C. POLITICALLY UNMANAGEABLE TRANSFERS

The third argument against allocative justice is that it would involve a “redistribution” or “transfer of wealth” of billions of dollars to the less developed nations. Here there are significant framing issues.

First, from the point of view of justice, the language of “redistribution” and “transfers” is prejudicial. It implies that the baseline against which the distributive implications of a climate treaty are to be assessed is the rich countries’ current income and wealth, based in a carbon economy, together with their expectations that this pattern will continue in the same way moving forward. Yet the rich are not entitled to this future trajectory. Thinking this way embeds a bad baseline, and ignores the role of justice in establishing a new one. Consider, for instance, that we would not describe the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade as a mere “redistribution,” nor are we paralyzed by the thought that it involved large “transfers” of wealth from the slave traders to the slaves. Similarly, no one would object to breaking up of an extortion racket because it involves a “transfer of wealth” away from the Mafia.

Second, it makes a great difference whether one frames costs in absolute or relative terms. In absolute terms, billions of dollars sounds like a lot; but against the backdrop of the global economy, it may not seem so salient, especially given the alternative. As Schelling once noted about the (much larger) costs of combating climate change:

The costs in reduced productivity are estimated at two percent of GNP forever. Two percent of GNP seems politically unmanageable in many countries. Still, if one plots the curve of US per capita GNP over the coming century with and without the two percent permanent loss, the difference is about the thickness of a line drawn with a number two pencil, and the doubled per capita income that would have been achieved by 2060 is reached in 2062. If someone could wave a wand and phase in, over a few years, a climate-mitigation program that depressed our GNP by two percent in perpetuity, no one would notice the difference.25

More pragmatically, there may be ways to make the difference seem even less salient. For instance, many changes that powerful countries could make in the name of climate justice would likely result in net gains for all parties over the longer term. For example, they could amend trade rules that discriminate against poorer countries, or roll back heavy domestic subsidies to agriculture that effectively deny those countries access to major markets. Since such justice-led “redistribution” proposals would be in keeping with the spirit of “International Paretianism,” I suggest they are a better focus for economic realist views than “polluted pay (and polluters get paid).”

Finally, even if there must be some explicit transfers, we should not forget that the world does not stand still: life moves on and new distributions emerge. Carbon taxes or tradeable permits, for example, would provide strong incentives for those initially spending a lot on carbon to find better ways to run their affairs. Some may welcome this, for ethical and other reasons.

 
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