India, major (but poorer) polluters, were exempt from Kyoto, and he objected to the U.S. having to take on burdens if they didn’t.
His decision was politically expedient; it was also morally wrong.
We have seen what climate injustice looks like: Human rights are undermined, the prospects of future generations are erased. People of color, women, Indigenous communities, and other species pay a terrible price for a way of life from which a rich elite reap the benefits.
But what would climate justice look like?
What Justice Doesn’t Look Like
Let’s begin with some ideas that might masquerade as climate justice, but aren’t.
Justice doesn’t mean allowing those who have historically produced the most greenhouse gas emissions to carry on emitting the most. (Yes, this is an actual proposal. It’s called “grandfathering”: a term borrowed from policies denying the vote to African Americans at the turn of the 20th century.) Allowances should sometimes be made for those hooked on a particular resource: If, perhaps, a person’s actions aren’t actively harming others, or he became reliant against his will. But this doesn’t apply to high-emitting states and corporations who have raked in profits from destroying lives, and who have known for decades what they are doing.
As for affluent individuals, of course anyone living a luxury lifestyle on the back of fossil fuels has an interest in not giving that up (although perhaps not as big an interest as they might think). But that doesn’t compete with others’ basic rights. It’s inconvenient to give up two holidays a year in the sun, but it’s a lot more inconvenient to drown, or burn, or starve to death.
Another proposal is this. Everyone gets an equal share of any greenhouse gases that can still be emitted while avoiding “dangerous” climate change. (In other words, a share of not very much. At the start of 2018, the global “carbon budget” was less than 580 billion tonnes, and that, according to the IPCC, still only gives us an even chance of capping global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius.) Alternatively, everyone gets an equal share of what’s known as “ecological space.” This includes your total use of natural resources: those you consume directly, and those used or destroyed in the process.
This is less unjust than grandfathering. It’s even a step in the right direction, since it would mean huge emissions cuts by the rich. But it’s still flawed. It doesn’t allow for the vast historical differences in emissions patterns, the harm done and benefits reaped through climate change. Proposing this as “fair” now is like a group of kids stealing half the sweets in the class jar, using the extra energy to win every race on sports day, then insisting that the remainder be shared equally between them all.
Mitigation, Adaptation, Compensation
Climate change does terrible damage: to today’s children and their descendants; to millions of already vulnerable people, the world over. Climate justice requires preventing that harm, making up for it as far as possible. That takes mitigation, adaptation, and compensation.
Mitigation means curbing global temperature rises. It means cutting greenhouse gases. A wholesale shift to plant-based eating, or away from flying, is part of mitigation. Transforming domestic heating from gas to heat pumps, powered by renewables, is part of mitigation. Leaving fossil fuels in the ground is essential. Mitigation can also mean removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Carbon capture and storage is mitigation. Reforestation is mitigation.
But mitigation, now, won’t be enough to protect human lives (never mind non-human ones). The IPCC is clear on this. Any global warming can damage human health. From 1.5 degrees Celsius, temperature extremes increase, droughts worsen, floods and tropical cyclones are more likely. By 2019, global temperatures were already up by just over 1 degree Celsius, exacerbating poverty, increasing disadvantage.
We need to adapt. Adaptation means adjusting systems and institutions to protect lives and livelihoods from climate change. It includes insurance and education, adjusting infrastructure, finding ways to produce food using salt water, developing early-warning technologies for extreme weather. Adaptation is floodwalls in New York, water management in Durban, a floating farm in Rotterdam, crop management in India, cyclone shelters in Bangladesh. It’s a heatwave response plan in Sydney, flood defenses in Edinburgh. Just adaptation is—or should be—about prioritizing vulnerable communities.
Adaptation, too, can only go so far. Take the IPCC again. With 2 degrees Celsius of warming, there is a “very high” risk of heat deaths in Asia—and “medium” risks across categories and regions—even with adaptation. With 4 degrees Celsius, it’s a lot worse. Even if societies try to adapt, people will still get sick. They’ll suffer from extreme heat, damage to infrastructure, water and food shortages, and flooding.
Then there’s compensation, for loss and damage, and other harms. A last resort, but a morally necessary one. Where the harm is done, compensation tries to make up for that in some other way, often financial. If mitigation is not pushing someone off a bridge and adaptation is building a safety rail so he won’t fall if you try, compensation is buying him a wheelchair when you’ve broken his back. For small island states, even 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming will push the limits of adaptation. If those citizens lose their homelands, their whole way of life, the loss can never be erased.
Some economists reject mitigation. They don’t deny the grim toll of climate change on human lives, but they put it into the cost–benefit grinder and claim the economic risks of mitigation outweigh it. It is better, they think, not to take on the costs of preventing climate change, but to leave future generations to adapt to a hotter world. They’ll be richer than us, the argument goes, so they can afford it.
There are various problems with this argument, but let’s cut to the moral core. It’s implicitly utilitarian, which means it’s driven by overall welfare. It assumes that doing good to some people (including economic good) can outweigh doing harm (even very bad harm) to others. That’s incompatible with the moral baseline we started with. Seriously harming other people is just plain wrong. What matters is decent lives, not growth at all costs.
The argument also relies on discounting: valuing future gains or losses less than present ones. And, as the philosopher Simon Caney points out, this isn’t just about standard economic discounting. It’s about what’s called the “pure time preference”: the idea that the further in the future people live, the less moral value they have. In other words, to make anti-mitigation sums add up, it must matter less if human rights are violated in 100 years than if they are tomorrow, in 500 years rather than in 100. Go far enough in the future, and they will barely matter at all. This seems very wrong. The philosopher Henry Shue gives an example about planting landmines on a popular tourist trail. Whether they’ll go off in 100 or 1,000 years, it’s still abhorrent.
Caney thinks this “moral” discount rate should be zero, but sums come out in favor of mitigation even if it’s positive, but very low.
We can start, then, with this. Climate justice requires mitigation, adaptation, and compensation. But huge issues remain. For one thing, it’s crucial to separate the following questions: who mitigates climate change, who adapts to it, who is compensated, and who pays for all this? For another, it matters, crucially, how we do it.
This excerpt from What Climate Justice Means And Why We Should Care by Elizabeth Cripps appears with permission of the author and publisher. © Elizabeth Cripps, April 12, 2022, Bloomsbury Continuum, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
Elizabeth Cripps is a senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and the author of Climate Change and the Moral Agent. A moral philosopher with a focus on climate ethics and justice, she has written for Scotland’s The Herald and been interviewed on Radio 4. As a former journalist, she worked for the Financial Times group and freelanced for The Guardian.