Justice and Carbon: Why the rich should cut their emissions

Climate Change

Isaac Marchant

Isaac Marchant studies Philosophy, Politics and Economics at University College London, and is originally from Newcastle upon Tyne in the United Kingdom. He has an interest in philosophy of all kinds, with a preference for those rare authors whose work is both unpretentious and meaningful, as well as a concern for the social problems of his own country and the wider world.

24th November 2020

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Around 86% of global carbon emissions come from high and upper-middle income countries. The poorest 9% of the world’s population emit only 0.5% (Ritchie & Roser, 2020).


Whilst all of us will be affected, the global poor will suffer the most due to climate change. Subsistence farmers will starve due to droughts and unpredictable weather destroying their crops, countries too poor to implement defences will lose thousands to flooding as sea levels rise, and communities will be displaced as fertile land becomes arid (Morton, 2007). Climate change will undermine the basic human rights of millions as they struggle to survive in increasingly difficult conditions. Rich countries ought to cut their emissions not just in the name of self-preservation, but in the name of justice for the global poor.


Climate change will undermine the basic rights of the world’s poor. In particular, the rights to life, shelter, liberty and security will be harder and harder to maintain. Shelters across the world will be destroyed, food and water will become scarcer leading to conflict over dwindling resources, and for many it will become near impossible to even survive. Justice is a difficult concept to define, but to claim that any of this is just would be ludicrous. Indeed, justice requires that human rights are upheld for all irrespective of where they live. Philosopher John Rawls said that each individual is entitled to a ‘fully adequate scheme of individual basic liberties’, and that if these liberties are upheld by a society then that society is just (Rawls, 2001, p. 42). This is inscribed in his conception of justice as fairness, a set of principles which Rawls argued would be agreed upon by individuals from behind the ‘veil of ignorance’ – a hypothetical scenario in which people choose the nature of their society without knowing their place within it (Rawls, 2001). On the less philosophical end of the spectrum, it is listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that each individual has both the right to life, liberty, and security of person, and the right to an adequate standard of living (UN General Assembly, 1948). 


These rights, either Rawlsian or pragmatically defined, are not attainable in the face of climate change. Under our current emissions, sea levels are expected to rise by over a metre (Sachs, 2014), causing millions to be left homeless as coastal settlements are flooded around the world. It is estimated that as a result Africa and Asia could lose a third of their food supply (McKinnon, 2011), meaning starvation and malnourishment for the vulnerable across two continents. In the face of such existential threats, we have no hope of maintaining adequate standards of living for those most vulnerable. Clearly, basic equal liberties will be impossible to uphold. The argument for rich countries cutting their emissions is therefore needs-based, if emissions are not curbed then the basic needs of the global poor will not be met, and millions will suffer. 


But does justice apply internationally? Rawls argued justice meant basic equal liberties (rights), but he also claimed that justice as fairness is a national conception – it does not apply on a global scale (Rawls, 2001, p. 10). David Miller similarly believes that justice requires a political community. For him, justice arises from the shared responsibilities conferred on individuals because of their participation in a cooperative political system. He argues that the global community does not confer obligations in the same way nation states do because it has neither a shared identity nor strong governing institutions (Miller, 1999). For Miller, only when basic human rights are being violated or if one country has exploited another do we owe obligations to other nation states. Perhaps wealthy nations ought to focus on helping the most vulnerable within their own societies first. Indeed, one reason why some nations are so resistant to cutting emissions is because it would lead to economic problems at home, resulting in lower standards of living for many of their own citizens (Sachs, 2014). Does justice really require rich nations cut their emissions? Yes.


First, it is unclear why nationals are more deserving than non-nationals of basic human rights. It is true that we owe special obligations to some people because of our relationship to them. We might be obliged to help our friend move to a new house, but we would be under no obligation to do the same for a stranger. However, this is not the case when lives are at stake. As Peter Singer points out, if a child was drowning in a pond, we surely have a duty to jump in and save her regardless of whether or not we know her, it would be unjust to do otherwise (Singer, 1972).The obligation for rich countries to cut emissions is akin to that placed on us to save the drowning child. Whilst there will be negative economic effects, rich nations are far better equipped to deal with them than the poorest are equipped to deal with climate change. In this analogy, the global poor are akin to the child. Not because they are weak, but because they are in immediate danger through little fault of their own. The global poor cannot help themselves because they are not responsible for the vast majority of carbon output. They are unable to meaningfully cut emissions, and so it is up to rich nations to take the plunge.


