Climate Change Blinders

To understand the blinders problem, we first need to clarify the logic of the corrective justice claim. The claim is not about the harms from the climate change that have happened so far. In the last century, temperatures have increased a little less than 1°C. While there likely have been harms from this increase, they have been mild and hard to distinguish from harms due to natural variations in the weather. If the demand were for compensation for these harms, the amounts would not be large and would not significantly affect the allocation of obligations under a climate change agreement.

The real claim lies elsewhere. It is that some nations or individuals have used more than their share of the limited ability of the atmosphere to absorb CO2. As noted in chapter 6, the atmosphere has a fixed capacity to absorb CO2. A large portion of it has been used by one set of nations or individuals. This means that other nations or individuals cannot use that capacity. The “you broke it” claim is that you used up a limited resource, not that the climate in 2015

is already broken in the sense of causing terrible harms. For example, if the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb carbon is one trillion tons before the harm becomes too large, we have used up more than half of that already. The corrective justice claim is that this use of the limited capacity of the atmosphere creates an obligation to compensate because it violates rights or is otherwise unjust.

Once we see that this is the structure of the corrective justice argument, the blinders argument is clear. The corrective justice argument applies to any limited resource anywhere in the globe that is not shared equally. Anytime one nation or set of individuals uses more than their share of a limited resource, others are harmed because they cannot use that resource, and, therefore, those who exploited the resource would owe compensation to others.

Few if any resources are shared equally. Nations and individuals have differing amounts of land, good agricultural soils, and fresh water. Some nations have vast oil, gas, or coal reserves. Others have forests, rare minerals, or diamonds and gold. Some are warm, others brutally cold. Some have few resources. Others are have many. Any unequal sharing of scarce resources would create an obligation under corrective justice using precisely the same logic as for the atmosphere. One can take the very same sentences and substitute in any of these the resources as long as the resource is reasonably fixed in supply and important to people. Peter Singer, for example, states:

If we begin by asking, “Why should anyone have a greater claim to part of the global atmospheric sink than any other?” then the first and simplest response is “No reason at all.” ... This kind of equality seems self-evidently fair . . ,23

Now substitute for “global atmospheric sink” minerals, oil, forests, fresh water, fertile soil, or any other limited resource. Perhaps for some there might be some reason for unequal sharing of some resources, but for most the argument is identical. There seems to be no reason at all why some humans should have greater rights to valuable resources merely by virtue of their birth.

The problem goes to the core of the corrective justice argument. If you believe the corrective justice argument, you either have to be able to distinguish these other cases or be willing to accept the conclusion of the argument and suggest that all resources be shared equally. Anytime anyone uses more than their equal share of a limited resource, they owe compensation under the corrective justice argument.

Most authors make the corrective justice claim without recognizing its scope. They have no general theory of resource allocation. They operate with climate change blinders. They are thinking only about climate change and not the general logic of their arguments.

If we remove the blinders and then try to find a way to apply the corrective justice argument only to climate change, we see that it is difficult or impossible. Consider some possibilities.

One possibility is to invoke a principle of territory or physical possession. If you are on top of the resource— the forest is on your sovereign land, the oil is under your ground and so forth—it is not a violation of corrective justice to exploit more than a pro rata portion of it. A related possibility would be to invoke international norms or international law, which say that a nation owns resources within its territory. The atmosphere is not solely within any nation’s territory, so perhaps, like the sea, it is owned by all. This, however, assumes its conclusion. We would need a reason, based on a theory of justice, why territorial possession is fine while possession through use (as the high emitting countries have done to the atmosphere) is not.

A territorial theory could not be based on the claim that existing territorial boundaries were set on a just basis because many were not. Many territories were acquired by force and many simply by use. There are few places on Earth where territories were based on a claim of justice.

