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Justice and Climate Change

photograph of oil pumps in the desert

A recent analysis by Harvard researchers vindicated the work of ExxonMobil’s internal scientists. As far back as the 1970s, Exxon not only knew about human-caused climate change, but had impressively accurate predictions regarding the global temperature over the next several decades. This analysis adds to the pile of documentation concerning the oil giant’s role in climate change misinformation.

Since the story broke in 2015, it has been clear that Exxon was aware of the threat of global warming – to the planet and to company profits – and shifted gears from open discussion to the seeding of doubt. The new research establishes just how good their early internal science was, and accordingly, just how deliberately obfuscatory their tactics.

And so we come to “climate justice.” This slogan designates that anthropogenic climate change is not just an ethical issue, it is a moral one. Typically the concern is one of fairness, and how the burden of fixing climate change should be distributed. What is each country’s responsibility? How does this intersect with their wealth, their historical benefit from fossil consumption, and their expected impact from climate change? Nonetheless, this does not exhaust the space of justice. Lady Justice holds a sword as well as scales.

What should climate justice, in the sense of holding people accountable, look like?

One approach is “atmospheric trust litigation” championed by the organization Our Children’s Trust. They are currently involved in a number of lawsuits against the United States government exemplified by the ongoing case Juliana v. United States which alleges that there is a general right to an atmospheric system capable of sustaining life that has been violated by the actions of the government, and seeks injunctions that would curb the use of fossil fuels.

The core idea is that the atmosphere is a public trust held by the state for public use and the government has failed as trustee, that is, failed to protect and maintain the atmosphere adequately for the public.

It remains to be seen whether this is a good approach to seek legal remedy for anthropogenic climate change, but if one wants to penalize or deter the actions of specific individuals or companies this approach will not work. For ultimately it is the United States government broadly understood that is the target of the lawsuits. An alternative is to not just pursue civil cases against the government, but hold corporations or select actors within, directly accountable for their actions in either causing climate change or deliberately deceiving politicians, shareholders, or the public about climate change.

William Tucker, a lawyer for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has argued (in an individual capacity, not on behalf of the EPA) that fraud is another possibility for holding certain actors civilly and criminally liable. This is nearer to a retributive or deterrent understanding of climate justice. A number of cases have been filed against companies like ExxonMobil for their deceptive business practices, including one in New York (which ended in failure) and an ongoing case in Massachusetts.

A different tack is found in the work of lawyer and activist Polly Higgens. She sought to make ecocide, or the deliberate destruction of ecosystems, a crime under international law. The campaign to make it a law is ongoing, but if successful, people could be criminally prosecuted for gross environmental harms in countries that accepted ecocide as a crime. The notion is increasingly prevalent in European debates on climate change. A similar proposal by political theorist Catriona McKinnon is the inclusion of postericide among international criminal law, for those who engaged in “reckless conduct fit to bring about the extinction of humanity.” These proposals both focus on the harms of human-caused climate change, not just the coverup. The United Nations has also indicated its intent to see criminal prosecution for environmental and climate harms, although their approach is not yet clear.

Especially for Americans, a more crime-based approach to dealing with climate change is unfamiliar.

Narratives of climate change, partially spread by fossil fuel companies, tend to focus on who is responsible for the burning of fossil fuels and often hold a mirror to the modern Western lifestyle. Beef eating, plane travel, and even having children emerge as climate sins. (See the Prindle Post’s ongoing discussion regarding Procreative Autonomy and Climate Change.)

And yet, while climate change has literally billions of contributors, it is only a small number of people in select positions that truly could have acted differently and made an appreciable difference in the current climate crisis. Almost all of us have left a light on, but few of us knew about climate change in the 1970s and chose to launch a multidecade campaign to obscure the truth.

One potential concern is that treating climate change as a crime is inherently retrospective. It may feel good to get the bad guys, but it will not solve the fundamental problem. Although this concern is not unique to climate change – it applies just the same in cases of murder. The dead cannot be brought back to life simply by punishing the wrongdoer.

Different approaches to justice answer this challenge differently. A retributive stance alleges that criminals deserve their due even if it does not undo the harms they committed. Whereas a deterrent perspective focuses instead on discouraging similar behavior in the future.

