A few thoughts on climate justice

2007-12-16

in Bombs and rockets, Canada, Politics, Science, Security, The environment

Bell Canada warning sign

A couple of articles at Slate.com address the issue of ‘climate justice.’ This is, in essence, the question of how much mitigation different states are obliged to undertake, as well as what sort of other international transfers should take place in response to climate change. The issue is a tricky one for many reasons – most importantly because anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions constitute a unique experiment that can only be conducted once. If we choose the wrong collection of policies, all future generations may face a profoundly different world from the one we inherited.

If we accept Stern’s estimate of a five gigatonne level for sustainable global emissions, that works out to about 760kg of carbon dioxide equivalent per person on Earth. Releasing just 36kg of methane would use up an entire year’s allotment, as would just 2.5kg of nitrous oxide. One cow produces about 150kg of methane per year. Right now, Canada’s per-capita emissions are about 24,300kg, when you take into account land use change. American emissions are about 22,900kg while those of India and China are about 1,800kg and 3,900 respectively. Because of deforestation, Belize emits a startling 93,900kg of CO2e per person.

The questions of fairness raised by the situation are profound:

  1. Should states with shrinking populations be rewarded with higher per capita emissions allowances?
  2. Should states with rising populations likewise be punished?
  3. Should developing states be allowed to temporarily overshoot their fair present allotment, as developed states did in the past?
  4. To what extent should rich states pay for emissions reductions in poor ones?
  5. To what extent should rich states pay for climate change adaptation in the developing world?

It may well be that such questions are presently unanswerable, by virtue of the fact that answers that conform with basic notions of ethics clash fundamentally with the realities of economic and political power. We can only hope that those realities will shift before irreversible harmful change occurs. Remember, cutting from 24,600kg to 760kg per person just halts the increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2. The level of change that will arise from any particular concentration remains uncertain.

Another vital consideration is how any system of international cooperation requires a relatively stable international system. While it is sometimes difficult to imagine countries like China and the United States voluntarily reducing emissions to the levels climatic stability requires on the basis of a negotiated international agreement, it is virtually impossible to imagine it in a world dominated by conflict or mass disruption. It is tragically plausible that the effects of climate change could destroy any chance of addressing it cooperatively, over the span of the next thirty to seventy years.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

. December 16, 2007 at 1:56 pm

The United Nations and climate equity
U.N. creating small Adaptation Fund by going carbon neutral

The IPCC has warned us that developing nations are poised to bear the most dramatic effects of global warming, and so far we (the world) have done practically nothing to counter or prevent that fact. But the U.N. is trying.

Sarah December 16, 2007 at 8:50 pm

Given the moral and practical difficulties associated with population growth in regard to climate change, perhaps the provision of free and effective contraceptives for all should be an explicit part of the strategy. Or is this already part of the planned ‘technology transfers’ from developed to developing world?

R.K. December 16, 2007 at 10:20 pm

1. Should states with shrinking populations be rewarded with higher per capita emissions allowances?
2. Should states with rising populations likewise be punished?

These can be dealt with together, indirectly. You choose an arbitrary date when you say the global warming problem was identified. Then, you divide sustainable emissions equally on per capita terms, using that as the base year.

From that point on, states with rising populations see per-capita emissions shrink and vice versa. This would be relatively simple and fair, and would be supported by most developing nations (since their demographics have shifted to birth rates below replacement rates).

Milan December 16, 2007 at 9:46 pm

Or is this already part of the planned ‘technology transfers’ from developed to developing world?

Almost certainly not. If you think it is hard to get the United States and Saudi Arabia to sign up to a climate agreement, just try doing so when it includes something on the provision of contraception.

Milan December 16, 2007 at 10:45 pm

The support of developed states is far from guaranteed. The cuts required are deep, and they have the most cutting to do. Cutting per-capita Canadian emissions to a sustainable level may be a lot harder than doing the same with Indian or Chinese emissions.

