Climate Hope: Implementing the Exit Strategy

By Shue, Henry | Chicago Journal of International Law, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Climate Hope: Implementing the Exit Strategy


Shue, Henry, Chicago Journal of International Law


Abstract

While Eric A. Posner and David Weisbach advocate that climate change and poverty be tackled separately, the realisation that only a single cumulative carbon emissions budget is available to accommodate all nations through all centuries of the current millennium shows why efforts to confront these two challenges are inextricably linked. Once carbon dioxide from fossil fuels reaches the atmosphere, most molecules remain for several centuries. Therefore, most additions of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere are effectively net additions to a rapidly swelling total accumulation. Total cumulative atmospheric carbon correlates strongly with maximum surface temperature. It is, consequently, urgent to cease pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, so the use of fossil fuels by anyone must rapidly be reduced to near zero. All viable methods for reducing the burning of fossil fuel depend on raising its price, through either permit trading or taxes. Raising the price of fossil fuel will drive many additional poor people into "energy poverty," making vital energy unaffordable for them. We can avoid being responsible for radical increases in poverty only if our efforts to make carbon fuels more expensive are accompanied by rigorous efforts to make non-carbon fuels less expensive. Feasible mechanisms to lower non-carbon prices while rainng carbon prices are available now, and the US ought to cease its opposition to them. We can thereby exit the carbon era soon enough with far less human suffering.

Table of Contents

I. Introduction .................................................................................382

II. Creating the Third Human Revolution: Changing the Context and Opening New Options ................................................................................................385

III. The Carbon Budget: Cumulative and......................................... Limited 387

IV. Searching for an Exit............................................................................... 390

V. The Moral Significance of the Carbon Budget: Using Up What Others Need ...................................................................................................394

VI. The Other Half of the Story: Not Exacerbating Poverty............................396

VII. Conclusion: The Past Is Not Even Past.................................................... 401

"The goal of any action must, in the end, be to reduce the worldwide supply of fossil fuels . . . "'

"The past is never dead. It's not even past."2

I. INTRODUCTION

Eric A. Posner and David Weisbach propose the following thesis: "The problem of widespread poverty is urgent. So is the problem of reducing emissions. . . . But no principle of justice requires that these problems be addressed simultaneously or multilaterally."3 1 aim to show why it is not possible to accept their thesis of the separability of the solutions to poverty and climate. Rather than repeat here arguments that I have made over the last two decades, I shall very briefly sketch a single constructive approach that might make a substantial contribution on both fronts, in the process suggesting further reasons why climate and poverty are inextricably entangled.4

We will cause severe damage if we do not rapidly get a grip on our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but we will also cause severe damage if we do get a grip exclusively by the means that is currendy most discussed, raising the price of fossil fuels. Fortunately, we have available a realistic complementary means, the combination of which with the standard policy options of trading in emissions permits and carbon taxes would avoid both kinds of damage. This is what I shall recommend.

My primary focus here is on the nature of the problem of the mitigation of climate change because I think that there is a strong general tendency to misconstrue it. The wrong way to think of the political and moral problem is to consider it exclusively a problem of international distributive justice, when it is primarily a matter of avoiding doing damage by either of two routes, exacerbating climate change by continuing to emit large quantities of GHGs or placing insuperable obstacles in the way of Third World development by the method we create in order to reduce the emissions of GHGs.

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