ExxonMobil’s climate change disinformation campaign is not an outlier, but is a textbook example of a very modern – and challenging – form of immoral action. The public relations strategy of big oil to cast doubt on climate change was the exact same pursued by big tobacco to cast doubt on the health effects of cigarettes. Even the same public relations firm, Hill and Knowlton Strategies, was involved.

People placed high-up in the vast institutional structures erected during the 20th century, like the modern corporation, make decisions – perhaps for profit, perhaps for power – that can have the downstream effect of harming many, many people. Such actions are ill-fit to our intuitions of crime and punishment. A potential crime such as spreading climate change misinformation with the resources of a multibillion-dollar company is characterized by the incredible scale of potential harms, but also by a complete lack of viscerality. It is not gruesome, it is not personal. The causal connection between an executive decision to cast aspersions on climate science and someone dying in an extreme weather event is complicated by the convolutions of corporate structure and the mercuriality of weather. (Although there are scientific methods to tie climate change to specific weather events.)

Nonetheless, a societal answer to this question – of how to ground meaningful accountability for actions mediated by giant institutions – is vitally important. For the harms conducted by a lone murderer pale compared to the damage that can be done with the resources at the hands of governments and corporations.

Climate Justice and COP27

image of earth for international climate summit

The 27th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (known more simply as COP27) is currently underway. These conferences are an opportunity for countries to agree upon policies that will limit global temperature rise. They also provide a forum for discussing ways in which current climate harms can be addressed. This year, climate justice is at the forefront of discussions – with the COP27 Presidency launching the Sharm el-Sheikh Adaptation Agenda. This agenda would attempt to provide assistance for the four billion people living in the most climate vulnerable communities.

But what, exactly, is “climate justice”?

Usually when we think of justice, we think of judges and courtrooms. And while justice might include things like crime and punishment, it extends much further than that. In the context of ethics, “justice” might best be understood as fairness – or as people getting what they deserve.

It is just, for example, for one of my students to receive a good grade for the brilliant essay that they write. It would be unjust, on the other hand, for me to give them a low grade merely because I don’t like their choice of font.

How, then, does justice apply to the climate crisis?

Despite our attempts to limit greenhouse gas emissions, the world is already getting warmer – and this rise in temperature is leading to an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events. It’s behind the heatwave in the U.K., the fires in Washington, and the floods that have left more than one third of Pakistan under water. These climate harms are disproportionately experienced by certain countries. What’s more, those most affected by the negative effects of climate change are some of those least responsible for the crisis. Pakistan, for example, emits less than 1% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The Adaptation Agenda being discussed at COP27 would establish a “loss and damage” fund to assist countries that suffer climate-related severe weather events.

The important question, however, is who should pay for such a fund. One approach would be to have all countries contribute equally to such a fund. Alternatively, we might look to the idea of justice to establish which parties should contribute – and to what extent.

Generally, three different approaches to justice crop up in these discussions: (1) The Polluter Pays Principle, (2) The Beneficiary Pays Principle, and (3) The Ability to Pay Principle. The differences between these principles are subtle, and can perhaps best be understood by way of an analogy.

Suppose that we’re heading into a severe winter, and that I diligently accumulate a generous woodpile to keep my fireplace lit – and my home warm – for the duration of the chilly season. Suppose, however, that one of my neighbors – Neighbor A – sneaks into my yard one night and steals my entire woodpile. Neighbor A isn’t greedy, however. They already have enough wood for the winter. Instead, Neighbor A delivers the wood to Neighbor B – a neighbor who did not yet have any firewood. I, however, am now entirely without firewood. To make matters more dire, let’s assume that I don’t have the ability to collect or pay for more firewood. Who, then, should be responsible for helping me? Who should restock my woodpile?

While there might be certain exceptions, we generally hold people responsible for the problems they create. If I spill a bottle of milk, I should clean it up. If I break my friend’s phone, I should replace it.

We might refer to this as the duty to clean up your own mess. In the firewood example, this would put the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of Neighbor A. This is the neighbor who stole my firewood in the first place, so this is the person who now has an obligation to restock my woodpile.

