Virtually all moral systems incorporate some notion similar to John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle – the idea that a person’s freedom to act can be legitimately restricted, when the actions of that person cause harm to others.
It is now beyond question that burning fossil fuels causes climate change, and that climate change is harmful to people all over the world. Also, there is a strong case that subjecting future generations to the risk of catastrophic or runaway climate change is morally unacceptable. Moral philosopher Henry Shue equates doing so to forcing someone to play Russian Roulette; even if they don’t end up getting shot, you have still imposed a risk on them in an immoral manner.
As a consequence of what we know about climate change, and what ethical theories tell us about freedom and harm, it seems safe to say that people no longer have an unlimited right to burn fossil fuels. As I mention in a comment on BuryCoal, however, there is a further wrinkle that deserves consideration:
One moral case that does have a bit of traction is based on ignorance and historical trends. Places with abundant coal â€“ for instance â€“ invested heavily in coal-based infrastructure before they were aware of the existence and threatening character of climate change. A strong case can be made for them to be given time to adjust, now that everybody knows that burning those fuels is deeply harmful. That being said, the worldâ€™s current legal regimes strongly defend the rights of resource owners to dig up and sell these fuels as they wish. There is little danger of them being immediately ordered to stop. As such, adjustment time is being provided based on the sheer length of time it is taking for the legal and political systems to take climate change into account.
To me, it now seems fair to tell the world’s fossil fuel users and extractors that their adjustment time has started. They should consider themselves on notice, when it comes to future restrictions on their right to extract and use fossil fuels.
If they are smart, they will be using this time to develop alternatives. That way, investments in appropriate infrastructure can be done efficiently and gradually, rather than in a time of crisis. When our legal and political systems finally catch up to the reality of climate change, they will no longer have much of a legitimate claim for transition time. That is especially true when it comes to some of the grossly inappropriate infrastructure that is being built now, such as coal-fired power plants and unconventional oil and gas projects.