Climate Change, Consequentialism, and the Road Ahead

By Jamieson, Dale | Chicago Journal of International Law, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Climate Change, Consequentialism, and the Road Ahead


Jamieson, Dale, Chicago Journal of International Law


Abstract

In this paper I tell the story of the evolution of the climate change regime, locating its origins in "the dream of Rio, " which supposed that the nations of the world would join in addressing the interlocking crises of environment and development. I describe the failure at Copenhagen and then go on to discuss the "reboot" of the climate negotiations advocated by Eric A. Posner and David Weisbach. I bring out some ambiguities in their notion of International Paretianism, which is supposed to effectively limit the influence of moral ideals in international affairs, and pose a dilemma. I go on to discuss the foundations of their views regarding climate justice, arguing that the most reasonable understandings of their favored theoretical views would not lead to some of their conclusions. Finally, I return to the climate regime, and make some observations about the road ahead, concluding that for the foreseeable future the most important climate change action will be within countries rather than among them.

Table of Contents

I. Introduction ................... 440

II. The Dream of Rio ................... 444

A. The Run-up to Rio ................... 444

B. The Framework Convention on Climate Change ................... 448

C. The Copenhagen Climate Change Conference ................... 450

III. International Paretianism ................... 454

A. A Realist Approach to Moralism ................... 454

B. A Dilemma for IP ................... 456

IV. Welfarism as a Foundation ................... 457

A. Welfarism, Consequentialism, and Utilitarianism ................... 458

B. Putting the Justice into Climate Justice ................... 459

V. Conclusion: Slouching Toward the Future ................... 464

I. Introduction

Since the signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, abating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions has been regarded as an urgent global responsibility. GHGs linger in the atmosphere for decades, centuries, and even longer.2 When this is coupled with the fact that their impacts are mediated through various complex systems, the result is that climate change is practically irreversible on time scales that most of us care about.3 However, abatement matters because the nature and severity of the impacts are affected both by the absolute levels of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere and their rates of increase. Since abating greenhouse gas emissions imposes costs on emitters, the question of how to allocate these costs fairly has been at the center of climate ethics. Questions about the fairness of various abatement strategies are complicated by the fact that land use changes such as deforestation can also dramatically impact atmospheric concentrations of GHGs both by directly affecting emissions and by changing the biosphere's ability to sequester carbon. Unfortunately, these processes are difficult to characterize and measure.

As it has become increasingly clear that we are in the early stages of a climate change that is likely to continue for centuries even if we pursue aggressive abatement policies, questions about the fair distribution of the costs of adaptation have also begun to receive attention. Since the resources that can be brought to bear on adaptation are limited, questions about setting priorities are also becoming increasingly important. How do we decide what to save and what to give up when we cannot protect everything?

Adaptation is motivated by a concern to avoid damages. However, climate change damages have already occurred and will continue, though it is difficult to tell exactly what damages can be attributed to climate change and to assess their extent. Research in this area is ongoing and especially active regarding climate change impacts on human health. The World Health Organization estimates that climate change is already causing more than 150,000 deaths per year. …

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