Future Justice edited by Helen Sykes; climate change and justice

In making representations to our colleagues on the need to mitigate climate change we should not delude ourselves that all will bow to the reasoning of science, nor to the tenets of natural justice. Both are often sullied by self interest and ideology. When asking a colleague to contribute to climate change education I was greeted with silence- so I resorted to “You have young children what about their future?” The response was “that’s their problem” It was my turn to be silent!

Chapter 1 in Future Justice edited by Helen Sykes is written by Janna Thompson, a philosopher, it deals with justice issues in climate change.

 It is fair to say that the governments of western countries many of which perpetrate a vision of social justice nevertheless step aside from any consideration of climate justice in their actions for example they disregard of the pleas of Small Island States. Too often we think of justice as the process being served in criminal or industrial cases but we are reminded that

 “Justice is about how benefits, burdens, responsibilities and entitlements should be distributed among members of a society—or among peoples of the world. It is about the rights people have, and what they owe to whom they have harmed or could harm” Mostly justice focuses on existing people. “But environmental problems like climate change make it imperative for a theory of justice to concern itself with the future well being of children and of people who have not yet been born”

If we accept the principles of sustainability, then we should accept climate justice.

 “A society is intergenerationally just when each generation does its fair share to enable members of succeeding generations, both inside and outside its borders, to satisfy their needs, to avoid serious harm and to have opportunity to enjoy things of value”.

Therefore we have an obligation to provide a favourable inheritance for our successors, and they are entitled to receive it.

This sounds relatively simple, but it is not. What is a fair share of responsibility for others? How much do we sacrifice? How do we adjudicate between our interests and those in other countries? These questions are discussed in detail.

 Perhaps the most important questions concern global justice for this issue is bedevilling climate negotiations. By deploying significant resources on adaptation rather than reduction of emissions, some developed countries are perpetrating an injustice on developing countries. The former have wealth to adapt, the latter do not because the impacts of climate change will impact many of them more, and for their survival they require reduction in emissions. Even in providing finance for adaption in poor countries we are found wanting. At Copenhagen in 2010 rich countries provided $US 30 billion for adaption in poor countries. Already half the time has elapsed and only $3 billion has been allocated. Read here

The thinking of philosopher Henry Shue on helping poor countries is discussed. Its basis is

1.    The activities of the wealthy have created the problem of climate change whereas the poor have created little. The heirs of those who created the problem carry some responsibility to correct it- we have inherited both benefits and debts.

2.    The inhabitants of wealthy countries are using more than their fair share of the carbon absorptive capacity of the planet, yet the poor need to use this emission absorptive capacity of the planet in order to develop.

3.    The wealthy countries have the resources and technologies to enable the poor countries to develop without contributing to the problem. Justice demands that the poor are helped.

Further, if the existing economies of developing countries are destroyed by climate change then this is an injustice not only to their present inhabitants but to their descendents.

These points explain why it has not been possible to get global agreement on action to reduce green house emissions.  With regard to point 1, in general wealthy countries do not accept the debt imposed by their predecessors and they ignore the emissions they have caused since climate change became apparent over 20 years ago.  As for point 2, the wealthy countries maintain that China and India are now big polluters and have a duty to reduce total emissions; the response of China and India is that each inhabitant has a low emission footprint and wealthy countries must take a greater share the burden. This was the sticking point at Copenhagen. Point 3 is probably accepted because the actions of wealthy countries suggest they have agreed to assist with technology. The problem is that it is not nearly enough and what has been promised has not been delivered.

The conclusions are familiar to all those in environmental health; that we have to have a sustainable economy if we are to make progress.

“the prospect of a transformation to a sustainable economy and an intergenerationally just society—even if the result is a society where everyone is able to live a good life—is thus not appealing to politicians who want to remain in power, industrialists who profit from the old ways of doing things, and citizens and consumers who are accustomed to things as they are and fear that change will disadvantage them”.

We need to confront politicians of western countries with these arguments for justice, and ask them to explain why they do not support them.

This review refers only to chapter 1 in the book Future Justice published by Future Leaders  see here   others who contribute chapters include Peter Doherty Julian Burnside, George Williams, Michael Kirby and David Yencken.

David Shearman