Not only do applications of theories of distributive justice suffer from basic logical flaws. They violate feasibility constraints. They do so in two ways. The first is that they do not offer a path to stabilizing emissions. As chapter 6 discussed, we cannot allow substantial increases in the fossil fuel capacity anywhere and still meet reasonable climate goals. Approaches like the Kyoto Protocol that exempt large portions of the world from obligations to reduce emissions are not a serious option regardless of their justice-related merits. If this is what distributive justice demands, we should reject distributive justice.
More modest versions of the argument would allow developing countries to delay their emissions reductions while demanding that developed countries begin immediately. We may still be able to stabilize the climate with this approach, but at either higher levels of CO2 concentrations and temperatures or at higher costs. Achieving distributive goals almost always involves costs, so perhaps these costs are worth absorbing.
The room for this sort of flexibility, however, is limited. If developing nations install substantial new fossil fuel infrastructure, they will have locked in emissions for the life of that infrastructure unless they are willing to scrap it, an unlikely possibility. Just installing the fossil fuel power plants already in the planning stage will mean that we cannot meet the 2°C goal. Adding additional fossil fuel infrastructure all but guarantees bad outcomes. The needed limits on greenhouse gases tightly constrain the room for poor nations to increase their emissions.
The world has recognized this feasibility problem. The dichotomous distinction approach taken in Kyoto has now been replaced with the Durban approach, which requires all nations to reduce emissions. The Durban approach has not yet, as I write, been translated into actual targets, but if we are to achieve reasonable emissions reductions goals, it is the only feasible approach. Suggesting a return to the Kyoto approach is simply a suggestion for failing to meet basic climate change goals.
Philosophers such as Gardiner now recognize the feasibility problem. As recently as 2004, Gardiner endorsed the approach taken in the Kyoto Protocol, arguing that “there is a surprising convergence of philosophical writers on the subject: they are virtually unanimous in their conclusion that the developed countries should take the lead in bearing the costs of climate change, while the less developed countries should be allowed to increase emissions for the foreseeable future.”14 He now agrees that this approach is not a feasible path to stabilization and that developing nations also must reduce emissions: “[i]t is now clear that the developing nations will have to constrain their own emission quickly and significantly ... From the point of view of justice, the consensus appears to be that this only increases the burden on developing [sic] countries to assist in other ways.”15 If these other ways include the full range of policies that might be used to help the poor, then Gardiner and I agree on distributive justice. Feasibility binds—that is why all nations have to constrain emissions quickly—and we have to consider other ways of helping the poor, with no climate change blinders.
The second feasibility problem, which is to great extent a reflection of the first, is that many wealthy nations will not agree to a treaty that requires them to reduce emissions if fast-growing developing nations do not also agree to reduce, or at least not increase, emissions. Why reduce emissions if there will be no long-term climate benefit because developing nations are allowed to increase emissions? As the unanimous Byrd-Hagel resolution demonstrates, the United States, and likely many other developed countries, would view such a treaty as far outside the bounds of their self-interest. The costs would be greater than the climate benefits.
Perhaps, one might argue, the United States and other developed nations should enter into such a treaty anyway, because it is required by justice. But asking the United States and other developed nations to voluntarily enter into a treaty that makes them worse off is not a feasible approach to solving the problem of climate change.
Overall, the arguments that a climate treaty should be based on distributive justice fail. They are based on a vision that wears climate change blinders, one that fails to consider the myriad ways that obligations stemming from distributive justice can be met. They often produce climate treaties that by their design fail to achieve the necessary reductions. Thankfully, in the most recent negotiations in Durban, the world has begun to abandon this approach in favor of alternatives that have a better chance of reducing emissions at a reasonable cost.