Essay: Making the Burden Palatable
This is an adaptation of a piece written for the bachelor’s-level seminar class “Climate Justice”, taught within the 2020-2021 academic year.
It is widely recognised that climate change exists – a consequence of the large amounts of greenhouse gases emitted to the atmosphere – and that it threatens human interests. Managing the costs of this threat raises serious questions about global distributive justice, among which is: how should the burdens of mitigation and adaptation be shared amongst states involved in ongoing international climate change negotiations?
I take a statist stance to answering this question – as in, I view states as the agents climatic burdens should be allocated to. This line of reasoning stems from the fact that humanity’s current international regime is still one mainly governed by states, whose political obligations of government include protecting citizen welfare. Since climate change has the potential to harm a state’s population, it follows that it would be the duty of states to respond to (the effects) of climate change as well, and this includes bearing any costs associated with it. As such, I will mainly be discussing the internal normative basis of the three principles most associated with this question – the Polluter Pays Principle (PPP), the Ability to Pay Principle (APP), and the Beneficiary Pays Principle (BPP) – before siding with the BPP on the grounds that it solves objections to the PPP and the APP and, additionally, allows for political feasibility.
WHO PAYS? THREE PRINCIPLES OF JUSTICE
It is important to note right from the start that all three principles discussed come to the same conclusion – that climate change management costs should be mostly borne by the ‘Global North’ over the ‘Global South’. This is not by accident. It might be initially intuitive to suggest that states divide the burden equally amongst themselves, by following, for example, that states carry burdens depending on the population they hold. This sort of per capita burden-sharing speaks to a sense of equality which some might initially equate to a sense of fairness. But compare a country the likes of Luxembourg and a country the likes of India. Their ability to pay is not equal, and as such, it would be unfair to ask the same payment of both, even in per capita terms, as for one the cost would be far larger than for the other. Additionally, asking all to bear costs equally ignores unfairness in our current global distribution of wealth, which struggles with issues of justice even without added environmental pressure – the consequence of a capitalist society built on greed, competition, and a colonialist past. As such, we cannot follow a principle of equality when theorising for a fair allocation of climatic burdens. Instead, we must seek to make use of other, fairer principles of justice.
The first approach dominating the normative treatment of climate burden-sharing is the Polluter Pays Principle. Sometimes also known as the Contributor Pays Principle (CPP). This approach argues that states should bear the climatic burdens according to the share of climate change inducing GHG emissions each state has accumulated. In other words, it should be those states who caused the Earth to warm at unsustainable rates who should pay for the management of its consequences. This would have ‘Global North’ countries bear the costs of climate change management. The premises behind this principle are the following. (1) That the atmosphere is a ‘global commons’ that all share and have equal right to use. (2) That the atmosphere’s capability to absorb GHGs is finite. (3) That GHG emissions can be coupled to economic growth and the acquirement of wealth. (4) That states are self-interested actors. It follows, then, that guided by their self-interested nature and the prospect of wealth, certain states industrialised, emitting GHGs into the atmosphere in the process. Since the atmosphere’s capability to absorb GHGs is finite, however, the self-interested actions of these states simultaneously deprived others of their right to emit (and gain a higher quality of life) at a later date. As such, the unsustainable actions of a fraction of the world’s population gave way to an overexploited common resource and a stagnated global distribution of wealth. The ‘Global North’ has the responsibility to bear most climate change costs as their share of accumulated climate change inducing GHG emissions is largest.
To justify this outcome, the PPP approach makes use of deeper principles of justice by appealing to historical and remedial duties. The first would have fairness consider not only how many GHGs are emitted in the present day but also how much states emitted in the past. The second asks reparations for harm done (‘you broke it, you fix it’). The PPP, thus, seems to appeal to our intuitive sense of justice. Two objections befall this intuition, however, once we appreciate that society did not immediately realise that the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb GHGs was finite and that the population of a state changes (and passes) over time. The first can be found following a premise of excusable historical ignorance, as it could be argued unfair for ‘Global North’ states to bear the burden of an outcome they could not possibly have known existed. The second objection concerns populations of the present paying for harms of populations of the past. Even within the same ‘Global North’ state, this raises an issue of intergenerational justice as it could be argued a problem to hold the population of states of today remedially responsible for the actions of their grandparents and (great-)great-grandparents.
