Many people argue that rich countries like the United States should bear a greater burden for climate change mitigation than poor countries, because rich countries have emitted more greenhouse gases. This stance is based on the principle of corrective justice, according to which one who wrongfully does harm must compensate the victim. This principle explains why we fine litterers and force factories that pollute excessively to pay damages to people harmed by the pollution.
However, the application of this principle to climate change quickly runs into problems, while leaving other moral questions — of wealth sharing, redistribution and responsibility — unanswered.
[Other perspectives: If we’re going to fix climate change, we’ll have to get creative]
Many of the people who have engaged in activities that emitted greenhouse gases are our distant ancestors; they are no longer around to pay. And most of the victims of climate change are not yet born. If the United States pays “climate reparations” to India, for example, the money will be paid in large part by people who are not directly responsible for global warming to people who have not yet been hurt by global warming. The real victims will be future Indians — people living many decades or centuries hence.
The common response is that Americans have benefited from industrialization in the distant past, so they ought to inherit the moral liabilities of our ancestors along with the benefits they gave us. However, while Americans have benefited from industrialization, so have Indians. The technology of industrialization has spread far and wide, benefiting people all around the world. If we are responsible for the effects of our ancestors’ behavior on future populations, we need to subtract the benefits from the costs. Very likely, unless climate change turns catastrophic, the benefits of steam engines, computers and vaccines will exceed the climate-related costs, meaning that rich countries will owe poor countries nothing at all.
There are other problems with the corrective justice perspective. It assumes that our ancestors acted wrongfully by emitting greenhouse gases, but there is a question of will and knowledge: No one in the past realized that this activity caused harm. And even if our ancestors did behave wrongfully, the argument assumes that this moral stain is transmitted down generations, and also transmitted to people who immigrated to the United States and their children, who are not even descendants of the climate wrongdoers.
Some commentators might still say that Americans living today are independently at fault because they have not taken more vigorous steps to curb their current energy usage or have not voted into office politicians who support strong climate change mitigation policies. This argument underestimates the difficulty of addressing such a significant problem. People cannot be expected to stop climate change through their individual actions — a person who uses electricity to run his refrigerator is not acting wrongly — and massive changes in public policy take time.
Changes in climate policy in the United States were further hampered by the global nature of the problem — if we had unilaterally cut back on emissions, some industry would have migrated to other parts of the world, leaving the problem unsolved. That’s why a treaty was needed. But moving forward, it does make sense that those who produce greenhouse gases should be required to pay for the harm in proportion to the magnitude of their activity. This is different from saying that people should be punished for their behavior from the past. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the highest per-capita emitters are not Americans but the citizens of Montenegro, Equatorial Guinea and Belize.
The most obvious argument for putting the burden of climate change on rich countries is simply that they can afford it. But if a meteorite destroys some property that is jointly owned by a rich person and a poor person, does the rich person have a moral obligation to bear the entire cost — or even a disproportionate share of the cost — of rebuilding the property? We might admire the rich person if he offers to pay to replace or rebuild the property, but we recognize this act as charity rather than as morally obligatory.
Rich countries should give more aid to poor countries, but the aid should be given to all poor countries — not just those that are hurt most by climate change. For that matter, rich countries should give more money to their own poor citizens. Redistribution of wealth from rich to poor is morally desirable, but it should be pursued broadly — not as compensation for historical wrongs.
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