Also, while states with aging populations might see advantages in this formula, it is sure to be bitterly opposed by states with fast-rising populations – especially if those people are relatively poor and could thus see big welfare gains from fossil fuel-led development.

Litty December 17, 2007 at 2:58 pm

To what extent should rich states pay for emissions reductions in poor ones?

Since the states that are now rich became so through means that are doing harm to poor states, and will do worse harm in the future, the answer to this question is “quite a lot.” Of course, that’s a position that “clash[es] fundamentally with the realities of economic and political power.”

tristan December 18, 2007 at 4:47 am

Isn’t another issue of climate justice how we can defend sanctions against countries that refuse to agree to co2 reduction targets? At some point, it seems, military intervention could be justified. But it is unclear that the current situation of no world sovreign government that this could be enforced.

Do the demands of climate change require states to give up their sovreignty because climate change is essentially a world issue rather than state issue, and it is unclear that mere agreement will be enough to force staets to stick to reductions enough to prevent disasters? Or, is it possible to put in structures that will make it in states best interests to obey the targets set by the initial agreement?

I suppose that is a more traditional IR question.

Rob December 18, 2007 at 11:13 am

“”To what extent should rich states pay for emissions reductions in poor ones?

Since the states that are now rich became so through means that are doing harm to poor states, and will do worse harm in the future, the answer to this question is “quite a lot.””

Visiting the sins of the fathers is such a appealing moral maxim, isn’t it?

“It may well be that such questions are presently unanswerable, by virtue of the fact that answers that conform with basic notions of ethics clash fundamentally with the realities of economic and political power.”

Unanswerable and unimplementable are not the same thing. If they were, we’d all be living in a Rawlsian paradise by now.

Anon December 18, 2007 at 11:33 am

Visiting the sins of the fathers is such a appealing moral maxim, isn’t it?

They weren’t even ‘sins.’ People building coal-fired machinery in 1800 cannot really have known that it would lead to people around the world suffering some future harm.

The morally relevant element here is more ‘ability to pay’ than ‘historical responsibility.’ That said, both apply strongly in the period since the realities of climate change have been known.

Anon December 18, 2007 at 11:41 am

Do the demands of climate change require states to give up their sovreignty

States have no sovereign right to impose ecological harms on other states:

“the environment is not
an abstraction but represents the living space, the quality of life and
the very health of human beings, including generations unborn. The
existence of the general obligation of States to ensure that activities
within their jurisdiction and control respect the environment of other
States or of areas beyond national control is now part of the corpus
of international law relating to the environment.”

INTERNATIONAL COURT OF JUSTICE.

REPORTS OF JUDGMENTS,
ADVISORY OPINIONS AND ORDERS
LEGALITY OF THE THREAT OR USE
OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS
ADVISORY OPINION OF 8 JULY 1996

tristan December 18, 2007 at 2:07 pm

“States have no sovereign right to impose ecological harms on other states”

States have the right to go to war when it is in their interests. They cannot give up this right without giving up their sovereignty, because it would mean loosing the right to withdraw from agreements when they are no longer in their best interests. “Best interests” can, and should be, interpreted with a long view.

Milan December 18, 2007 at 6:25 pm

States do not “have the right to go to war when it is in their interests.” This is the whole point of international law! It is what the whole discipline grew up around.

States have the right to go to war in three situations:

  1. In self defence, after being attacked
  2. In defence of an ally who has been attacked
  3. Preemptively, when the need is “instant, overwhelming, and leav[es] no choice of means and no moment for deliberation.” (The Caroline Doctrine)

Anything else is a war crime. In fact, that is what ‘war crime’ originally meant: prosecuting aggressive war.

Milan December 18, 2007 at 6:28 pm

Sovereignty means the right to control over your territory. States do not have the right to harm others. There may be times when considerations of right and wrong fly out the window, but there is no formulation of international law that says that states can go to war whenever they choose.

The ICJ decision quoted above does a good job of arguing why they don’t have the right to impose ecological harm on other states either.

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