Why Historical Emissions Should Count

By Meyer, Lukas H. | Chicago Journal of International Law, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Why Historical Emissions Should Count


Meyer, Lukas H., Chicago Journal of International Law


Abstract

This Article argues for three ways in which historical emissions should count for the fair distribution of the benefits and burdens of responding to climate change among currently living people. First, historical emissions should count as a matter of ideal distributive justice if and insofar as their consequences can be considered beneficial to currently living and future people. Second, it is difficult to justify compensatory measures for damages caused by historical emissions for three main reasons: the non-identity problem, past people's limited knowledge of the long-term consequences of the emissions they caused, and the problem of attributing responsibility for past people's actions to currently living people. Rather than regarding climate damages primarily as a reason for compensation for wrongdoing, we should view them primarily as a justification for redistribution due to undeserved benefits and harms. Third, historical emissions play an important role informing the expectation of people in the developed countries to be able to cause emissions at the current level. If we were in a position to implement a fair, effective and legitimately imposed global climate regime we should not unnecessarily frustrate that expectation.

Table of Contents

I. Introduction .............................................................................598

II. How Should We Distribute Emissions? ......................................599

A. How to Distribute Emissions? Three Presuppositions ...................599

B. How to Distribute Emissions Ahistorically ............................................601

C. Accounting for Historical Emissions in the Distribution of Emission Rights ..................................................................................................603

III. Claims to Compensation Owing to Climate Damages? .......................609

IV. Conclusion .......................................................................................614

I. INTRODUCTION

Intergenerational justice, namely, what currently living people owe to future people and the question of how to interpret the normative significance of what past people did,1 is of central importance in providing an interpretation of what ought to be done to respond to climate change in the present. Answers to questions concerning the past and the future are relevant for determining what currently living people ought to do today. In the climate-justice debate, the time dimensions past, present, and future are interlinked in interesting ways.

This Article addresses two questions: First, how should we take into account historical emissions and their beneficial consequences in initially distributing emission rights among currently living people? I will argue first, in Section II, that as a matter of ideal distributive justice, historical emissions should count if and insofar as their consequences can be interpreted as beneficial to currendy living and future people. In their book Climate Change Justice, Eric A. Posner and David Weisbach do not address this issue.2

My second question concerns who should pay for the damages that are caused by (historical) emissions, especially assuming that people (taken individually and collectively) have not stayed and will not stay within their fair shares. In Section III, I agree with Posner and Weisbach in arguing that compensation payments are difficult to justify, given the reasons they discuss in Chapter 5 of Climate Change Justice? Insofar as arguments actually succeed in justifying some compensatory measures, they are likely only to justify them for parts of those who cause or suffer from climate change. However, I add what I take to be an important reason for believing that the compensatory rationale is limited in the case of intergenerational relations: to the extent that the contingency of future people's existence and personal identity depend upon currendy living people's decisions and actions, common notions of harming and benefitting are not applicable for interpreting die effects of these actions. …

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