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date: 14 October 2019

Climate Change and Justice

Summary and Keywords

Understanding the complex set of processes collected under the heading of climate change represents a considerable scientific challenge. But it also raises important challenges for our best moral theories. For instance, in assessing the risks that climate change poses, we face profound questions about how to weigh the respective harms it may inflict on current and future generations, as well as on humans and other species. We also face difficult questions about how to act in conditions of uncertainty, in which at least some of the consequences of climate change—and of various human interventions to adapt to or mitigate it—are difficult to predict fully. Even if we agree that mitigating climate change is morally required, there is room for disagreement about the precise extent to which it ought to be mitigated (insofar as there is room for underlying disagreement about the level of temperature rises that are morally permissible). Finally, once we determine which actions to take to reduce or avoid climate change, we face the normative question of who ought to bear the costs of those actions, as well as the costs associated with any climate change that nevertheless comes to pass.

Keywords: climate change, mitigation, adaptation, compensation, global justice, intergenerational justice


The primary focus of this article will be upon the issue of determining which actions should be taken to reduce and/or avoid climate change, as well as the normative questions of who ought to bear the costs of these actions and the costs associated with any climate change that comes to pass despite any actions taken to reduce it. On the assumption that limiting climate change is morally required, our mitigation efforts are likely to prove costly for some if not all of us. Moreover, even if we mitigate now, some people will incur losses as a result of greenhouse gas emissions to date. We therefore require guidance on exactly how, from the point of view of justice, the associated burdens ought to be shared.

Processes of climatic change have been a constant throughout the world’s history. In many cases humans have adapted well to localized changes in climate and have even flourished in their wake. In other cases, humans have failed to flourish in the face of change, and the communities concerned have faced a choice between migration and extinction. Climatic change and desertification probably drove the exodus of humans from Africa around 100,000 years ago, after which they successfully colonized the Asian and European continents—and in that sense, most of the world’s population are ultimately descended from “climate refugees.” History is replete with examples of communities perishing, or moving, because of the failure of crops, the extinction of prey, or the collapse of water supplies attendant on various climatic changes.

The contemporary challenge of climate change, however, can be thought to be distinctive in several ways. First, the effects of the climate change we now face will not be localized but global in scope. People and wider ecosystems around the world will be affected. Second, the consequences of global climate change, if unabated, will occur on an unprecedented scale. Mass extinctions and loss of habitat are among the likely consequences. Human communities in many parts of the world will find it difficult or costly to adapt to the threats that the changing climate generates. Millions of people who are already among the world’s worst off will find their very livelihoods threatened (IPCC, 2014). But although they will be hardest hit, the world’s poor are not the only ones that will bear the brunt of climate change’s impacts. Among the consequences could be surges in mass migration, political instability, and epidemics of infectious diseases—the impact of which would in turn be felt by the more privileged. Third, in contrast to many of the climatic changes our ancestors faced, which were often experienced as though they were acts of God, our understanding of, and even control over, the climatic challenges we face appear to be rather good. Our own actions will exert a significant influence upon the degree and kind of climate change that is likely to occur. Catastrophic climate change would be to a large extent a human-made disaster—in the dual sense that humans caused it, but could have prevented it.

These facts make questions about the mitigation of climate change highly salient politically. Climate change is a complex phenomenon, but its principal mechanism involves increases in the “radiative forcing” of the world’s atmosphere. As concentrations of so-called greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increase, its tendency to trap energy from the sun increases in turn, paving the way for rises in global average temperature. Mitigation, by contrast, refers to actions taken to reduce any such increases in the atmosphere’s radiative forcing. Various mitigation measures are available to us. The lion’s share of public attention has been garnered by proposals to constrain the combustion of fossil fuels, since that combustion releases large quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But additional mitigation measures may be available besides reductions in fossil fuel use. Practices of deforestation or forest degradation, for instance, are also associated with the release of substantial quantities of greenhouse gases, and as such measures to reduce deforestation—or indeed to reforest land—could play an important role in global mitigation efforts. What is important here is that forests act as “carbon sinks,” removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it safely. Indeed, scientists have investigated several other methods of sequestering greenhouse gases besides reforestation. Various proposals for “carbon capture and storage” have been made, including plans to store carbon dioxide under the seabed. Such proposals are probably some way from fruition, however. Likewise, scientists have investigated many proposals—some of them quite outlandish—to increase the reflectiveness or “albedo” of our planet, so that less energy is absorbed from the sun. The likely effectiveness and risks associated with these and other “geoengineering” schemes are the subject of controversy (Gardiner, 2010). Indeed, it is also a subject of controversy whether all such schemes qualify as mitigation measures—although insofar as they aim to reduce or avoid increases to the radiative forcing of the world’s atmosphere, they certainly bear comparison with measures to reforest or to cut back greenhouse gas emissions.

The mitigation of climate change is, importantly, a matter of degree. Some measure of climate change is an ever-present feature of our world and may not be objectionable. The continued presence of humans on the planet is, after all, evidence of our adaptability, and some changes in climate may even be perceived as positive. But climatic change can be so severe and so rapid that the ability of humans and ecosystems to safely adapt to it is compromised. Calls for concerted global action are driven by the fear that unabated fossil fuel consumption and deforestation will engender temperature rises without parallel in human history. Indeed, we already appear to be committed to potentially damaging rises in global average temperature, as a result of the emissions-intensive activities that have accompanied industrialization in many countries. Efforts at mitigation, therefore, are not efforts to avoid any climatic change but rather to prevent temperature rises exceeding some level that would impose unacceptable costs on human beings or on wider ecosystems. Quite where that level falls will depend upon the impacts we are prepared to tolerate. For instance, some advocacy groups have argued that average temperature rises exceeding 1.5°C ought to be avoided. Others have suggested that our target ought to be a warming limit of 2°C (for discussion see Moellendorf, 2014, pp. 23–24).

