Environmental Justice: Sharing the Burdens of Climate Change

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Environmental Justice: Sharing the Burdens of Climate Change
Michael W. Howard

University of Maine

Philosophy at the Edge 2009: Ethics in Today’s Policy Choices

Camden Philosophical Society

Camden, Maine

July 24, 2009

I am honored to be speaking to you today about how to share the burdens of climate change equitably. We are in the middle of a national debate on a climate change bill, and we are on the eve of the United Nations meeting on climate change in Copenhagen in December 2009, which will set the terms for international cooperation in the years to come. What better time for philosophically minded people to come together and talk about environmental justice? *One idea I will examine is that the polluters should pay for the costs of climate change. I will talk about 3 versions of this polluter pays principle. But, as we will see, the polluter pays principle by itself is inadequate, because it makes no distinction between polluters who are poor and polluters who are rich. The burdens of climate change will fall heavily on the global poor, in at least two ways: 1. The consequences of unmitigated climate change—such as rising sea levels, expanding deserts, more intense storms, and disrupted food supplies—will affect areas of the planet inhabited by some of the poorest people, and they lack the resources to adapt; and 2. reducing the amount of global warming requires reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs—especially carbon dioxide, but also methane and nitrous oxide) just as developing countries need to expand energy use in order to develop, presenting a dilemma between development and climate change mitigation. Justice to the world’s poor obliges the wealthier to reduce GHG emissions at a rate that permits development in poor countries, and to assist these countries in meeting necessary GHG reductions of their own. Our domestic climate change policy must be shaped not only by global justice, but also by a fair sharing of the burden domestically. In both national and global cases, the “polluter pays” principle should be qualified by an “ability to pay” principle. In this paper I will focus mainly on the international aspect of environmental justice.i
The Science
Before defending these claims, I want to take a few minutes to review some of the most important scientific findings that frame the ethical discussion.ii –illustrated by a few slides I borrowed mainly from George Jacobson of the UM Climate Institute, James Hanson, Director of NASA’s Godard Institute, and the Ecoequity research institute. I am not a scientist and am not in a position to judge controversies in climate science. In preparing for this talk I have sought to identify those facts upon which serious climate scientists are in agreement, and to use reliable sources such as Nature, Science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the American Academy of Science.

*Climate change is not a new thing in Earth’s history. For the last million years the Earth has oscillated in and out of ice ages, determined primarily by the Earth’s relationship to the sun. The last spike on the left represents the Holocene epoch, roughly the last 10,000 years, during which human civilization has emerged.

*There is a striking correlation over the last million years between the changes in the Earth’s temperature, and the concentrations of CO2 and methane in the atmosphere. While these concentrations initially follow the temperature increases from solar forcing, as greenhouse gasses (GHGs), they contribute in a positive feedback loop to continued warming.

*What is unique since the Industrial Revolution, and particularly over the last few decades is the increase in GHG concentrations to levels higher than any over the last million years of Earth’s history as we know from study of ice core samples. CO2 concentrations, resulting mostly from human fossil fuel use, are now at 387 parts per million (ppm),iii and if we continue on our current path, the concentration of CO2 will exceed 1000 ppm by 2100.iv This would mean an average global temperature rise of 3-7 degrees C. *To begin to get an idea what such a temperature change would mean, note that this would be warming to higher temperatures than any in the last 10,000 years, during which the average temperature varied by only about 1 degree C. The change in temperature would be as great as that from the end of the last ice age, when Bangor was under a mile of ice, to the 10,000 year average, and would produce dramatic climate change.

*Global warming and climate change are already happening, and will continue at some level, even if fossil fuel use were to stop immediately, because a significant part of the CO2 remains in the atmosphere for centuries (Monastersky 2009). So we have to be concerned not only about emission levels, but about the accumulated concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, which are only partially and slowly absorbed by plants and the ocean. The longer we wait to reduce emissions, the steeper the reductions will need to be.

*Recent evidence suggests that global warming is happening at a pace exceeding projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). **Arctic sea ice is melting faster than expected; the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer by as early as 2030. The Arctic would then absorb rather than reflect solar radiation, amplifying warming. Permafrost, containing more carbon than is currently in the atmosphere, is thawing, releasing CO2 and methane. *The Greenland ice sheet is also melting faster than expected. *Sea levels are rising, and could rise by a meter or more by the end of the century.v **(The IPCC estimates of sea level rise are now thought to be conservative, not taking into account melting of sea ice. In line with Hansen’s prediction, George Jacobson said, in conversation, that a rise in sea levels of 75 inches by 2100 would not be unlikely.) The oceans are becoming more acidic, threatening coral reefs and marine life that depends on them (Pew Center, 2009a).

