By Connor Schwartz
Climate ethics and climate justice are subjects which hide in the background of COPs and treaties, rarely given any limelight of their own. In fact, the most common appeal to climate justice within negotiations are false ones, nations setting out their stall while grasping furiously for some foundations to stand it upon.
Because, while the neoliberal hegemony of self-interested actors fails miserably to encompass the breadth of human social relations, it is demonstrably accurate on an international level. Powerful nations may appeal to political theory and forms of justice to back up their positions, but you can bet that their move went outcome first, evidence second, and not the other way around.
For example, in the early 2000s while America was resisting becoming party to the Kyoto Protocol, the Bush administration argued furiously that the Annex 1 countries were being unfairly asked to mitigate a crisis which, all things considered, it looked like other countries had a lot more to lose from than themselves.
Slowing anthropogenic climate change will cost us a packet and only benefit Tuvalu, how unjust!
It did not matter, of course, that this claim is justified only by a philosophy so libertarian that no US president (Nixon included) has ever come close to it. No, much more important to scream “injustice!” and hope nobody really notices that the argument doesn’t stack up.
Thus climate ethics has been sullied and debased by negotiators wanting a transcendent justification for their greed. It’s time to put it back at the heart of a global climate regime.
Here is just one such attempt. It’s not perfect but I think it reveals a few key things we are looking for from a global climate treaty, and provides the beginnings of a move away from pragmatism and towards justice.
Hold tight, here comes the theory.
(If you’re not interested in the theory in isolation, jump straight to part two where climate change comes back onto the scene).
When we discuss distributive justice of any kind, the first thing to be argued over is what’s called the “metric” – what exactly it is we should be distributing. Let’s narrow our gaze to egalitarianism – that equality is, for some reason, at least partially good – as it is now almost universally accepted across the liberal democracies.
There are two traditional camps in the metric debate: resourcists and welfarists. As their names give away, resourcists believe justice includes a focus on equalising the amount of stuff people have, whereas welfarists prefer a focus on the wellbeing or happiness people get from that stuff. It’s the classic means/ends debate.
This division has been standing for hundreds of years, splitting radical feminists from their traditional colleagues and communists from conservatives. This impasse however was, I believe, broken in 1979 when Amartya Sen – a heterodox development economist from Bangladesh – gave his Tanner Lecture entitled ‘Equality of What?’.
In this lecture Sen dismantled both metrics, each with a simple thought experiment, asking whether what each model was forced to conclude sounded much like justice or not.
Number one. Take two agents: one able-bodied and another with a severe disability needing round the clock care. Equalise resources. After covering their care expenditure, the disabled agent has far less resources than the able bodied agent to increase their wellbeing with.
Similarly other divides – gender, social position, country of birth, etc. – reach the same conclusion: that a resource egalitarian looks to be saying that justice permits, or even requires, that wellbeing is determined by factors of luck. Ask yourself: does that sound much like justice?
Number two. Brian is a plumber living in the city of London and Vikram works as a dabbawalla, distributing Tiffins to the workforce of Mumbai. Brian, from any objective standpoint, enjoys a far higher standard of living than Vikram yet it is certainly conceivable that Vikram is the happier of the two. Empirically, what’s called “hedonic adaptation” shows us that as our income increases so too can our expectations, resulting in no greater happiness.
So say Vikram is the happier of the two because he expects less, and we have some spare resources to distribute. We must be persuaded to give the extra to Brian. Justice? To say a poor person has no claim to extra resources because their expectations are lower doesn’t sound much like justice to me.
So what does Sen suggest? Justice, he claims, is found in neither resources nor welfare, but some function between the two, some measure of how we can translate resources into welfare. The correct metric for distributive justice is a person’s capabilities or, to be specific, the capability to achieve particular substantive human functionings. Say what?
Put simply, what justice demands is equalised are the real and tangible freedoms that humans can possess. It doesn’t matter how much income a person has, if they have no access to healthcare then they are not being served by justice. It does not matter how happy a person is, if they cannot access education then that is a failure of justice.
Although the language of capabilities was introduced by Sen, it was American theorist Martha C. Nussbaum that developed it into a robust philosophical doctrine.
Borrowing from the young Marx, Nussbaum claims that justice provides entitlement to a plurality of values that are both non-aggregable and non-fungible. In other words, we cannot serve justice by simply giving all a certain amount of a certain thing – say, money – and then leaving them to make choices as to how they trade it.