Second, the global community is sufficiently interconnected for justice to be relevant when it comes to climate change. Whilst true that there is no global governance proper, the atmosphere is a necessarily shared resource, and this confers responsibilities. Increased emissions in one part of the world will harm other parts, emissions and pollutants easily cross national boundaries, and irresponsible carbon output from a few countries will affect the whole world (Sachs, 2014). Whilst there is no explicit political system of cooperation as Rawls conceived, the shared effects of climate change mean that all humans exist in a de facto atmospheric community with which they have no choice but to participate fairly. That there is no global government in the same way there are national ones bears little relevance to the issue of justice within the global atmospheric community. Justice requires that each individual nation accepts responsibility for its role in this shared system, and rich nations are far more responsible for emissions than poorer ones.


Finally, the exploitation of the poor through irresponsible emissions demands that rich nations cut their carbon output. As a by-product of industrialisation, the United States and the countries of the EU account for over 45% of the cumulative carbon output of humanity (Ritchie & Roser, 2020). Since the atmosphere can absorb only so much carbon before the results of climate change are catastrophic, irresponsible emissions in the past by rich nations means that poor countries simply cannot follow the same path of development (Sachs, 2014). The atmosphere is a shared natural resource, and one which once exhausted can no longer be utilised. Smaller and poorer countries later to develop will be unable to release any carbon because richer nations have already taken greedy advantage. In short, poorer nations, through no fault of their own, have been harmed as a direct result of over-emission by wealthier nations. The rich have taken an unfair amount of a shared natural resource at the expense of those ill equipped to resist. As compensation, rich nations ought to cut their emissions to make up for their past exploitation.


Wealthy nations have a moral obligation to lower their carbon emissions. For too long have they dodged this responsibility and justice demands action. If they do not, the basic human rights of millions will be violated. The potential economic effects on rich nations associated with cutting emissions are insufficient to deny this responsibility, and if anything, the economic effects on poorer nations only justify these cuts more. Even if the economic effects on richer nations were substantial, the shared nature of the atmosphere and the past exploitation of this common resource require that the wealthy cut their emissions so that the rights of the global poor remain unviolated – it is only just.


Bibliography | Further Reading

Etsy, D. C. & Moffa, A. L. I., 2012. Why Climate Change Collective Action Has Failed and What Needs to Be Done Within and Without the Trade Regime. Journal of International Economic Law, 15(3), pp. 777-791.

McKinnon, C., 2011. Climate Change and Future Justice: Precaution, Compensation, and Triage. 1st Edition ed. s.l.:Routledge.

Miller, D., 1999. Justice and Global Inequality. In: A. Hurrell & N. Woods, eds. Inequality, Globalisation, and World Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Chapter 7.

Morton, J. F., 2007. The Impact of Climate Change on Smallholder and Subsistence Agriculture. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104(50), pp. 19680-19685.

Nagel, T., 2005. The Problem of Global Justice. Philosophy and Public Affairs, Volume 33, pp. 113-147.

Pogge, T., 2002. Moral Universalism and Global Economic Justice. Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, 1(1), pp. 29-58.

Posner, E. A. & Weisbach, D., 2010. Climate Change and Distributive Justice: Climate Change Blinders. In: Climate Change Justice. Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Rawls, J., 2001. Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. s.l.:Belknap Press.

Ritchie, H. & Roser, M., 2020. CO2 and Greenhouse Gas Emissions. [Online]
Available at: https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions
[Accessed 2020].

Sachs, N. M., 2014. Climate Change Triage. Environmental Law, 44(4), pp. 993-1038.

Singer, P., 1972. Famine, Affluence, and Morality. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1(3), pp. 229-243.

UN General Assembly, 1948. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. s.l.:s.n.

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