What are the likely consequences for human beings of global warming of 2 degrees Celsius or more beyond pre-industrial levels? *The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that a business as usual (A1FI) scenario (tripling of CO2 to 950 ppm, and a 3-7 degree Celsius temperature rise by 2100) would result in high risks to many unique and threatened systems{including Arctic sea ice, mountain top glaciers, coral reef communities and most endangered and threatened species}, large increases in extreme weather events {heat waves, wildfires, droughts, flooding, hurricanes}, negative impacts for most regions of the earth, net negative economic impacts {abandonment of or damage to flooded coastal areas or desertified regions, adaptation of infrastructure to new climate conditions, responding to threats from pests and disease}, and high risks of large-scale discontinuities {ice sheet collapse, species extinctions and ecosystem collapse, major disruptions in food chains, hundreds of millions of climate refugees }.vi vii There is some risk of these effects in the B1 (doubling of CO2) scenario.

It will be a challenge to keep the temperature rise to just 2 degrees.viii

*If emissions were to stop in 2012, we would expect elevated levels of CO2 in the atmosphere for a very long time. To keep the temperature at or below 2 degrees Celsius, emissions would need to cease by 2050 on the current path. If emissions continue on the current path to the end of the century, and then cease, we can expect a rise in the average global temperature of 4 degrees or more, with catastrophic and irreversible consequences.ix

*To have a reasonable chance of staying below the 2 degree threshold, global GHG emissions should peak in 2013, and decrease to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050x…. [This will require a concerted will to forego the use of many fossil fuels available to us. *Estimates vary of the remaining reserves of coal, oil, gas and other fossil fuels. But even if we are near peak oil (as the IPCC estimates), vast coal reserves remain. James Hansen of NASA estimates that if we were to place a moratorium on coal-fired power plants that do not capture GHG emissions, improve land use for better carbon sequestration, and phase out coal use by 2030, we could continue to use oil and gas reserves, and still have emissions peak at 400-425 ppm by 2030. However, Hansen thinks that we should aim to bring CO2 concentrations down to 350 ppm or less to avoid further ice sheet melting (Monastersky 2009).xi *In the Earth’s history, Antarctic ice began to form when CO2 levels fell below 450—500 ppm, and levels have been below that for millions of years (Hansen et al. p. 223). *What is remarkable about increases in CO2 levels over the last century is the rate of change. In the long cooling since the Cenozoic Era (65 million years ago), CO2 concentrations changed at a rate of 100 ppm every million years, whereas today human forcings are increasing CO2 concentrations at the rate of 2 ppm per year, provoking greater changes in 50 years or so than without us would occur over a million years. There are lags in some of the effects of global warming—the Greenland ice sheet is not likely to melt for some centuries—but the pace of change is still much more rapid than anything humans and the other species that have evolved alongside us have experienced. The pace of desertification, sea acidification, spread of pests and diseases, species extinction, and disruption of food chains would threaten the survival, not to mention well being, of many of our species.]

An adequate response to this challenge will be costly, and at this late stage is likely to require measures for adaptation as well as mitigation.xii How should the burdens be shared? The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) includes normative principles that I will defend and develop after exploring several conflicting conceptions of fairness in the sharing of climate change burdens.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, accepted by 181 countries in Rio in 1992, stipulated that GHGs are to be stabilized at safe levels, *“on the basis of equity in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capacities” (quoted in Singer 671). This statement includes two principles:

First, a principle of Responsibility, according to which those who have created the pollution should pay—the polluter pay’s principle (PPP). Second is a principle of capacity: those who are more able to bear the cost should pay—the ability to pay principle (APP). Both of these principles support the conclusion that ‘Developed nations “should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.”’ Developed nations accordingly committed themselves to reductions of emissions to 1990 levels by 2000, a goal which was not fulfilled.xiii

The Framework Convention also endorsed the precautionary principle, “to avoid the risk of serious and irreversible damage even in the absence of full scientific certainty.” And it recognized a “right to sustainable development” which justifies initial exemptions from emission reductions for developing countries (Singer, 671).

The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 set targets for developed countries to limit GHG emissions by 2012 to 5% below 1990 levels (8% for Europe, 7% for the US), and accepted the principle of emissions trading (Singer 671). These targets will not be met. European emissions have continued to rise despite implementation of carbon emissions trading. It remains to be seen whether Europe will achieve its stated goal of 20% reductions below 1990 levels by 2020. The US did not ratify Kyoto. The Byrd-Hagel Resolution, which passed the US Senate by a vote of 95-0 shortly before the Kyoto meeting, opposed any exemptions for developing countries.xiv President Bush objected to the agreement because he thought it unfair that “China and India were exempted from that treaty” (quoted in Singer 673).
The principle of fairness invoked here, let us call it the “Future Polluter Pays Principle”, could be expressed as follows: All polluters have an equal obligation not to pollute, regardless of history of past pollution or ability to pay. It would follow that China and India should be under the same emissions targets as developed countries.

