The Mirage of Climate Justice

Here is Mark Pennington’s fifth guest post of the week.  It has been great to have him aboard, and I hope we’ll have a chance to see his writing here again.

The recent Cancun climate change conference attracted much less media attention than last year’s event in Copenhagen. Green activists and some politicians, however, continue to press for massive programmes of income redistribution from developed to developing nations in order that the costs and benefits of reducing climate change and/or adapting to it are distributed in accordance with a just allocation of ‘ecological space’. The concept of ecological space refers to aspects of the environment that constitute a fixed stock – such as the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb CO2 emissions without provoking catastrophic climate change. Owing to its finite character, greater use of ‘ecological space’ by some actors is said to deprive others of their capacity to develop without threatening the future of the planet. It follows, that developed nations should compensate less developed nations who have yet to use the ecological space they would be entitled to under the principle of equal shares.

Notwithstanding the frequency of this argument and the sense of moral outrage that usually accompanies it, it is far from obvious that developing nations are the ‘victims’ of an unequal and ‘unfair’ use of ecological resources by the global rich. Contrary to the Malthusian doctrines of many greens the process of industrialisation in the developing world today does not require the same intensity of resource use previously required by developed nations. It requires less, because developing countries benefit from the capital structure and innovations that were arrived at in the developed world by an earlier process of trial and error learning. In a period when it was virtually alone in the process of industrialisation, it took 18th century England 58 years to double its national wealth. One hundred years later, however, and owing to its ability to draw on technological developments elsewhere, Japan was able to double its wealth within 34 years and for a smaller level of resource inputs. A further hundred years of industrialisation saw South Korea doubling its wealth within a mere 11 years.[1] The ‘excessive’ use of ecological space by developed nations has opened up the possibility for the developing world to achieve higher living standards without inflicting an equivalent amount of ecological damage.

Inequality in the use of ‘ecological space’ may be a necessary condition not only for economic development, but also for subsequent environmental improvements.

It may not be possible, even in principle, for all people to simultaneously achieve the highest environmental standards. ‘Clean technologies’ for example, cannot be made simultaneously available to all but are dependent on a process of evolutionary change where high cost environmental improvements are first delivered to a few before becoming available to a wider spectrum of people as the cost of technology falls. Thus, ‘low-carbon’ technologies such as solar, wave or wind power cannot be made available to all parts of the world without first having been applied in a number of pioneering countries. Equally, it cannot be assumed that the process of industrialisation and contemporary technological advance could have proceeded on a ‘low-carbon’ basis. The ability to produce effective carbon substitutes today is dependent on an evolved capital structure of ‘high-carbon’ technologies which may have been necessary to enable sufficient production of the components and equipment required to bring low-carbon energy into fruition.

What matters is that given the dependence of ‘cleaner’ growth on a history of ‘dirtier’ growth the most environmentally advanced societies will at any given point either have a history of being the biggest ‘polluters’, or will profit from the technological advances developed by ‘polluting’ societies. There are, however, no common standards of justice, merit or desert to determine ‘who should go first’ in the necessary evolutionary chain. The inequalities in access to economic and environmental goods that prevail today are a combined reflection of purposeful effort by specific individuals and cultural groups, different tradeoffs reflecting a diversity of socio-cultural priorities and, accidents of history and geography. Unless the relative position of different people and countries is to be determined by a more or less random combination of such factors, then the only alternative would be for a global authority to deliberately assign shares of environmental resources to specific actors. The latter process could not, however, be considered commensurate with social justice because there are no globally agreed criteria to determine what this would require.

The concept of ‘corrective justice’ is particularly ill-suited to determine the distribution of environmental goods and bads. While it is true that technological and industrial developments in some parts of the world may have ‘imposed’ potential costs on others that are now seeking to develop in the context of climate change, it is also the case that poorer countries have received uncompensated benefits from this process. Crucially, it is not clear on what basis it could be determined whether the costs outweigh the benefits or vice versa. Any such calculation would require knowledge of what the pattern of economic activity in developing nations would have been were it not for the unequal use of natural resources by today’s developed nations. Such a calculation would presuppose knowledge of countless different resource allocation decisions made by a host of different governments, private individuals and organisations and how the distributive results of those choices would compare with those seen in the world today. There is however, simply no way of knowing how much better or worse off today the inhabitants of say Britain and the United States might be than the residents of India or Brazil if all had started off with an equal allocation of ‘ecological space’, because it is impossible to know which choices and tradeoffs would have been made. In short, the pursuit of ‘climate justice’ is equivalent to chasing a ‘mirage’ in much the same way as is the pursuit of ‘social justice’ more widely.                              


[1] On this, see Norberg, J. (2008) In Defence of Global Capitalism, Washington DC, Cato Institute.

2 thoughts on “The Mirage of Climate Justice

  1. I suspect the payments being promised from the developed countries to the developing countries reflect not some tightly argued conceptions of global ecological justice but rather a political bribe that the former offer the latter in order to get the latter to support binding carbon emissions standards.

    This will all become so much easier if it turns out that geoengineering is a cheaper solution to global warming than carbon reduction.

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