In the context of environmental ethics, this approach is referred to as the Polluter Pays Principle. Put simply, it holds that the polluter (or polluters) are responsible for any harms resulting from their actions – and that the cost of remedying these harms should be shared proportionately among those polluters. It’s easy, then, to see what the Polluter Pays Principle would say regarding the loss and damage fund: those who have created the most greenhouse gas emissions should be contributing the most to the fund.

But instead of focusing exclusively on who has caused harm, we might also look at who has benefited  from that harm.

Returning to the firewood example, Neighbor A hasn’t really got anything out of the theft of my firewood. Neighbor B, on the other hand, has. They are now in possession of an entire winter’s worth of free firewood. Given this, we might argue that they – the beneficiary of the theft – are the ones that are best placed to replace my firewood. This approach is what’s known as the Beneficiary Pays Principle.

This approach is particularly useful when it comes to the climate crisis, since those who are benefiting from greenhouse gas emissions aren’t always the ones creating those emissions. Take Australia, for example. Australia is the second largest exporter of thermal coal in the world. When this coal is burned, Australia technically isn’t the one doing the polluting. They are, however, benefiting enormously from selling fuel for others to pollute. In fact, if the emissions from their exported coal were taken into account, Australia’s annual per capita carbon emissions (which are already the eleventh highest in the world) would more than double.

There is one final approach that we might consider, however. Suppose that, throughout my firewood theft saga, there is a third neighbor: Neighbor C. This neighbor plays no part whatsoever in the theft of my firewood. They do, however, have an enormous cache of firewood; enough to keep their home – and many other homes – warm throughout the winter. Given this overabundance, we might argue that they have some obligation to step in and come to the rescue. This is precisely what the Ability to Pay Principle suggests: that those with the means to help are under a moral obligation to do so.

When it comes to something like a loss and damage fund, then, the Ability to Pay Principle would recommend that we don’t waste time trying to figure out who polluted or benefited. Instead, it is the wealthiest countries that should be providing the lion’s share of the assistance.

The Polluter Pays, Beneficiary Pays, and Ability to Pay Principles, then, all take very different approaches to justice. As a result, they will often identify entirely different parties as being responsible for solving a problem – just as they did in the firewood example. This can stall discussions of justice, as parties quibble over which approach should be taken – usually favoring the approach that doesn’t put the responsibility on them. When it comes to climate justice, however, this should be less of a concern. This is because there is an enormous amount of overlap across these three approaches. Put simply: those who have created the most greenhouse gas emissions (like the U.S.) also tend to be those who have most benefited most from those same emissions. And they also tend to be among the most affluent countries. For these nations, then, it will not matter which approach to justice we ultimately decide to take – they will have a moral obligation to help those ravaged by climate-related disasters all the same.

Climate Change and the Defense of Ignorance

photograph of factory air pollution silhouette

Although first uncovered some years ago, a New Zealand newspaper article from 1912 touting the environmental dangers of carbon emissions has again been making the rounds. But why is information like this morally relevant? And what does it mean for the responsibility of particular parties?

Successfully combating the climate crisis will involve huge burdens for certain countries, corporations, and individuals. Some of these burdens will be in the form of mitigation – that is, taking action to do all we can to reduce the effects of climate change. In 2011, nearly all countries agreed to limit the global average temperature rise to no more than 2°C compared to preindustrial levels – the maximum global temperature rise we can tolerate while avoiding the most catastrophic effect of climate changes. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, achieving this with a probability of >66% will require us to keep our global carbon expenditure below 2900GtCO2. As at the time of writing, only 562GtCO2 remains. Note that this is already 2 GtCO2 less than when I wrote another article on climate harms only three weeks ago. In order to ensure we don’t go over budget, certain parties will have to severely reduce their consumption: forgoing the cheap and easily accessible fossil fuels we’ve been exploiting for hundreds of years, and investing heavily in new, cleaner sources of energy.

But there will also be adaptation burdens – that is, costs associated with dealing with the effects of climate change that already exist. Examples of these burdens include building seawalls, fighting floods and fires, and potentially rehoming those who find themselves displaced by extreme weather events and abandoned by their insurance companies.

Usually when a problem creates costs, we look to pass those costs on to the person/s who caused the problem.