Rather, we must concentrate on fulfilling a range of indicators that are distinct and cannot be traded off against each other. Simplistically, one could not for example be compensated for an inadequate life expectancy by being allocated more political rights. This stands explicitly against classical and neoliberal theories of development, relying on GNP to assess the growth of a nation and the wellbeing its peoples.
What’s more we do not have to earn these entitlements. They are derived from our entitlement to “the respect and dignity of a life that is fully human”. We possess them, therefore, merely due to our species membership.
(Nussbaum also holds that it is likely many other species are similarly entitled to various capabilities, but for now we can just consider our entitlements on account of our being human.)
That’s all well and good, but what on earth does it have to do with climate negotiations?
Part two focuses on bringing climate change back into the picture, and putting justice back at the heart of a global climate regime.
Tim Dobermann, Healthy Planet COP19 delegation
Have we reached critical mass - a global tipping point - in the climate debate? If not, just how long will it take for the world to act on climate change?
Not long, said Al Gore on Thursday during his Distinguished Lecture for the Oxford Martin School. Citing the civil rights movements in the mid-20th century, and more recently, the sharp turnaround in public opinions over gay marriage, Gore spoke of the significant role movements can play in spurring national and international action. More importantly, he spoke of how - once reaching a critical level of public attention - these issues rapidly exploded onto the political scene, with reforms following soon after.
Our role in shaping the Earth's climate is now beyond question, and the world's leading Earth scientists have laid out what a safe operating space for humanity looks like - and the areas in which we are transgressing those boundaries. However, our responses have been muted; timid, at best. Climate change is an incredibly complex issue. It spans many disciplines and concerns all aspects of our society: economic, political, social, moral and ecological.
Only until recently have serious efforts been made to communicate these effects to the public. Fundamentally, we need a change in mindset about how we view the way we interact with our planet and its ecosystems. We must recognise that, like all species before us - and all species after us - we are dependent on nature for our survival and well-being.
Al Gore draws hope from the fact that all successful movements in the past had one link in common: despite their inherent complexities, they quickly evolved into a simple decision over what was deemed right and what was deemed wrong. It is wrong to segregate or discriminate against people based on the colour of their skin. It is wrong to outcast individuals for their sexual orientation. Now, more than ever, it is wrong to recklessly continue polluting our oceans, ecosystems and atmosphere, damaging our health and placing increasing strain on vulnerable households across the world.
Out of a formidable list of factors that will drive our future - rapid globalisation of economic activity, information technology continuing to connect our world, and inequality pulling our societies apart, amongst others - Gore is not hesitant to declare climate change the largest single driving force of our future.
It's no surprise why. Though the impacts of climate change will not be distributed evenly across the globe, climate change will change what we view as normal - and to an extent it already has. Extreme weather events like the unprecedented European heatwave of 2003, with an estimated death toll of 70,000, or the heavy flooding in Pakistan in 2010, which displaced over 1.5 million from their homes and adversely affected millions of others, are projected to become much more common.
But the effects of climate change on our health and well-being extend far beyond extreme weather events or storms. As the 2009 UCL/Lancet Commission 'Managing the Health Effects of Climate Change' highlighted, often overlooked are the indirect health impacts: water scarcity and more variable rainfall leading to food insecurity and malnutrition, droughts breeding conflict and unrest, or the mass displacement of populations -`environmental refuguees' - out of desperation.
To prevent catastrophic warming, and to avoid further harm to those least responsible for the emission of greenhouse gases, we must usher in a new era of widespread ecological sustainability.
Gore, in a sincere display of passion, ended with a final anecdote: a memory of him as a child, aged 13, listening to John F. Kennedy's famous words on challenging the nation to send a human being to the Moon and back. Many said it wasn't possible; it was too expensive; it just wouldn't work.
Eight years later, in 1969, the world held its breath as humans took their first ever steps on the Moon. Euphoric, the team at NASA headquarters burst into cheers and applause. At the time, the average age of the NASA engineers in the room was 26. This means that, eight years earlier when Kennedy challenged the entire nation, they were only 18.
This story couldn't better reflect how the young people and students of today can - and should - play an active role in shaping our future. With dedication and determination, we can play a tremendous role in ensuring that we establish a safe, just and sustainable operating space for humanity.