History, however, is relevant (at least since 1990), as well as ability to pay. To see why some form of historical polluter pays principle should be adopted, consider the question, who has a right to the atmosphere? It is clear that the atmosphere is a commons. So too, once, was most or all of the earth’s land. How did the land come to be unequally distributed private property? According to the famous theory of John Locke, when one mixes one’s labor with the land, one legitimately takes it out of the commons and makes it proper to oneself. But Locke added an important proviso, that one leave “enough and as good” for the rest. If this proviso is not met, then the owners owe compensation to those who are excluded, comparable to what they would have had from an equal share of common, unappropriated land. This suggests that in Locke’s theory of property there is a right to freedom from extreme poverty, defined as falling below the level of subsistence that one might expect if one had access to one’s share of the unimproved commons.

How is this relevant to the atmosphere? Peter Singer compares the atmosphere to a common sink, which for a long time seems to have an infinite capacity, but now is getting clogged. Some have been using it more than others, and if they continue at the current pace, others will be excluded altogether. “Many of the world’s poorest people, whose shares of the atmosphere’s capacity have been appropriated by the industrialized nations, are not able to partake in the benefits of this increased productivity in the industrialized nations—they cannot afford to buy its products—and if rising sea levels inundate their farm lands, or cyclones destroy their homes, they will be much worse off than they would otherwise have been” (675).

Singer’s analysis supports an obligation for mitigation or adaptation (even on libertarian Lockean grounds), paid for by the polluter, as rectification and compensation for taking more than a fair share. *[The US has contributed 30.3% of cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases, and Europe 27.7%, while China, India, and Southeast Asia combined have contributed only 12.2% (Gore 2006).] Singer notes, “At present rates of emissions…contributions of the developing nations to…[GHG emissions] will not equal the built-up contributions of the developed nations until about 2030….[Adjusting for population, the per person contributions of developing nations will not equal those of developed nations] for at least another century.” Hence, “the developed nations broke it”…and should fix it.

Problems with historical, collectivist PPP

There are however problems with a historical, collectivist PPP. The first, recognized by Singer, is excusable ignorance. It is not fair to hold people responsible for emissions that they did not know—and could not have known—were harmful. Excusable ignorance cannot reasonably be pleaded after around 1990, but this still leaves open the question of who should be responsible for emissions prior to this date.

Second, earlier generations (distinct from their current descendents) were actual polluters, but they cannot pay (Caney 703). xv

The problem of earlier generations can be addressed if we follow Singer in considering the relevant agents to be collectives—typically countries (although corporations might be included). Then, although currently living American individuals did not emit GHGs in 1920 for example, the US did, and some would say that we as a nation should be responsible for our past collective emissions. Collective agency is problematic, however. As Simon Caney (701) points out, it would be unfair (would violate the principle of equality of opportunity) to allow current residents of a historically high emitting country less than an equal per capita share of current emission rights because of actions of others in their country in the past (cf. Singer 682). xvi

Further, there are affluent polluters in developing countries; why shouldn’t they be responsible for some of the burden? And why should poor non-polluters in developed countries be held responsible? These considerations argue for an individualist approach, with 1990 as the reference point.xvii Emissions prior to that date should be treated by an ability to pay principle, which I will discuss in a few moments.
An Individualist PPP—Equal per capita shares

A more individualist PPP, qualified with respect to excusable ignorance, is the equal per capita shares (EPCS) principle: every person is entitled to an equal per capita share of emission rights, compatible with sustaining an atmosphere for all (now and in the future). What is this per capita share?

Peter Singer suggests 1 metric ton of carbon per person per year. This is the amount that would accord with the Kyoto goal of 5% below 1990 emission levels in order to stabilize the carbon in the atmosphere at a safe level. (I leave aside whether, in the light of further scientific evidence since the Kyoto protocol, 1 Mt. is still too much.) Actual carbon emissions in the US, according to Singer, average 5 metric tons per person per year. Japan and Western Europe range between 1.6 and 4.2, with most below 3. Developing countries average .6, with China at .76 and India at .29. What follows according to the equal per capita shares principle? India and China should be allowed to increase their carbon emissions up to a sustainable quota, (perhaps with some caveats concerning population growth), but the US should reduce its emissions by 80% (Singer 678).

