Dead Emitters

The third objection to past emissions emphasizes that, since significant anthropogenic emissions have been occurring since 1750, many past polluters are now dead. Given this, it is said, “polluter pays” principles no longer apply. Instead, what is being proposed is that polluters’ descendants pay, because they have benefited from past pollution (usually because of industrialization in their countries). However, “beneficiary pays” principles are unjust. They hold current individuals responsible for emissions that they did not cause, could not have prevented, and in ways that diminish their own opportunities.

Much could be said here, but let me make just three points. First, it is not self-evident that the polluters are dead. For one thing, half of cumulative emissions since 1750 have occurred since 1970. For another, Polluter pays approaches typically refer not to individuals as such but to some entity to which they are connected (e.g., a country, people, or corporation), and these usually have persisted over the time period envisioned. In response, proponents of the dead emitters objection typically argue against the moral relevance of states, by endorsing a strong individualism that claims that only individuals should matter ultimately from the moral point of view. The Chicago lawyers are particularly strident, complaining that the collective responsibility implied by polluter pays has been “rejected by mainstream philosophers as well as institutions such as criminal and tort law” in favor of “the standard assumption of individualism.”38 It is this individualism, rather than dead emitters as such, that give rise to the challenge.

Still, the implicit individualism of the dead emitters argument is more controversial than it initially appears, and often employed in a highly selective fashion. On the one hand, collective responsibility is not so easily dismissed. Many international practices rely on it. For example, they assume that the current generation of Americans is liable for debts incurred by its predecessors, that future generations will accept responsibility for our debts, that we and they will abide by treaties that our predecessors signed, and so on. Indeed, it is a challenge to imagine what international relations—or intra-national relations—would look like if this were not so. Consequently, philosophical individualists typically concede that states play important roles in representing individuals and discharging their moral responsibilities. Given this, we must beware of moral corruption: e.g., insisting on strong individualism about climate responsibilities might involve highly selective attention to how the world usually works.

On the other hand, a very robust individualism would call into question practices surrounding inherited rights, as well as inherited responsibilities. Put most baldly, if (say) Americans are not responsible for at least some of the debts incurred by their ancestors, why are we entitled to inherit the benefits of those activities? In particular, if we disavow past American emissions, must we also relinquish inherited American assets, such as the territory and infrastructure left to us?

Some radical individualists will not flinch from these implications. They may be right, especially as a matter of ideal theory. Importantly, it may also be true that many vulnerable nations would be willing to give up on claims of corrective justice in exchange for the implementation of such radical cosmopolitan ideals. For instance, perhaps Bangladesh and Haiti would be willing to relinquish their claims to climate justice so long as they were given a fair (cosmopolitan) share of American and Chinese wealth. From an ambitious, idealistic point of view, this may even be a promising approach.

I do not know whether the Chicago lawyers would be willing to push their individualism this far. I would say that it sits awkwardly with their insistence on political feasibility. From my point of view, if the “feasibility” constraint of accepting the existence of nation-states means anything much, it involves accepting some traditional norms of collective responsibility, at least for a while, as part of an ethics of the transition. However, if this is right, it is not clear why past emissions are off the table.

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