Suppose I find a large, deep hole on what I believe to be an empty plot of land adjacent to my property. I then begin to use this hole as a dumping ground for organic waste – grass clippings, tree trimmings, and the like. It seems to be a fortuitous arrangement. I no longer have to pay for the expensive disposal of large amounts of green waste, while at the same time filling in a potential hazard to others. Suppose, however, that a few weeks later I’m approached by an angry neighbor who claims that I’m responsible for going onto their property and filling in their newly dug well. Our intuition would most likely be that if anyone needs to compensate the neighbor for this wrong, it’s me – the one who created the problem. This approach is commonly referred to as the “Polluter Pays Principle.”

In some cases, however, this principle doesn’t apply so well. Suppose that I’m particularly lazy, and instead pay someone to dispose of my green waste in that same hole. In that case it seems less appropriate to place responsibility on the one who is technically doing the polluting (the person I employ). Instead, it still seems apt to make me responsible. Why? Well, even though I’m not the one putting the refuse in the hole, I am the one benefiting from the outcome – disposing of my waste and saving money. This approach is referred to as the “Beneficiary Pays Principle.”

Both of these principles play a huge role in establishing – at the global level – who should take on the mitigation and adaptation burdens required to combat the climate crisis. But they also rely heavily on something we’ve not yet discussed: knowledge.

Consider the application of the Polluter Pays Principle to the well example above. Arguably, we might say that even if I’m responsible for filling the hole, it wouldn’t be right to hold me responsible so long as I had no reasonable idea that it was, in fact, somebody’s well. It seems that I should only be responsible for the actions I take after I’m informed that what I’m doing is wrong. The same is true of the Beneficiary Pays Principle. Suppose that I pay someone to remove the green waste from my property – but have no idea that they are, in fact, dumping it down someone’s well. Once again, this lack of knowledge would seem to make it inappropriate to hold me responsible. Ignorance would be an excuse.

Nineteen-ninety is often held as the watershed hour for the climate crisis. This is when the IPCC issued their first assessment report, and when the world came to officially learn of “climate change” and the existential risk it posed to us.

Countries and corporations often attempt to avoid responsibility for any contribution to the crisis (i.e., carbon emissions) made prior to 1990 – citing ignorance. But it’s a lot more complicated than that.

The Center for International Environmental Law has outlined how Humble Oil (now ExxonMobil) was aware of the impending climate crisis as early as 1957, with the American Petroleum Industry coming into this same information only a year later. By 1968, the U.S. oil industry was receiving warnings from its own scientists about the environmental risks posed by the climate crisis, such that – by the 1980s – these companies were spending millions of dollars to protect their own assets, such as by modifying oil rig designs to account for rising sea levels.

And then there’s that little New Zealand article from 1912. In fact, this is predated by an even earlier warning, with Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius publishing a paper in 1896 predicting a global increase in temperature as a result of increasing carbon emissions. All of this means that while ignorance might sometimes be an excuse when attributing responsibility, no such ignorance can be claimed by those who have created – and continue to contribute to – the global climate crisis.

Why Trivial Contributions to the Climate Crisis Still Count

photograph of water pollution with skyscrapers on opposite shoreline

Countries resistant to meaningful climate action often point to the relatively small size of their contributions to global carbon emissions. It is this very point which conservative Australian broadcaster Alan Jones sought to convey with his infamous grain-of-rice demonstration. The argument against Australia taking climate action, it seems, goes something like this: Even if anthropogenic climate change is a concern, and even if Australia is adding to this problem, their contribution (about 1%) is trivial compared to the exceedingly large contributions of other nations (such as China and the U.S. with 28% and 15% of global emissions respectively). Given this, it is these emissions heavyweights that should bear most — if not all — of the responsibility for taking climate action. Call this the Trivial Contribution Argument.

But is this a good argument? For starters, let’s ignore the fact that — despite their relatively small total emissions — Australia has the third worst per capita emissions rate in the world. Let’s also ignore the fact that when emissions from coal exports are taken into account, Australia’s total contribution to global carbon emissions is closer to 3-4%. Assuming that Australia is responsible for only 1% of global carbon emissions, does this excuse them from taking meaningful climate action?