In response to these objections, a second approach emerged to by-pass historical and remedial principles of justice but still conclude that the duty of the ‘Global North’ is to bear climatic costs. The Ability to Pay Principle would have states bear climatic burdens in proportion to their current relative capacity to bear such burdens. Responsibility, in this sense, should be proportionate to wealth, with only those who can feasibly contribute to paying climate management costs being held responsible for bearing them. ‘Global North’ countries hold comparative and absolute wealth over ‘Global South’ countries, and as such, it falls to them to finance climate change management. Being wealthy, however, is not grounds for an obligation to remedy harms as there is nothing wrongful about owning wealth itself. As such, it could be argued that there is no obligation for the ‘Global North’ to bear climatic burdens simply because they can afford to. To do so would turn the bearing of climatic burdens into acts of charity, incorrectly making beneficence synonymous to justice.
The last principle, and the one I choose to follow, bases itself on the simple yet intuitive principle that no agent should benefit from harm caused to others. According to the Beneficiary Pays Principle, climate change management burdens should be allocated in relation to the extent that states have derived economic benefits from past and present activities that have released GHGs into the atmosphere. To enact remedial justice, states must surrender the benefits generated through the exploitation of the atmosphere up to the point they are exhausted. ‘Global North’ countries have a strong responsibility to bear climate management costs because many of the benefits associated with their high development were due to the emittance of GHGs over the past two centuries. This high emittance, however, harmed both the climate and, in the process, other states, which has BPP argue for a surrendering of benefits to make up for these harms. This takes the form of the ‘Global North’ taking on the climate burden.
BENEFIT VS HARM: BPP OVER OTHER PRINCIPLES OF JUSTICE
I find three reasons to argue for BPP over other principles of justice, as it solves objections to PPP and APP, and allows for political feasibility. Let us first see how the BPP resolves the main problems associated with the PPP. The key objection to the PPP asks whether states can be held accountable for wrongs they were unaware of committing. Actions of past generations are equated to actions of the present in order to justify a sense of remedial duty. BPP by-passes what one can find at fault with these phrasings of historical and remedial principles of justice by avoiding the identification of a culprit. While the PPP asks who is culpable, the BPP asks who has benefitted. This key difference allows for ‘Global North’ states to bear climate burdens not because they harmed/harm states in the past and present, but because they benefit from the harm associated with GHG emissions, even while acknowledging that they contributed to these emissions in some way. As such, it follows that there are grounds to justify a surrendering of these benefits by the ‘Global North’ to make up for the harm caused by climate change to the ‘Global South’.
On the other end of the spectrum, the APP allocates remedial responsibility to states on the basis of their ability to bear climate burdens. This implies allocating costs to the wealthy. The objection to this, however, is that being wealthy is not grounds for an obligation to remedy harms. Additionally, and because the APP does not acknowledge any harms, it equates justice to acts of beneficence. The BPP, by contrast, fills in this gap by giving an explanation as to why wealthier states have a moral responsibility to bear greater burdens in climate change management. The BPP is not asking the ‘Global North’ to give up benefits solely because they have them, but to give up the benefits linked to GHG emissions, which have harmed some even as they have benefitted others.
