One of my classes this week was on “climate justice”.  In the history of ideas, this is a relatively new one, which is used to highlight how the burdens of climate change are likely to be borne disproportionately by people who are already dealing with poverty and/or powerlessness.  Meanwhile, the benefits of the activities that cause climate change are enjoyed disproportionately by the world’s richest and most powerful people, with their resource-intensive lifestyles.  But I found that understanding the dictionary definition of the term generates more questions than it answers.  It doesn’t provide an immediately straightforward path for dealing with the problem – indeed, the closer you look, the messier the situation seems.  I started trying to make sense of it by scribbling down ideas and connecting them up, spider-diagram style.  This blog (and perhaps one or two blogs after this) is an attempt to disentangle the different things we mean when we ask that justice be done.

What does justice have to do with climate change?

Humans seem to have a deeply-embedded sense of justice, which they use to interrogate the world around them and decide whether what they see and experience is ‘just’ or not.  I remember feeling it at an early age, carefully weighing up at Christmastime whether the presents my siblings received were equal in worth to the presents I received.  But I’m not sure where it comes from – that’s opening up a whole can of worms.  Nature or nurture?  Spiritual sensibility, religious doctrine, or evolutionary advantage?  I’m not going to speculate on that topic here; for the sake of argument we’ll just take it as given that it’s there and it’s partially responsible for driving human actions.

There is no natural law or scientific logic that demands we tackle climate change.  Scientific evidence, theory, and models suggest the planet’s climate is changing.  There is other evidence that suggests these changes will, on balance, be harmful to human activity.  But science does not say “you ought to do such and such”.  Science can only say what is (and it doesn’t often say that – it’s more likely to say “there’s a good chance that such and such is occurring because of x, y, and z”).  It is up to us, as human beings with a sense of morality, to interpret the scientific findings and decide what it is we ought to do.  (Of course, this is an idealised description.  In practice, the distinction between facts and values does not clearly map onto the realms of science and politics/morality.)

A sense of justice is not the only driving force behind efforts to tackle climate change, but it is one of the big ones.  At the heart of these efforts is an acknowledgement that it would not be fair for this generation to leave the planet worse off than its present state.  There’s also a sense that it’s not fair for people with few resources to bear the cost of a problem caused by people rich in resources.  Ideas about justice and responsibility are embedded in the narratives we use to talk about climate change.  These narratives are important because they shape our actions, through helping us to determine which actions we believe to be good or right.

But not all of our stories agree.  People have different ideas about what a just world would look like, and different ideas about the best way to get there.  This is part of what makes it hard to agree on a global climate change deal.  It is clearly not the whole explanation – conflicting personal, national, and corporate agendas, for example, are a huge part of the mix – but disentangling the different ideas about justice is a step towards bringing more clarity to the debate.  It seems to me that justice must be considered at three different levels.  Level 1 is the pre-existing situation: how just is the world as we find it?  Level 2 is the process by which we make decisions.  Level 3 is the outcomes of those decisions.  These three levels are interrelated.  They are also ‘nested’ to some extent: justice at the first level makes it more likely there will be justice at the second level, which makes it more likely there will be justice at the third level.  I’ll discuss each in turn, beginning with Level 3.

Just outcomes

This is a huge topic.  Many arguments have been put forward as to what it is that makes an outcome just, or fair.  This short discussion won’t do them justice (ahem), but hopefully I’ll give you a taste of what they’re about.  One of the obvious types of justice at this level is distributive justice, the idea that an outcome is fair if it allocates costs and benefits in a fair way.  But ‘fair’ here could mean a variety of things.  Say you have a chocolate cake you’d like to share with 10 of your friends.  You might say it’s fairest to give everyone an equally-sized piece of cake – an equal allocation of benefits.  But what if two of your friends have just been to a bakery and bought themselves cake already?  Maybe it would be fairer not to give any chocolate cake to the friends who already have some, because they don’t need any more.  That would be another type of distributive justice, on the basis of necessity.

Or there might be a situation where one of your friends was suffering from obesity and you believe they ought to lose weight, and another one of your friends was looking too thin and you reckon they could really do with some extra calories.  Then you might try and distribute the chocolate cake on the basis of where it could do the most good: give almost all of the cake to the really skinny person, give none to the obese person, and maybe allow a tiny slice for anyone else who looked as if eating a bit of chocolate would do them some good.  This sort of justice is based on the idea of trying to be most efficient with your resources, to do the most good, or ‘maximise efficiency’.

But even this method is not without its problems.  What if the skinny person says they’d rather have a cheese salad sandwich, because they don’t like chocolate cake?  Or if the obese person is on a Weightwatchers plan and has designed this week’s diet with your cake-party in mind, making sure that a slice of chocolate cake would keep them within their weekly calorie count?  Or if the local cultural norms surrounding cake parties deem it unforgivably rude to withhold cake from any of your guests?  You get the idea.  Implementing justice is never straightforward in real life.  Another argument is that a ‘just’ outcome is one where the outcome itself may be uneven, but everyone has had an equal opportunity to get the benefits.  If you said your guests could only eat cake if they did 10 star-jumps first, and some were too lazy to do that, you could argue it’s not your fault they didn’t get any cake – they’ve only got themselves to blame (though that might not be very fair of you if one of them has a broken leg).