In order to answer this question, it’s necessary to dig a little deeper into how the Trivial Contribution Argument works. One underlying assumption seems to be that a trivial contribution, when remedied, will only ever provide a trivial solution — one that is unlikely to solve the problem in question. Suppose, to borrow a vivid illustration provided by one philosopher, I am currently pouring a jug of water into a flooding river. Suppose, further, that the river is about to breach its banks downstream and cause devastation to a nearby town. Am I under some kind of obligation to curb my behavior? My contribution to the flood is trivial, and — for this same reason — any remedy to my actions will only provide a trivial solution. Sure, I can refrain from pouring the jug into the river — but this won’t prevent the flood. Given this, there seems to be no compelling reason for me to modify my behavior; it makes no difference either way.

This, it seems, is the fundamental reasoning behind a country pointing to its trivial carbon emissions as a way of avoiding their obligation to engage in meaningful climate action. Unless larger polluters (like China and the U.S.) do more, there is little to be gained from the remedial actions of smaller emitters. Given that climate action always comes at a cost — both economically and otherwise — why would countries decide to bear this burden when it won’t solve the problem?

Such reasoning, however, is deeply flawed. Consider another example to show why this is the case. Suppose that official waste disposal is expensive in my neighborhood, and that — instead of paying for this service — my neighbors begin dumping their garbage on my front lawn. The damage to my garden (and property value) is predictably severe. I eventually catch one of my neighbors tossing a burger wrapper on to my property and confront him about his behavior. He shrugs his shoulders and says that he isn’t the culprit I need to worry about. He surveys the accumulated rubbish pile and estimates that he’s responsible for less than 1% of the waste. He identifies two of my neighbors as littering heavyweights, claiming that they, together, are responsible for more than 40% of the waste. He explains that curbing his own behavior won’t do much to help until I convince those neighbors to do something about their own behavior. With that, he shrugs his shoulders, flings a banana peel onto the heap, and departs.

In this context, the unreasonableness of my neighbor’s defense is plain to see. Yes, there are those who are more responsible for the problem. But he is still responsible for at least some of the problem, and thus responsible for at least some of the solution. While ending — or at least reducing the extent of — his littering will not remedy the issue entirely, this does not excuse his complete inaction.

In fact, the Trivial Contribution Argument isn’t merely flawed — it’s actually paradoxical. Suppose we accept that a 1% contribution is small enough to excuse a country like Australia from any obligations regarding climate action. What percentage, then, would require them to act? Those emitting 2% will point to those emitting 5%, and those emitting that amount will shift the blame on to those emitting even more. Inevitably, the buck will be passed upwards until only the largest emitter is held responsible. But herein lies the paradox: While China is the world’s largest carbon emitter, they are still responsible for ‘only’ 28% of total global emissions. Thus, any remedial action taken by China would be limited to solving no more than a quarter of the problem. Indeed, China could shirk their own responsibilities by saying “even if we do all we can, it won’t be enough, as the remaining countries (combined) are doing far more damage than we are.” In this way, the rationale behind the Trivial Contribution Argument would allow China to shift blame back on to the smaller emitters — leading us full circle, with no responsibility attributed.

The only way to avoid this is to deny the validity of the Trivial Contribution Argument; that is, to deny the claim that a trivial contribution to a problem should be treated like no contribution at all. This is why — when considering the demands of climate justice as they relate to climate action — philosophers tend to take a more pluralistic approach. While the extent to which an actor has contributed to a problem (often called the Polluter Pays Principle) is relevant, we also take into account other principles — such as the extent to which an actor has benefited from the problematic behavior (the Beneficiary Pays Principle) and the actor’s capacity to provide a solution (the Ability to Pay Principle). This more nuanced approach is vital if we wish to engage in real and effective climate action on a global level.

The Ethics of a Revenue-Neutral Carbon Tax

photograph of traffic gridlock for multiple blocks

“It’s just an excuse to take more money from us.” As Canada has implemented a carbon tax, this is the commonly voiced complaint. This kind of skepticism appears to be grounded in the belief that a) climate change either is not real or not a threat and that b) a tax is an inappropriate reaction to the situation. When first confronted with the idea of a revenue-neutral carbon tax people’s response is often one of puzzlement. However, after explanation, skeptics often become receptive. But is a revenue-neutral tax ethically better than one that is not revenue-neutral? 