This sounds demanding, and may appear politically impossible. These difficulties may in part be reduced through emissions trading (683): a wealthy country then has the option of reducing emissions by less than its quota, if it pays other countries to take responsibility for the amount. For example, the US could pay India not to emit India’s full quota, in order to be able to continue making some emissions above the US quota. In this way a tradable quota becomes an asset for low-emitting countries. Strictly with respect to fairness, Singer observes that the equal per capita shares principle is less demanding on developed countries than the collectivist pure PPP, since it sets aside emissions prior to 1990. On the basis of the EPCS principle, “for at least a century the developing nations are going to have to accept lower outputs of greenhouse gases than they would have had to, if the industrialized nations had kept to an equal per capita share in the past. So by saying, ‘forget about the past, let’s start anew,’ the pure equal per capita share principle would be more favorable to the developed countries than a historically based principle would be…. The claim that the [Kyoto] Protocol does not require developing nations to do their share does not stand up to scrutiny. Americans who think that even the Kyoto Protocol requires America to sacrifice more than it should are really demanding that the poor nations of the world commit themselves to a level that gives them, in perpetuity, lower levels of greenhouse gas production per head of population than the rich nations have. How could that principle be justified?”(682).xviii

So, we may conclude, the EPCS principle does not go too far. But the question I want to pose is whether the EPCS principle goes far enough. While it takes account of responsibility for post-1990 pollution, it does not address pre-1990 emissions. Equally important, it does not address ability to pay. The importance of this can be illustrated with a thought experiment. Suppose in rich country R everyone has an annual income of $15,000 or more, and per capita emissions are twice the per capita allotment. Suppose in poor country P no one has an annual income exceeding $5,000, and half of them live on less than $2 per day, but, because of their poverty, antiquated technology, and slash-and-burn agricultural practices,xix people in P also emit twice their per capita share of emissions. Imposing equal emissions reduction obligations on R and P means that people in P will have even fewer resources for subsistence needs—they will have lower incomes, and lower productivity because of foregone emissions—so that people in R can enjoy more luxuries. How can people in R justify this to people in P, if it is possible for R to assume more of the costs—greater reductions and/or more of the costs of P’s reductions—with the only loss to themselves being a reduction in luxury goods? (See Singer, 679—80).xx

What the Global Rich Owe to the Global Poor

Hobbesian realists might answer that the people in R are stronger, and the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must (as the Athenians put it to the islanders of Melos). This might be an accurate description of what often happens, but can hardly pass as fair. A fair sharing of the burden would involve R making larger than its equal share of reductions, and taking on some of the cost of P’s reductions, so that P still has resources for development. Why is this fair? And just how much of an additional burden should R take on?

If I were to flesh out a philosophical account of fairness to support the intuitive idea in the R and P example, I would turn to the influential contractualist theory of justice developed by John Rawls (1971), according to which social justice is what people can expect from each other from the standpoint of an ideal contractual situation which is fair. You can think of this ideal contractual situation as screening out the inequality in the domination of the stronger over the weaker. It is also a way of spelling out what we owe to one another if we regard one another with equal respect and concern. In the ideal contractual situation, no one has more power than another, each is well informed, and all put their partiality and biases aside. To model impartiality, Rawls famously invented the idea of the “veil of ignorance.” We imagine the parties behind the veil, as they deliberate about what principles of justice should govern their society, being ignorant about what places in society they will occupy. They then have to imagine that they might end up in the worst off social position. This will lead the parties, Rawls argues, to design social institutions and select principles for the allocation of resources, so that the worst off position is as well off as it can feasibly be over time, compared to feasible alternatives. They will, in other words, be guided by a principle—Rawls called it the “difference principle”-- that allows differences of wealth and income and resources only when they are to the advantage of the least advantaged group. (They will, to borrow a phrase from Catholic social doctrine, favor a preferential option for the poor.) So, for example, entrepreneurial activity might yield higher incomes for entrepreneurs, but only to the extent that such activity made the worse off better off than they would be without such incentives in operation. Incomes higher than that would be unjust, because they would enrich the better off from the stock of social wealth, at the expense of the poor.

How does this egalitarian idea apply on the global level? This brings us back to the second question, how much of an extra burden should R take on, of greater emissions reductions than P, and sharing the cost of P’s reductions? There is a spectrum of responses, even among liberal egalitarians.

At one end, cosmopolitans will say that R should take on enough of the burdens of climate change (and also poverty reduction) to enable P to achieve the level of well-being enjoyed by R. There is further discussion about how to define “well-being” (or whether the relevant metric of equality should be resources or opportunities rather than well being).

Liberal nationalists (Rawls among them) hold that R should be obliged only to take enough of the burdens to enable P to reach a human rights decent minimum. But all should agree that ability to pay needs to be taken into account, and those more able have an obligation to take on some of the burdens of climate change, even if not responsible for emissions.

Concluding then that an APP must complement the PPP, how are these principles to be combined?

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