Another alternative might be a principle of legacy. Maybe if you have possessed something long enough, theories of corrective justice will not question the validity of owning it. Current residents justly possess all of the Americas even though their ancestors unjustly took it from prior possessors by force. The ownership is just because the injustice is old. Corrective justice would then apply differently to the atmosphere because rich nations took an unfair portion of it only recently. This argument, however, seems untenable. It is hard to see why old wrongs are better than new wrongs. Moreover, it runs directly into the problem that people living today are not the same as the people who emitted in the past. If we are going to use a collective theory of responsibility to claim that current people are responsible for emissions of their ancestors, the same collective theory would apply to other resources.

Peter Singer is one of the few philosophers who recognizes that there is a climate change blinders problem with the corrective justice argument. He devotes a number of pages to distinguishing the atmosphere from property rights in other resources.24 He relies on the argument for private property put forth by John Locke. Locke argued that private property is just only if, when one claims it, there is enough (or possibly more) left for others (say because you use the property to produce goods which improve overall welfare). Singer says that this is not true of the atmosphere: if one group of people uses it as a sink to dispose of their waste, others cannot. It is a limited resource.

I’ve always found Locke’s argument mysterious, at least as applied to any good that is scarce (that is, almost everything). Although Singer is right that the atmosphere is a limited resource, the argument does not distinguish the atmosphere from any other limited resource, including the classic case of private property, land. There are limited amounts of good land, and ownership by a select few may not leave enough for others. Many people are forced to cultivate land that is dry or infertile. And it is definitely not true of minerals and of numerous other valuable resources. For example, some countries have an adequate supply of fresh water but many do not. The territorial claims to fresh water by the lucky few mean that the rest have too little.

Some advocates of the corrective justice claim try to dismiss the problem as theoretical nitpicking. For example, Stephen Gardiner argued, we do not need a “complete background understanding of international justice” to (my words, not his) realize that the rich countries’ seizure of the atmosphere is unjust.25 We can fix the problem with unfair use of the atmosphere without fixing the unequal distribution of other resources or trying to correct every other type of injustice. Let us just deal with the problem at hand rather than waiting for a complete theory of everything.

This response strikes me as completely inadequate. If your theory of justice has parts which you like (compensation for use of the atmosphere) and parts you don’t like (compensation for unequal use of all other limited resources), you can’t just take the parts you like. Not without some theory or explanation. And especially if the parts you don’t like are larger, by several orders of magnitude, than the parts you do like. (Compensation for all other unequally shared resources probably swamps compensation for past unequal use of the atmosphere.) It is not as if the problem is one of some minutiae with the theory not yet being fully worked out, a few i’s not yet dotted and t’s crossed. The problem is that the advocates of the theory are unwilling to accept the most important implications of their theory and cannot, or are unwilling to, explain why except to wave their hands. What is philosophy for if not to try to think through problems carefully?

In fact without distinguishing other unequally shared resources, we would not even know if payments for use of the atmosphere on net go in the right direction. With dozens or hundreds of cross-cutting claims for unequal use of resources, a nation or individual who is actually a net wrongdoer might receive payments if we base them only on CO2 emissions. Nations that should be net recipients might have to instead make payments.

The most plausible argument for dismissing claims regarding unequal use of resources other than the atmosphere is that equal sharing of all resources is hopelessly infeasible. We are not going to give back the United States to Native Americans. South Africa is going to keep its diamonds, Russia its gas, and Saudi Arabia its oil. Canada’s weather is unfairly cold and Egypt and Libya don’t enough rain. Iceland is blessed with geothermal energy; Japan has no local energy sources. Suggesting that we fix these inequalities sounds almost wacky because it is so infeasible. But we can negotiate a climate treaty that provides compensation.

Peter Singer ultimately resorts to an argument of this sort, that we should let bygones be bygones. He concludes:

The putatively historical grounds for justifying private property put forward by its most philosophically significant defenders—writing at a time when capitalism was only beginning its rise to dominance over the word’s economy—cannot apply to the current use of the atmosphere ... [The arguments for private property] imply that this appropriation of a resource once common to all humankind is not justifiable.26

In other words, he cannot distinguish other types of resources but that is no excuse for not allocating the atmosphere fairly. The argument is instead one of feasibility. Let us turn then to feasibility.

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