Climate Change Blinders

Suppose we agree, based on a theory of distributive justice, that people living in wealthy countries have an obligation to transfer another $100 to (poor) people living poor countries. (The obligation could be any amount including very large sums; $100 is a placeholder for an arbitrary number.) To fulfill this obligation, the people living in wealthy countries might send cash to the governments of poor countries, but this may not be the best course of action. There may be little reason to believe that those governments will spend the cash in a way that will help their citizens rather than themselves. People in wealthy countries may instead provide cash conditional on certain behaviors or only send cash to places where it is likely to be well spent.10 They may alternatively send specific goods or services. For example, they may provide free insecticide-treated mosquito nets, vaccines, medicines, schools and education supplies, technology, micro-credit loans, fertilizer, or any number of other things. Wealthy countries might also change their trade, patent, farming, immigration, or other policies in ways that hurt themselves but help poor people living in poor countries by $100. Or wealthy countries might agree as part of a climate treaty to bear $100 more of the burden of emissions reductions than they would otherwise agree to.

The question is whether distributive justice demands that this last action be taken, that a climate treaty be the mechanism for transferring the $100 to the poor instead of any of the other actions. One could of course argue that all of these actions should be taken cumulatively so that even more is done to help the poor, but remember, we’ve already used our theory of distributive justice to conclude that the obligation wealthy nations or people owe to the poor is $100. You can change the $100 number to be whatever you want. The argument does not depend on any particular view on the size of the obligations of the rich to the poor. It could be $100 billion in total, $100 trillion, or more. (To get a sense of scale, the United States currently gives about $20 billion per year in foreign aid, although much of that is not to help the poor.) The only assumption is that there is some obligation stemming from justice and transferring more than that is not required.

Does distributive justice demand that the transfer of $100 to the poor be done via climate change policy? The answer is straightforward: distributive justice allows, and arguably even demands, that wealthy countries choose the option, or set of options, that transfers the resources most effectively. If the amount poor people are to receive is $100, we should want wealthy countries to choose the options for transferring the $100 that are most effective.

The reason is that theories of distributive justice care about well-being. Given a choice between, say, changing trade policies, cash transfers, mosquito nets, fertilizer, and designing a climate change treaty, distributive justice demands a choice based on which combination best promotes well-being. Choosing a less effective policy reduces overall well-being by reducing available resources. If there are two policies, one which costs $130 and one which costs $120, and both transfer $100 to the poor, distributive justice demands that we choose the policy that costs $120 as this best promotes overall well-being. By choosing the policy that costs only $120, there is an additional $10 of resources that can be shared or perhaps allocated to the poor.

At this point, the work of philosophers and of theories of distributive justice is done. The choice of which policies or combination of policies is most effective is a matter of economics, political science, international relations, and related fields that try to measure and describe the effectiveness of policies. Theories of justice are not going to tell us whether reducing subsidies for farmers in wealthy countries is a better way of helping the poor than setting emissions reduction goals with distributive effects in mind, or whether debt forgiveness, patent policy, technology transfers, vaccines, micro-credit, trade policy, or some combination is better still.

Theories that argue that we must design a climate policy based on distributive justice give a different and wrong answer. They require that wealthy nations make transfers to poor nations within the context of climate policy rather than considering how best to make transfers within the entire set of policies. They see a problem in front of us to be solved— climate change—and assume that the solution must take distributive considerations into account. They operate with climate change blinders. When we take off the blinders, we see that we have two serious problems: (i) climate change and (ii) a large number of people living in poverty at a time when others are enormously wealthy. We need to solve both. But we do not necessarily need to solve them both with the same policy. Philosophical theories that demand we use the same tool ignore the wider set of tools that are available and that might solve these critical problems better.

