I gave a talk in Utrecht this weekend, as part of a series called ‘Rights to a Green Future‘. I was asked to do the usual number on climate justice, but rather than just dust off an old talk, I decided to have another look at the emerging science of climate change. I ended up saying that the usual arguments for action on climate change are shifting around, because both our grip on the facts of climate change, and in some sense the facts themselves, are shifting around too.
I’ll run a shortened version of each argument past you in a series of three blog posts – one about arguments for action based on cumulative emissions, one about the argument for equal emissions rights now, and the last on arguments for a sustainable future. Here’s the first, on arguments from emissions histories.
Historical arguments for action on climate change turn, in an obvious way, on the connection in our thinking between causal and moral responsibility. During the last century, the argument goes, the developed countries in Europe and North America produced such an abundance of greenhouse gas emissions that our world is now damaged, changing into a less hospitable place. The changes we’ve caused result in a lot of unnecessary suffering, both now and in our future – poignantly and relevantly, much of that suffering will fall disproportionately on people who, historically, had little to do with its cause. The developed world is causally responsible for this suffering, and if we think that one has a moral obligation to do something about the unnecessary suffering one causes, then the developed world has a moral obligation to do something about climate change.
Peter Singer makes the point, starkly and much better than I can, in his book One World:
‘To put it in terms a child could understand, as far as the atmosphere is concerned, the developed nations broke it. If we believe that people should contribute to fixing something in proportion to their responsibility for breaking it, then the developed nations owe it to the rest of the world to fix the problem with the atmosphere.’
Strong, straightforward, and compelling stuff. It seems to follow, swiftly, that the developed world ought to follow a path of swift emissions reductions, as well as offer to do something about the unavoidable trouble that’s already in the pipeline.
You can hear something similar in arguments which depend on the so-called ‘polluter pays principle’. It appears in the 1992 Rio Declaration, accepted by 130 nations:
‘National authorities should endeavour to promote the internalization of environmental costs and the use of economic instruments, taking into account the approach that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution.’
There is also talk of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and indeed many developing countries, notably Brazil, have argued at length in an effort to ensure that historical responsibility at least remains on the table in climate change negotiations.
What I want at least begin thinking about is the possibility that the history of emissions is no longer a simple, straightforward story, and that, perhaps, we need to rethink the connection between causal and moral responsibility and the role of the developed world when it comes to taking action on climate change.
The trouble has to do with the shifting facts of climate change. It might have been unthinkable, perhaps 5 or 10 years ago, that emissions in the developing world would increase as they in fact have.
This is roughly how cumulative emissions looked about 10 years ago, in the year 2000, according to the World Resources Institute.
But a study of projections undertaken in 2008 by Botzen et al shows that the cumulative emissions story is set to change, and perhaps with it, a part of the moral dimension of climate change. They write:
“Currently the USA has the highest level of cumulative CO2 emissions, followed by Western Europe, China, Japan and India. However, this ranking changes dramatically in the coming decades. In 2031 India will have emitted more CO2 than Japan. In 2021 China will have larger cumulative CO2 emissions than Western Europe, and in 2052 China will surpass the USA as the largest cumulative emitter. India is expected to have a larger total of cumulative emissions than Western Europe shortly after 2080.” (Botzen et al, called ‘Cumulative CO2 emissions: shifting international responsibilities’, Climate Policy, 8 (2008) 569 – 576.)
What does this shift in the facts of cumulative emissions mean for talk of responsibility and action? You might think that in about ten years China will be responsible for more cumulative damage to the planet than Europe, and, therefore, it will have a larger moral responsibility to take action than Europe. Maybe in the middle of this century, China will have a larger historical obligation to act than even the United States. Perhaps, nearer then end of this century, India will be more responsible for damage to our world than we are in parts of the West, and perhaps it too should then have a larger share of the moral burden for action.
There are, however, wrinkles, and probably something more than a simple connection between causal and moral responsibility is now needed if we are to think our way through the changing facts of cumulative emissions. It’s worth noticing that a lot of the emissions in the developing world are somehow partly ours, as they result from the production of goods that we buy. We have, in a way, outsourced our emissions.
But even if we look away from this, does it make a difference that the West got there first? If our emissions hadn’t been so high in the past, then some developing countries would not face the burden of moral trouble that they stand a good chance of being in relatively soon. In a sense, our generation, which knows better, is passing the hard moral choices on to those who will come after us, in our country and other countries. Does that force us to cut them a bit of moral slack, even as their emissions rise so dramatically?
Did or does the West have an obligation to help the developing world leapfrog past dirty energy – particularly since the developed world still has more cash and more power than those whose lives are just getting tolerable?
Or should we think that China and perhaps India are in fact in worse shape, morally speaking, given that the bulk of their industrial history, unlike the West’s, will happen against the backdrop of a clear understanding of climate change?
I don’t know how to answer these questions, but they are relatively new ones in reflection on the moral dimension of climate change, brought on by a shift in the facts as we know them. What’s clear is that arguments for action based on cumulative emissions histories are shifting along with those histories – it’s no longer that easy to talk about climate victims and villains.
Other shifts are perhaps more interesting, certainly more worrying, which have to do with per capita emissions and emissions rights, and we’ll come to those next, but first I’d very much like to know what you think about historical arguments for action on climate change.