Back to RJ Archive

Ethical failures of national GHG emissions reduction proposals approaching Copenhagen

August 17, 2009

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.

Read the whole entry.


Blog PostCourtsStatutes and LegislationWhite Collar
Support the cause

We've Been Restoring Justice for More Than 40 Years

Your donation helps Prison Fellowship International repair the harm caused by crime by emphasizing accountability, forgiveness, and making amends for prisoners and those affected by their actions. When victims, offenders, and community members meet to decide how to do that, the results are transformational.

Donate Now