Some theories of distributive justice, however, demand a just distribution of particular goods. We might not be able to substitute for a redistributive climate treaty the combination of a nonredistributive climate treaty and a policy that transfers a different good to the less well off. John Rawls, for example, focuses on a particular set of goods he called primary goods. Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum focus on a list of capabilities. Others focus on the allocation of opportunity. Giving someone money, micro-credit, or a mosquito net may not substitute for the unequal distribution of a good that is central to justice or to human dignity. We cannot take away someone’s dignity or self-respect and then simply compensate them with cash. Certain goods, many theorists believe, are incommensurable.

Perhaps climate change is like this. Perhaps we cannot simply enter into a climate treaty based on cost- effectiveness considerations or raw self-i nterest and then make it up elsewhere, with, say, a change in farming or patent policies.

Henry Shue’s argument about the obligation to contribute to the creation of a public good hints at this.11 He proposes that “[a]mong a number of parties, all of whom are bound to contribute to some common endeavor, the parties who have the most resources normally should contribute the most to the endeavor.” Some have read this statement to imply that the funding for each particular good must take distributive concerns into account, with no possibility of trading off across policies.12

The strongest version of the incommensurability argument is that some level of emissions are needed for subsistence. Denying someone the minimum emissions needed for subsistence would cause him great harm. This minimum cannot be traded off for other goods. A related claim is that people and nations have a right to develop. Energy is needed to develop. A climate policy that limits emissions in poor countries might prevent development. It would force poor people to stay poor, and, therefore, does not meet the demands of distributive justice.

While climate change policy is about energy, it concerns the type of fuel we use for energy, not whether we use energy. Clean energy is more expensive than fossil fuel energy, so the problem at its core is about money, not about incommensurable goods, basic needs, dignity, primary goods, capabilities, or some other requirement of justice.

Once we are transferring money to the poor, we need to think about the best way to do that. It might be that allowing the poor to use fossil fuels and requiring the wealthy to use renewable energy is the best way, but this is not a matter philosophy or philosophers are equipped to answer. The problem is complex. Renewables are not as reliable as fossil fuels and because they tend to be intermittent, do not work well for what is called base load power. There are, right now, no good renewable energy sources for transportation.

Nuclear power comes with its own trade-offs, particularly in unstable countries. But building new, long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure where it does not now exist effectively locks in emissions for the long-term. The design of energy supply systems is complex.

We also need to compare the trade-offs in the use of renewables with other uses of resources, such as spending on education, the legal system, and so forth. These are hard policy problems and it is important to try to get them right. It might be the case that adding new fossil fuel infrastructure in developing nations is the best approach, all things considered. There is nothing, however, in the requirement that we pursue distributive justice that informs these choices.

The better version of the incommensurability argument is that if climate policies are insufficiently aggressive at reducing emissions, the harms cannot be compensated. People’s ways of life might be altered due to the resulting climate change. Coastal areas might be flooded, forcing migration. Ocean acidification and increases in water temperatures may force people reliant on the oceans to find other ways of living. Weather patterns may change so that agricultural productivity may decline in many areas, again forcing people to change how or where they live. These changes may be incommensurable with offsetting transfers. Giving tens of millions of Bangladeshis money to relocate from their flooded homes may not meet the demands of justice. Their homes have been destroyed.

If one believes this incommensurability argument, that the ways of living that will be lost because of climate change are inviolate, then the most important thing to do is to stop climate change. Cost-effectiveness becomes even more important rather than less. We even less want to alter climate policy to allow for distributive considerations because the most important way to achieve distributive justice is to stop climate change.

A related argument is that climate change will make the poor worse off. A treaty to address climate change cannot be treated as separate from distributive concerns because one of the very purposes of the treaty is to prevent the poor from suffering. As Darrell Moellendorf states, “When climate change is likely to throw people into desperate poverty and set back human development in some states that are making progress, a treaty that seeks to prevent these evils is not addressing matters of distributive justice that are external to concerns about climate change.”13 Moellendorf concludes that distributive concerns are central to climate change policy.

This is correct but strengthens rather than weakens the claims made here. Because climate change may make inequality and poverty worse, it is especially important to prevent it. An effective climate treaty is especially important. But this means that choosing more expensive climate policies such as the feedlot changes Shue recommends is an even worse idea.

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