Theories of distributive justice are concerned with the distribution of benefits and burdens in a society. There are many theories of distributive justice including utilitarianism, Rawls’s principles of justice, theories of equality of opportunity, and the capabilities theory.3 They vary in terms of which members of the population they focus on; their measure of well-being; how they balance different elements of well-being such as income, health, and dignity; and the extent to which they consider factors such as luck and opportunity in addition to, or as separate from, well-being.

While acknowledging important differences, for our purposes, we can crudely lump theories of distributive justice together as theories focused on the distribution of well-being. These theories argue that actions or policies that help the badly off because they are badly off, however defined, are required as a matter of justice.

Distributive justice arguments have been applied in the climate change context to conclude that wealthy nations should bear most, or all, of the costs of reducing emissions. Asking poor nations to reduce or not increase emissions condemns them to staying poor and ignores the vastly unequal distribution of resources. How can we ask

300 million rural poor in India to continue to live without electric power when Americans are choosing to live in massive air-conditioned homes, driving SUVs through the suburban sprawl to play golf on grass in the dessert or to swim in heated pools in Chicago? Any reasonably fair approach to climate change would ask that the wealthy sacrifice first and sacrifice more.

The argument was put forth forcefully by Henry Shue (who uses methane from ruminants as his example, but the point is completely general):

The central point about equity is that it is not equitable to ask some people to surrender necessities so that other people can retain luxuries. It would be unfair to the point of being outrageous to ask that some (poor) people spend more on better feed for their ruminants in order to reduce methane emissions so that other (affluent) people do not have to pay more for steak from less crowded feedlots in order to reduce their methane and nitrous oxide emissions, even if less crowded feedlots for fattening luxury beef for the affluent would cost considerably more than a better quality of feed for maintaining the subsistence herds of the poor.4

Paul Harris puts the point as follows:

One thing that seems unassailable from the perspective of world ethics and global justice is that greenhouse gas emissions required for subsistence take priority over other kinds of emissions, and ought not be subject to any kind of limit. . . . This means that the ‘luxury’ emissions of rich people, regardless of where they live, ought to be a focus of greenhouse gas cuts. . Arguing the point is as good as saying that some Rwandans should die so that some Virgin Islanders can recharge their mobile phones.5

Stephen Gardiner argues that “there seems to be a broad ethical consensus that developed countries should shoulder most of the burden of action (at least initially), and so should have fewer emissions.”6 He argues that this conclusion is supported by many theories of justice including distributive justice. He notes that “theories that prioritize the interests of the least well off endorse the consensus [i.e., the conclusion quoted above] because the developing countries are much poorer than the developed countries.” Numerous other authors adopt similar approaches.7

Shue’s statement highlights a key feature of how theories of distributive justice apply in the climate change context. He would increase the cost of emissions reductions in the name of justice. The feedlot changes for luxury beef cost considerably more than the feed changes for the subsistence ruminants. Nevertheless, we should pursue the feedlot changes for luxury beef to promote justice.

This is a general feature of policies based on distributive justice. They allocate obligations to reduce emissions based on distributive concerns, which means that they do not seek to find the lowest cost reductions. Unlike Shue, most authors do not highlight this explicitly, but I take it to be implicit in their arguments.

Some commentators miss this key feature of distributive justice. For example, James Garvey uses a claim that rich nations have greater capacity to reduce emissions to support the argument that distributive justice demands that the rich do more.8 If the basis of the obligations to reduce emissions is cost effectiveness and capacity, however, we can put the philosophy texts away and ask the economists and engineers to find the right solution. Distributive justice is doing no work. It is nice if there is less inequality when we pursue the efficient solution because it means that the baseline distributive problems are lower, but as long as there is inequality, distributive justice demands that we deviate from the cost-effective solution to help the poor. That is, suppose that pure efficiency concerns imply that developed countries go first and do more than developing countries. When we add distributive concerns, developed countries would have to do even more still because the distributive gains would be worth the efficiency losses. I will follow Shue and take distributive justice to imply that we spend more to stop climate change than otherwise by allocating emissions reductions based on distributive concerns, not just efficiency.9

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