Identifying distributive and restorative justice issues entailed by the need to allocate GHG emissions levels among nations does not necessarily lead to agreement about what ethics requires. This is so because ethical theories often differ about what ethics requires. One may, for instance appeal to rights- based or Rawlsian theories of distributive justice just to name a few, to guide ethical conclusions. Yet these theories may reach different conclusions about what ethics requires under the same facts. Therefore, ethical issue spotting does not necessarily lead to ethical consensus.
However, for some human problems there is an overlapping consensus among ethical theories about what ethics requires even though foundational ethical theories differ. An overlapping consensus occurs when varying ethical theories lead to the same ethical conclusion. For other human problems, although there is no overlapping consensus about what ethics requires, most ethical theories would agree that relevant existing behaviors are ethically problematic. That is, ethical criticism of the status quo is possible even if there is no overlapping consensus on what ethics requires. And so, identification of ethical issues may lead to: (1) conflict about what ethics requires, (2) overlapping consensus about what ethics requires, and, (3) overlapping consensus that a proposed or existing activity is ethically problematic despite no consensus on what ethics requires.
As we have seen, to adequately address issues of equity in allocating GHG targets among nations, proponents of allocations proposals should be guided by principles of distributive and restorative justice. Traditional distributive justice demands that benefits and burdens of public policy be distributed according to concepts of equality, modified only by morally relevant considerations of, for example, need or merit.
Distributive justice does not always require completely equal distributions, yet distributive justice puts the burden on those who want to be treated differently from others to show that the basis for being treated differently is based on morally relevant criteria. For this reason, as a matter of distributive justice, those who propose a formula for defining “equity” that is not based upon giving all people equal rights to use the atmosphere have the burden of demonstrating that differences in treatment are based on merit, deservedness, or other morally relevant criteria. Self-interest would not satisfy distributive justice criteria.
In sum, the second minimum ethical criteria that must be met by all Copenhagen proposals is the requirement that proposals must be consistent with what “equity” and “justice” demands of them. It is beyond the scope of this post to examine all of the issues raised by competing theories of distributive and restorative justice that are relevant to national emissions targets. However, what can be said at this time is that all nations have a duty to reduce their emissions to their fair share of non-dangerous global emissions and that fairness must be guided by principles of distributive and restorative justice. It also can be said that some nations approach to national emissions obligations are ethically problematic even though there may be no consensus among ethicists what emissions reduction commitments are required. Moreover, since distributive justice requires that those who argue for an unequal share of the burdens and benefits of climate change policies base their argument on morally relevant criteria, a strong case can be made that nations that believe that they are entitled to special treatment in regard to their GHG allocations have the burden of proof of demonstrating why their positions are ethically justified. For this reason, we conclude that national reporting under the UNFCCC and nations making proposals on second commitment period frameworks on GHG emissions reductions targets demonstrate how their climate change policies satisfy obligations to avoid dangerous climate change and are consistent with principles of distributive and restorative justice.