Climate Change Blinders

Notwithstanding its simplicity and intuitive appeal, most philosophers have rejected the equal per capita rights approach.32 Peter Singer, whose approach was discussed in chapter 5, is the most prominent remaining proponent. The reason that most philosophers have rejected the approach is, I believe, that they recognize the climate change blinders problem. And the reason why they recognize the climate change blinders problem here is that equality claims more generally (i.e., outside the climate change context) have been criticized widely in the philosophical literature for precisely this problem.

One well-known version of the criticism is found in the writings of Amartya Sen. In his monograph on inequality, Inequality Reexamined, Sen notes that all theories of justice require equality.33 The theories differ in what type of equality they demand. Egalitarian theories focus on equality of income. John Rawls would require equal liberty and equality in the distribution of primary goods. Ronald Dworkin would require equality of resources. Sen himself would require equality of basic capabilities. While utilitarians formally want to maximize the sum of individual utilities, they treat each person’s utility equally in the maximization. Even Robert Nozick’s libertarian theories, which on the surface seem averse to equality claims, require equality of libertarian rights.

Since every theory requires equality, the central question in pursuing justice is not whether to demand equality, it is what sort of equality to seek. That is, to understand what justice requires, we have to answer the question: equality of what? Sen’s core argument is that we cannot just adopt an intuitively appealing demand for equality of something without asking why we equalize that and not something else.

Some commentators have taken this logic to mean that equality is an empty concept.34 All of the work is being done by a theory that tells us what we should seek to equalize: resources, opportunity, income, primary goods, or whatever. Once we have agreed on this, there is no additional work for equality to do. Sen himself believes equality is still a useful concept. He argues that once we have chosen what items of value are central to justice, equality is a simple and powerful tool that helps us understand when the demands of justice are not being met. But even in this case, equality is just a heuristic. All the work is being done in the choice of what to equalize.

Regardless of our views on whether the idea of equality is a helpful heuristic or is empty, Sen’s argument is precisely the climate change blinders argument. We cannot choose equality of some particular item, such as the right to use up the remaining atmospheric capacity to absorb CO2 without a theory explaining why we want to equalize that item and not something else. Focusing only on the atmosphere is like putting on blinders to the sorts of equality that we really care about.

The blinders problem is quite general but it arises even just within the domain of climate change. The reason is that people and countries are situated differently with respect to climate change. As Stephen Gardiner notes, “people in different parts of the world have different energy needs. For example, those in northern Canada require fuel for heating that those in more temperate zones do not.”35 Countries will also differ in how much they suffer from climate change. Some countries might be relatively impervious because they are wealthy, have cool or temperate climates, and are otherwise well situated. Others might be especially vulnerable. And some countries, facing equal harms, might have higher costs of reducing emissions than others. For example, some countries may have very little hydroelectric or geothermal power, or few places to locate windmills or solar cells. Others might be blessed with cheap clean energy. Equal division of emissions rights does not produce equal outcomes, even if we just focus on climate change. Needs, harms, and mitigation opportunities vary widely. Even focusing just within climate policy, equal allocation of emissions rights would not produce the type of equality most theories of justice would demand.

But the problem is even broader. There is no reason to focus equality claims on climate change instead of some other space of equality. As Sen notes, we need an underlying theory of justice to determine what should be equalized. Backers of equal division of the atmosphere do not offer such a theory, but almost any theory they choose would equalize something else.

In particular, the allocation of emission rights determines the type of energy people can use and its price. It is about money. Once we are focusing on equality of money, however, there is no reason to want one particular resource to be allocated equally as opposed to eliminating, or at least reducing, inequality of wealth or income more generally.

Eliminating or reducing inequality generally, however, is the goal of distributive justice. And all of the flaws with the distributive justice argument apply. In particular, we should want to achieve our distributive goals in the most effective way possible. Equal division of emissions rights might be part of such a program, but it might not. Philosophy can tell us that distributive goals are important but not how to achieve them.

Gardiner made this argument aptly.36 He asked how many would support the equal shares claim if the distributive consequences were to help the rich and hurt the poor? If you would not, then what you care about (correctly in my view) is the distribution of resources, not the formal division of one particular resource. But this puts us back into the problems with the distributive justice argument.

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