Eric Posner on Climate Justice vs. a Climate Treaty

You Can Have Either Climate Justice or a Climate Treaty
Eric Posner
November 19, 2013

In the wake of the devastation to the Philippines caused by Typhoon Haiyan, a long-standing claim for “climate justice” has re-emerged with new force. Countries vulnerable to more devastation, as temperatures rise, want rich countries that have benefited from industry that produces greenhouse gas emissions to pay them reparations. Advocates argue that climate change negotiations, currently being held in Warsaw, should aim for a climate treaty that forces the climate wrongdoers to pay the climate victims. This would mean countries like Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Kenya getting money from countries like the United States so that they don’t alone bear the cost of a global carbon dioxide overload that they did little to cause. It sounds great—but such an approach would doom the prospects of a climate treaty, and the argument for it doesn’t add up.

Climate justice trades on a powerful moral intuition, embodied long ago in Aristotle’s principle of corrective justice: A person who wrongfully harms another person owes compensation to the victim. The greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today are mostly the result of fossil fuel consumption that goes back more than a century, most of which took place in the United States and Europe. These countries are thus disproportionately responsible for the harm being visited on poor countries.

But there is less to this argument than meets the eye.

Eric Posner