The fourth objection to allocative justice, and the one most emphasized by the Chicago lawyers, is “climate change blinders”: wanting “each individual policy to achieve distributive goals rather than achieve redistribution through the overall set of policies.”26 This objection is more difficult to assess, partly because there are several versions.
One version of the blinders objection rests on a narrow interpretation of “distributive justice,” as concerned solely with improving the global allocation of resources as such independent of climate change, or reflecting the idea that “rich nations have a special obligation to deal with climate change ... simply because they are rich.”27
The first problem with the narrow interpretation is that though some (especially “welfarist”) accounts of climate justice take this form, many do not. Most notably, many justice theorists believe that the true rationale for, and objective of, distributive justice is respect for persons. Economic realists sometimes marginalize this point of view, saying that in the end climate policy is merely about money. However, this is deeply contentious. Imagine, for example, a paradigm extortionist (e.g., a Mafia kidnapper) saying this (or the more familiar “it’s not personal, just business”). Chances are the victims do not agree.
Second, this dispute makes a difference to how we think about the “goal” of justice. Economic realists often presuppose that a goal is something to be “promoted,” that one should strive to maximize its achievement in the world. However, many think of justice as a value to be honored or respected, rather than maximized. For instance, respect theorists typically reject the claim that pursuit of justice licenses violating the rights of a minority to promote the rights of a majority. To invoke a classic example, they insist that a small town sheriff in the Old South would not be justified in executing an innocent black man just to prevent the riot that would likely follow from refusing. Respect for justice, they say, sometimes requires failing to promote “the goal of justice” understood in a maximizing way.
This general issue reappears in the second version of the blinders complaint. Economic realists sometimes claim that distributive justice demands that rich countries choose the option or set of options that provides “the most bang for the buck,” or best promotes well-being. Yet these claims strike me as false, and exhibiting what we may call efficiency blinders, especially in relation to justice.
Consider some examples. Suppose you are charged with fairly distributing pieces of cake at a child’s birthday party. Would justice demand that you employ some maximizing criteria (e.g., give Grandpa an enormous slice, since he likes cake most)? To me it does not even suggest this. Or suppose you are the executor of your aunt’s estate. Would justice demand that the neediest relation get the lion’s share? (Would the fact that she loved all her nieces equally be irrelevant?) Again, I think not. Consequently, those concerned about justice should not quickly capitulate to the economic realists’ sole and overriding concern for maximizing welfare.
A third version of the blinders complaint is more challenging. It insists that climate justice cannot be isolated from wider concerns in global ethics. I have two reactions. First, I see the relative isolation of climate justice as a feature of the early ethics of the transition rather than ideal theory, and believe that it has historical routes. Within the original policy context of climate ethics—negotiations for the Rio Earth Summit, UNFCCC, Kyoto—one allocative proposal seemed likely to dominate: grandfathering national emissions. In response, several commentators raised ethical objections, and proposed alternatives (e.g., equal per capita with trading; protecting subsistence emissions; greenhouse development rights). However, on my understanding, most intended these as improvements on grandfathering within a particular constrained context, and so as claims in the ethics of the transition.
Still, secondly, in my view it remains an open question whether relative isolation is a promising strategy even within the ethics of the transition. On the one hand, a climate policy that does not require too radical a restructuring of the current global system may have advantages in the short term. On the other hand, more radical theoretical and institutional approaches may be necessary. Most political theorists working today believe that the current global order is profoundly unjust, and in ways that undercut morally sensitive climate action. Moreover, my own view suggests that a serious institutional gap exists, especially when it comes to future generations, and that current institutions are in some ways hostile to intergenerational concern. Shortly, I will pursue such matters; first, however, let me say something about the more familiar area of corrective justice.