Basic Physical Structure

The second key idea considers the perspective of victims of climate extortion. Extortion involves the use of an asymmetry of power by the more powerful actor. Still, this is not enough to make it morally objectionable. People regularly profit from superior bargaining positions because (for example) they are better qualified, or produce better products. The problem is not benefiting from asymmetry as such, but rather from specific asymmetries under certain conditions. For instance, many classic extortion cases involve extortionists benefiting from threats that they will deploy their superior capacity for physical violence. Yet when the Mafia threatens your daughter, we do not think that this capacity is a “resource” of theirs that they are morally entitled to use as a basis for demanding benefits. Similarly, there seems something deeply wrong with the current generation imposing climate burdens on future generations, and this is not legitimized by the bare fact that time’s arrow gives them the power to do so.

How might ethics pursue this thought? One avenue is to highlight the imposition of serious risks of death and suffering on innocent future people. These seem closely analogous to threats of physical violence, and are (rightly) cited by most climate ethicists. Still, (as signaled above) I suspect climate plays a deeper role.43 Consider an (admittedly imperfect) analogy. One of John Rawls’ most influential ideas is that questions of justice arise in contemporary societies in part because they profoundly shape the basic life prospects of their citizens, through their creation of a set of powerful institutions backed by coercive force that constitute the “basic structure” of society. Similarly, one might understand anthropogenic climate change as threatening what we might call the basic physical structure of the planet. Serious interference with the climate system would shape the lives of very many people around the world, and especially future generations, deeply and pervasively, to the extent of becoming at least a major determinant of their life prospects, and perhaps the dominant factor. Arguably, climate extortion exploits this fact, and this is a central part of what makes it ethically problematic.

This thought is perhaps best illustrated by the recent proposals to “geoengineer” the planet by injecting sulfates into the stratosphere to reduce incoming sunlight, and thereby cool down the surface. Alongside (serious) feasibility concerns, one major worry is that those who intentionally aim to take control of the climate system attempt to master the basic physical structure of the planet, making choices that shape the basic life prospects of everyone. Given this, a central question should be, “What would would-be climate controllers owe those put under their yoke, especially in terms of procedural and distributive justice?” Arguably, this question raises profound issues of global politics and political philosophy, and ones that the existing debate does not take seriously enough. For instance, (as an illustration) in the case of the domestic basic structure, Rawlsians tend to think that what is owed is extensive (e.g., the infamous difference principle demands that social and economic inequalities should be arranged so as to maximally benefit the least well off.) Yet in the early debate about geoengineering, there is little discussion of strong norms being adopted. Indeed, the contrary assumption is common: some believe that sulfate injection is politically easier than reducing emissions because one country (or even a rich individual) could practice it without the cooperation of others. In my view, such attitudes involve a serious ethical mistake: taking over the basic physical structure involves profound political issues, including of basic justice.

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