Other arguments about distributive justice focus on who should be asked to distribute their resources, rather than who receives them: why should it be you making the effort to give out chocolate cake and not your neighbour?  Perhaps it should be the person who is most fond of baking and most ‘willing to pay’.  Or should it be the person who has been most stingy in the past, and has never before given out any cake, thereby contributing to the chronic cake shortage that has developed in the neighbourhood?  This gets us to the idea of ‘corrective’ or ‘compensatory’ justice.  It’s the idea of just deserts (no pun intended): those who’ve done the most to cause a problem should do the most to remedy it.

In the context of climate change, the idea of what constitutes a just outcome is hotly disputed.  When states created the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which now provides the forum for the global talks on climate that happen each December, it was formed on the basis of some key principles of international environmental law.  One of those is the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, which acknowledges that climate change is everyone’s problem, but that some countries should do more to tackle it than others.  This is for two reasons: first, they have a greater capacity to do so (i.e. they’re richer); and secondly, they have historically emitted more greenhouse gases, so have done the most to create the problem in the first place.  It’s an eminently sensible principle, but still doesn’t show you a clear way forward.  People disagree, for example, about whether we should put most weight on historical emissions, or on present day emissions-rates.  And should we compare emissions on the basis of each country’s total emissions, or on the emissions per person?

Making decisions in a just way

But in any case, why should it be you who decides how to distribute the cake?  Especially if, say, you won it in the local church raffle with tickets you’d found on the floor of the village hall?  Maybe some of your friends would have liked a say in deciding how the cake should be distributed, particularly the skinny one who doesn’t even like chocolate cake.  And in order to decide whether they even want to eat your cake, they’re demanding access to information (e.g. whether it’s gluten-free, with sustainably-sourced sugar).  This is Level 2 – procedural justice.  Many people argue that you’re unlikely to achieve just outcomes (Level 3, above), if you don’t use a fair process to make the decisions.  For example, some might say it’s unlikely for the UK to have a fair tax system if the people making the tax rules are billionaires schooled at Eton – oh, hang on, um…  Anyway, procedural justice in the context of climate change involves, for example, the principle that all affected parties should be able to participate in decision-making; everyone should have access to information about climate change so they can make well-informed decisions; and no one should be discriminated against on the basis of their skin colour, nationality, gender, and so on.  The assumption is that the system will be fairer if all interested parties have equal negotiating power.

Again, this is difficult to put into practice.  At the UN climate talks, the wealthier nations send lots of people to negotiate on their behalf.  Small island states, under enormous threat from sea level rise, can usually only afford to send one or two negotiators.  Should being poor mean that you should be excluded from full participation in decisions that will affect the future of your country?  And if you look beyond the international level, the situation is more complex still.  The particular power dynamics within a given country can mean that certain groups are not included in the national decision-making process.  For example, many indigenous communities say the mainstream political system does not do enough to make room for their particular experiences, knowledges, and needs.  And many young people cannot vote, yet climate change will affect their lives more than the lives of present-day politicians.

A just starting-point

Underlying the debates about what makes a just outcome and what makes a just process is the context within which these debates happen: the real-world situation we need to apply these decisions to.  This is Level 1, to go back to my 3-part system for thinking about justice:  the pre-existing lie of the land.  A given situation could sit anywhere on a scale of ‘absolutely just’ to ‘not at all just’.  At the moment, the world is further towards the ‘not at all just’ end of the spectrum, which makes it even harder to do justice when a new, unjust situation arises, such as climate change (though you could argue about the extent to which this represents new injustices or just exacerbates older ones).  It can be very hard to do justice in an unjust world, because injustice comes in many forms and they tend to get tangled up in one another.  You start trying to remedy one injustice, like gender-based inequalities, and then realise you can’t really tackle that without thinking about other injustices too, such as racial inequalities.  Furthermore, there aren’t many decisions that lead to an outcome where no one is worse off – “win-win” situations don’t often exist in reality.  Beginning with an unjust lie of the land makes it even harder to make sure that justice can be done to everyone, all of the time.  Corrective justice, as mentioned above, has an impact on the baseline situation because it starts to make the situation more just.

As a final comment, I’ll note that there is a difference between, first, recognising that the world as we find it is unjust, and second, accepting that this is the way it should be.  The decisions we make will only be sensible if they are grounded in an understanding of how the world works at present.  But the true baseline against which we measure our actions should be an understanding of how the world ought to be.  This has implications for the way we frame the choices we are presented with.  We mustn’t conflate “is” with “ought”.  People talk about continually increasing greenhouse gas emissions as “business as usual”.  It feels natural.  If we accept this as our baseline, then it seems as if emissions reduction targets are asking rich people with resource-intensive lifestyles to make sacrifices, to reduce their emissions as an act of charity.  From this perspective, the rich can’t go wrong: either they carry on doing what they’re doing, which no one could argue with, because it’s what they’ve always been doing.  Or they could be magnanimous and agree to curb their emissions.  Then they get to feel good about themselves, and everyone is very grateful.  This is one of the few win-win situations that exist in reality.  Alternatively, we could say the true, desirable, and just baseline is a healthy and resilient biosphere and a human system in which greenhouse gas emissions are restricted.  Then the rich, who are required to restrict their emissions, are seen to be doing their duty, out of a sense of responsibility for preserving something of unspeakable value to humanity.