My final reason for following the BPP has to do with the nuances in its phrasing, which I see as allowing for greater political feasibility than other principles. As stated in the beginning of this essay, it might at first seem that all three principles come to the same conclusion – that climatic costs should be mostly borne by the ‘Global North’. This sort of thinking, however, ignores one of the main features that permeates politics – discourse. The basic premise of discourse theory states that the way we think and talk about a subject will influence the ways we act in relation to that subject. As such, the reasoning followed when discussing climatic burdens will influence the ways states react to the allocation of burdens and will determine whether they are accepted or rejected in climate change negotiations. Discourse surrounding the PPP is one charged with culpability. Here, the ‘Global North’ are to blame for climate change and its consequences, and that is why they should bear the costs of climate change. While there is an undeniable truth in the PPP approach, it would benefit the global community that the ‘Global North’ accept the burden placed upon them. Reminders of ingroup injustices have been known to elicit defensiveness on the part of ingroup members, or even anger over perception of being unjustly blamed. If this is the case, then the ‘Global North’ may resist climatic burdens, which would put climate change negotiations further back than they already are. Similarly, the APP might illicit a negative reaction on the part of the ‘Global South’, who feel their planet and a chance for development has been robbed from them, if the ‘Global North’ taking on climatic burdens is framed as an ‘act of kindness’ without any acknowledgement of harms. The BPP provides an easier-to-swallow explanation as why it should be the ‘Global North’ that bear climatic burdens. Because it acknowledges the current system is unfair but does not put the same emphasis on culpability as the PPP, it is the middle ground between backward and forward movement. The sad reality is that the ‘Global North’ is more likely to accept the responsibility of climatic burdens when not felt under attack, making the BPP the most politically feasible option for achieving results in climate change negotiations.
There are several objections that come to mind when it comes to following the BPP, however. The first question that arises is why a search for justice would care whether ‘Global North’ countries’ feelings are hurt in the process. It seems counterintuitive that we try to appease the bully to make life easier for the victim. However, the reality of the current climate disaster is that we cannot move forward in burden-sharing negotiations without the support of ‘Global North’ states. There are no global enforcement mechanisms in place to punish states who act contrary to moral principles, and since ‘Global North’ countries hold the majority of the world’s wealth, the only way to manage climate change is with the ‘Global North’ taking on burdens willingly.
A second objection might ask whether it is fair that it be present generations (within the ‘Global North’) that surrender benefits when it was past generations who enjoyed most of the original benefits that came with GHG emittance. For the most part, present generations are just enjoying the benefits of the benefits. This logic would have present generations surrender only a portion of what they have, instead of almost everything. I reply the following. Past generations did not fully understand the effects of GHGs and, as such, can be excused from paying for the benefits of actions that caused harm. Excusable historical ignorance can be invoked here to state that the past benefitted unknowingly. Present generations do not have this luxury. We understand the effects of GHG emissions and the harms it causes/caused. Regardless of whether present generations benefit directly from harm or whether they benefit from benefits that caused harm, they benefit, even as others are harmed. Past actions being wrongful should not lead to the excusing of present wrongful actions. Additionally, to this intergenerational objection, I invoke a different intergenerational objection. If it is unfair that present generations pay for the benefits of benefits, then it would be even more unfair that future generations pay for the benefits of benefits of benefits. Who pays then? No-one, and the world dies. Practically, this objection falls through.
A third objection to the BPP has to do with a need to differentiate between benefits that should be surrendered by the ‘Global North’ and those that should be retained. Here, I acknowledge the inherent difficulty in making this distinction but argue that a focus on which particular benefits to surrender will run us off course. The BPP approach should serve more as abstract justification as to why ‘Global North’ countries should bear climatic costs, rather than provide the distinct amount of compensation ‘Global North’ countries are liable for. There is no perfect principle of justice that will leave all satisfied, and it will be the negotiations that determine specific outcomes. The only way we can move forward as a global community is if ‘Global North’ countries take on climatic costs. Otherwise, there may be no climate to discuss action for.
How, then, should costs of mitigation and adaptation to climate change be distributed among states? The climatic burden should be mostly borne by the ‘Global North’. Politics is a game, and discourse is a tool. Following BPP avoids the difficulties other principles of justice face and allows for political feasibility by providing the most palatable explanation as to why it should be ‘Global North’ countries that bear climatic burdens. Linguistics aside, what we cannot afford is for our planet to lose.
REMINDER. This is an adaptation of a piece written for the bachelor’s-level seminar class “Climate Justice”, taught within the 2020-2021 academic year.