Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: CLIMATE CHANGE JUSTICE – Posner and Weisbach [Vol. 3, #20]

“The International Struggle over
Reducing Greenhouse Gases

A Review of
Climate Change Justice.

Eric Posner and David Weisbach.

Reviewed by
Marilyn Matevia.

Climate Change JusticeClimate Change Justice.
Eric Posner and David Weisbach.
Hardback: Princeton UP, 2010.
Buy Now: [ Amazon ]

In this somewhat wonky-but-readable discussion of climate change science, policy, and justice, the authors argue that any international treaty aiming to reduce greenhouse gas (hereafter, GHG) emissions must separate the mechanisms and goals of emissions reductions from efforts to serve justice to those states most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.  Failure to make this distinction, they argue, will doom any international agreement and leave nations bickering over degrees of responsibility while greenhouse gas emissions continue to climb.

The first chapter is a thorough summary of mountains of climate change data.  The authors extract from this three “take-home facts” about what will happen in the event that GHG emissions are not significantly reduced: (1) global welfare will deteriorate; (2) poor countries will suffer more than rich ones; and (3) there is a great deal of uncertainty about the expected effects of climate change.  Best-case scenarios foresee modest costs and a resilient climate; worst-case scenarios “are very bad.”  The authors further assert that ALL major emitting nations – including some developing nations – will have to cut emissions in order to reduce the effects of climate change.  Cuts in emissions from developed countries alone will not achieve the levels of reduction needed to avoid climate disaster.  One of their criticisms of the Kyoto Protocol is that it places no emissions restrictions on developing nations.

Chapter 2 examines existing policy instruments for controlling emissions (such as emissions taxes, tradeable emissions permits  aka “cap & trade”, subsidies for emissions reductions, command & control regulations, etc.), evaluating them in terms of their projected effect on emissions levels, and the distribution of costs and benefits associated with each.  The authors conclude that none of the instruments have ethical advantages over the others.

Chapter 3 turns to existing climate treaties.  “Symbols, not substance, have been the order of the day,” the authors write, adding that symbols are not necessarily ineffective: one symbolic action can inspire another and another, until the government senses enough public interest to take substantive action.  But the treaties they review share a lack of meaningful specifics about reduction goals and responsibilities.  This is the inevitable result of those participating/negotiating nations acting on their own short-term interests.  The chapter also looks at the efficacy of litigation and of state and local initiatives, finding them all “wholly inadequate” to the task of significantly reducing GHG emissions.

Chapters 4 and 5 discuss the appropriateness of including demands for distributive or corrective justice in climate treaties.  Chapter 4 asks whether wealthy nations have a particular obligation to deal with climate change, “not because they are principally responsible for the problem, but simply because they are rich.”  Wealth redistribution is costly and ineffective, and will ultimately draw precious resources from more effective routes to emission reduction.  Climate treaties that attempt to reduce GHGs or abate their effects, and simultaneously distribute justice, will ultimately fail at both: states will never agree on responsibility or goals for emission reductions, and foreign aid will end up an “afterthought.”  There are effective ways to redistribute wealth, the authors acknowledge, but these should not be combined with efforts to reduce GHGs.  The logic behind calls for corrective justice is that those nations that have been primarily responsible for climate change should be held responsible for compensation (to those already suffering the effects) and abatement.  It is an intuitively powerful argument, the authors admit.  But chapter 5 argues that corrective justice is a principle governing individuals, not intended to mediate between states, and that it is difficult to administer when there are long intervals between potentially harmful activities and actual harm (as is likely to be the case in climate change).  The effect of corrective justice is to “force many people who have not acted wrongfully to provide a remedy to many people who have not been victimized.”  In my own climate change reading, I have not often encountered the question framing chapter 4: whether wealthy nations should bear the costs of climate change reduction and abatement simply because they are wealthy.  Far more common is the assertion that wealthy industrialized nations are in fact historically responsible for the current stock of GHG emissions, and thus have a special obligation to reduce emissions and facilitate abatement measures.

Chapters 6 and 7 delve more deeply into the technical specifics of per capita emissions calculations, and the role of “discounting” when considering future generations.  Setting emissions levels on a per capita basis is the “reigning” political and ethical paradigm, according to the authors, primarily because it is rarely questioned.  The method intuitively appeals to fairness and equality considerations, but the authors show how a treaty based on per capita emissions calculations could fail on both counts and thus is also infeasible.  Discounting becomes an ethical issue because “seemingly small changes in the discount rate can lead to very large changes in estimates of the costs of climate change and the benefits of abatement.”  Ultimately, the authors caution that while discounting is valid and necessary, it “should be seen only as a method of choosing projects, not as a method of determining our ethical obligations to the future.”

Chapter 8 asks “what are the ethical obligations of wealthy nations?” and makes four claims: (1) wealthy people living in rich nations have an obligation to help poor people in developing countries; (2) this does not necessarily require a climate change treaty – changes in, e.g., trade or migration policies might be more effective; (3) to address climate change, nations must work out a “broad, deep, and enforceable treaty that achieves appropriate climate goals” and will leave all signatories “better off”: if it meets those criteria, then nations have “a moral obligation to cooperate” with it; (4) the surplus that will likely be generated by such a treaty must be distributed: the authors argue that those states that took more aggressive actions to reduce emissions should be rewarded with a larger share of the surplus.

“Climate Change Justice” is a thoughtful, sometimes challenging analysis of climate change policies and their shortcomings.  It would be difficult in the near-term to prove a central claim – that the inclusion of justice-seeking measures in climate treaties contributes to their failure – but the authors provide enough circumstantial evidence to make the proposal a provocative one.  And in an Afterword, they point to the Copenhagen Accord (December 2009) as a concrete example of “the futility of addressing poverty, past injustices, and climate change in a single negotiation.”  However, at several points throughout the text, they speculate on the unlikelihood of getting agreement from wealthy nations on treaty measures that would strike them as unfairly punitive or expensive.  One wonders if it might be equally difficult to get agreement from poor and developing nations – some of whom, the authors argue, must necessarily commit to emissions cuts if we are to achieve global reduction targets – on a treaty that did not include some protections and reparations for them.


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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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