A revenue-neutral tax is a tax that does not increase the revenue for the operating expenses of the government. All of the money collected through taxation is distributed back to people, usually in the form of rebates directly to taxpayers or through reductions in income taxes. The government’s net revenue does not increase, hence the tax is revenue-neutral. Those who favor such taxes like the idea that the size of government does not increase. It also answers the skeptic from earlier; it isn’t just an excuse for a tax because it does not contribute to the government’s net revenue. 

If every taxpayer receives a rebate of the same amount, then those who use the least carbon get to keep the largest amount of money. Those who use the most carbon either save the least or have to pay more. Thus, the economy as a whole is incentivized to use less carbon and to invest in products and technologies that are better for the environment. Ethically, a tax like this seems prudent; it helps address climate change and it does so in a way that it can address the concerns of tax skeptics. 

On the other hand, a revenue-neutral tax potentially overlooks important ethical concerns. For example, climate change is likely going to lead to infrastructure and public health problems. Philosopher Simon Caney has described some of the ethical duties in adapting to climate change. These include spending money on building sea-walls to protect people in coastal areas, subsidizing people to move from threatened coastal settlements, and spending money to inoculate people from infectious diseases that will become a greater danger due to climate change. Often, these kinds of expenses fall on governments to fund. 

British Columbia was the first jurisdiction in North America to implement a revenue-neutral carbon tax. One of the legal requirements of the tax initially was that carbon tax revenue be offset through income tax reductions. 

As one can imagine it is difficult to raise those taxes again after they have been cut. Thus, as costs relating to climate change begin to fall on governments those governments may find it more difficult to raise additional revenue to pay for additional expenses because of a revenue-neutral tax.

Further, the effects of climate change are going to be most felt by future generations. Climate change will be expensive as well as economically disruptive. This means that those most affected by the costs of climate change will be worse off when it comes to managing the effects. A non revenue-neutral tax would allow governments to provide additional funding and investments for future generations and thus better fulfill ethical duties of adaptation to climate change. Indeed British Columbia recently opted to change their revenue-neutral policy so that those tax funds can be devoted towards energy retrofits and public infrastructure in order to support climate adaptation.

Often carbon taxes are considered justifiable according to what is called the polluter pays principle. According to Mizan R. Kan this principle has a long standing and widespread rationale. It holds that those who cause damage through pollution should pay for it. While not universal, many interpretations of the principle hold that the polluter should not only pay for engaging in pollution, but also to compensate for that damage. This would mean that there are duties of funding adaptations to climate change. 

A revenue-neutral carbon tax does require polluters to pay for their pollution but it does not require them to compensate for the damage that their pollution costs. Thus, the polluter pays principle may better justify a non revenue-neutral carbon tax over one that is revenue neutral. If we interpret this principle not only as an economic principle but as an ethical one, then a non revenue-neutral tax that uses funds for adaptation would seem to be more ethically justified then a revenue-neutral one.

Of course, a carbon tax is not the only way to meet ethical duties of preventing and adapting to climate change, and a non revenue-neutral tax may be a harder sell to the public and to politicians. Conservatives can support a revenue-neutral tax because it does not increase the size of government and proposing the alternative may increase political gridlock, making it more likely that nothing will be done at all. This is why the choice between a revenue-neutral and a non revenue-neutral tax presents an ethical dilemma. 

A non revenue-neutral carbon tax offers the opportunity to use funds to meet ethical duties both to prevent climate change and to fund adaptations to climate change. This can not only help us today but it can satisfy duties that we may have to future generations. Thus, as a single policy it better satisfies our ethical duties. However, it may be more difficult to get bi-partisan support to pass such a tax given skeptical attitudes and cynicism regarding efforts to tackle climate change. If no tax is passed at all and no other policy proposal (such as a cap-and-trade scheme) is enacted then even fewer ethical duties are met. Thus, because a revenue-neutral tax may be more practical in that it has the best chance of being enacted, it may be the most ethical option. 

Perhaps the best solution is to ensure that the public is better informed about the differences and merits of both kinds of taxes so that a more rational and fact-based conversation can be had. For the public to best articulate its needs and determine which is the most effective option, it will likely require an open and honest discussion about what the needs of local communities are and will be, and what will allow the public to see a carbon tax as a legitimate option for addressing climate change.