Academic journal article Chicago Journal of International Law

Who Should Pay for Climate Change? "Not Me"

Academic journal article Chicago Journal of International Law

Who Should Pay for Climate Change? "Not Me"

Article excerpt


In Climate Change Justice, Eric A. Posner and David Weisbach argue not only that a climate treaty with significant North-to-South redistribution of wealth is infeasible, but also that to support such a treaty is counterproductive. They argue instead that all countries should support an "optimal" climate treaty, balancing marginal costs and benefits, and that side payments should go to ensure that no countries-even wealthy, high-polluting countries that are externalizing huge costs and risks-are worse off than the status quo. They justify this seeming contradiction to their welfarist moral theory by arguing that North-South redistribution is better handled in a separate foreign aid treaty. But their theory of International Paretianism (IP)-which essentially holds that countries will not join treaties with significant net economic costs-implies that no such foreign aid treaty will be forthcoming. Furthermore, at least one of them has argued elsewhere that it is effectively impossible to estimate climate damages (due to both scientific uncertainty and normative controversy), and thus their "optimal" treaty may itself be infeasible. Finally, they accept the possible need for sanctions on free riders, which suggests that International Paretianism and its assumption that treaties must be "self-enforcing" is not an insuperable constraint. For all of these reasons and more, this Article argues that their case against advocating a redistributive treaty is unconvincing.

Table of Contents

I. Introduction .................... 508

IL The Economic Framing of the Climate Justice Problem .................... 512

III. Status Quo Property Rights and "the Victim Pays" .................... 515

IV. The Free Rider Problem .................... 518

V. Distributive Justice and the Limits of International Paretianism .................... 520

VI. Conclusion: International Paretianism and the Danger of Justice .................... 523


Responding to the risks of anthropogenic climate change requires us to answer at least three fundamental and inescapably ethical questions:

(1) To what level should we try to restrict emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs)?

(2) Who should pay the costs of abatement (reducing emissions)?

(3) Who should pay the costs of responding to the climate changes that will not be avoided?

In Climate Change Justice? Eric A. Posner and David Weisbach address the first two of these questions, with the focus on the second. Drawing on a welfarist2 ethical framework and a realist3 view of international relations, the authors criticize several widely held views about the "who pays" question. In particular, Posner and Weisbach present a variety of ethical and pragmatic reasons for rejecting the "conventional wisdom" about climate justice, which holds that the developed countries, because of their affluence and high historical emissions, should pay the bulk of costs for abatement, at least initially.4

Indeed, die book comes across as a legalistic defense of die position of many in die US diat, in spite of our vast wealdi and disproportionate emissions, we need not pay any significant amount to developing countries for either the right to emit GHGs or the harm our emissions will cause (hence the tide of this Article). To defend such a position in die face of quite strong justice-based claims for redistribution, the authors mobilize a wide range of different arguments, addressing matters from the ediical problems with collective responsibility, to the practical consequences of corruption in developing country governments, to the difficult question of intergenerational tradeoffs.

However, while the authors challenge common ethical justifications for requiring redistribution in a climate change treaty, their major claim is a pragmatic one: countries simply will refuse to accept any treaty that leaves them worse off than the status quo. …

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