The precise temperature target that is chosen will in turn influence the costliness of overall mitigation efforts: restricting temperature rises to 1.5°C will be more costly, other things being equal, than restricting it to 2°C. Notably, the available “carbon budget”—and hence the proportion of the world’s fossil fuel reserves that can still safely be burned—will be smaller if we are working toward a lower temperature target. The nature of the mitigation policies we choose will also influence overall costs. It might be the case, for instance, that forest protection and enhancement is more expensive than actions to make transport and housing more energy-efficient. Or the reverse could be true. The timing of mitigation may also influence its costliness. Conceivably, it might be cheaper overall to pursue mitigation policies now and more expensive to pursue them later. Or again, conceivably, the reverse could be true. That is an empirical question. Other things being equal, it makes moral sense to pursue mitigation efforts when it is least costly to do so. But note that in principle questions about the timing of mitigation and about the allocation of mitigation burdens can be separated. Some believe that future generations will be better off than us and hence better able to bear mitigation burdens. Therefore, it may be that whereas we ought to mitigate now, we can permissibly pass the costs of our action on to future generations (as discussed in the next section).

If we fail to mitigate—and if dangerous climate change comes to pass—then various dangers will ensue. We would then face the question of who ought to bear the associated losses. For instance, if we believe that many of those who fall victim to the gravest impacts could not be held responsible for their own losses, some other principled basis must be found for allocating costs. This is the issue of the fair allocation of the burdens of compensation. At the same time, there are questions about who ought to foot the bill when people are required to adjust their lives to a changed environment. Here we face the issue of the proper allocation of the burdens of adaptation. The most extreme forms of adaptation will involve people—such as the inhabitants of small island states—losing their homes entirely and relocating to other places in the world. Indeed, we likely face these two questions about the costs of compensation and adaptation already. Even if the world’s states committed now to doing their utmost to mitigating climate change, some losses are already with us, and some have already been forced to move. Our focus in this article will be upon the question of who ought to bear these burdens. I will use the term “climate burdens” as a shorthand for the costs of mitigation, adaptation, and compensation.

Climate Change and Intergenerational Justice

If dangerous climate change comes to pass, many people alive now will be hard hit by it. But the most significant harms will likely be felt by future generations. Once in the atmosphere, some greenhouse gases will continue to influence global temperatures for many generations to come (and perhaps hundreds of generations). Likewise, major extinctions or the widespread destruction of arable land would affect the prospects for well-being of future people as well as those currently living. If so, we might believe that one reason—and perhaps the most important reason—why we ought to mitigate climate change arises from a proper concern with the rights or interests of people who are not yet born.

But the deference we ought to show for the rights of future people is a matter of controversy within political philosophy. For one thing, on some theories of justice future people do not (yet) have rights and therefore cannot have rights against us regarding our actions. If injustice is a matter of rights violations, it might then be thought that there can be no question of us treating future people justly or unjustly (Steiner, 1994). It is also controversial how the actions of current generations can be said to harm people in future generations when the specific identities of those people may not yet be fixed. A person’s specific identity (that is, which person they will become) is not determined until they are conceived, and a variety of actions may influence the timing of conception and hence the identity of the resulting people. But if the decisions of current generations—to build power stations, drive energy-inefficient cars, and so on—can be expected to affect which future people will come into being, we face a quandary. For it may be that a future person cannot claim to have been harmed by our actions if it is also the case that they would not have existed but for those actions (Parfit, 1984). If it is compelling, the so-called Non-Identity Problem could have serious implications for theorizing about climate justice. Many people believe that our impacts upon the global climate constitute an injustice, given that they will predictably lead future people to become worse off than they would otherwise have been, or worse off than we are. But if our non-performance of those actions would have the consequence that the supposed victims of the harm in question would not have existed at all, it is not obvious that we should consider them to have been harmed by those actions. One way or another, those convinced that we do have stringent duties of justice toward future people must find some way of reconciling their positions with the Non-Identity Problem (see e.g., Meyer, 2003). Alternatively, they may attempt to motivate environmental restraint without making any claims about our obligations to future people—for instance, by arguing that we owe it to currently existing generations to reduce our contributions to environmental degradation or to climate change (Mazor, 2010; Gheaus, 2016).

Even if we determine that principles of justice do constrain our impacts upon future generations, it remains to be seen what the character of those principles should be. We may, for instance, embrace sufficientarian or minimalist views, which claim that the concerns of justice are exhausted once everyone’s basic needs or basic rights are met, or alternatively egalitarian views that show a concern for people’s comparative well-being (Armstrong, 2012). On one sufficientarian (or minimalist) view, we ought to leave future generations with the ability to maintain minimally effective social and political institutions capable of delivering on the rights of members, and this may imply some constraint on our environmental practices. But such a constraint would stop short of demanding that we leave our descendants with a standard of living equally as good as ours (Rawls, 1999). Some scholars have suggested that a sufficientarian view of intergenerational justice enjoys the best prospects of navigating the Non-Identity Problem, precisely because it specifies a threshold of well-being against which harms can be judged (Meyer & Roser, 2009). From an egalitarian viewpoint, by contrast, just as it would be unjust for someone’s life to go worse simply because of the country they were born in, it would also be unjust for someone to face worse prospects simply because they were born later than us (Lippert-Rasmussen, 2016, pp. 156–161). People’s prospects for well-being ought not to hinge on where in time they live. Such a view would likely impose significantly stronger constraints upon our environmental practices.

Though egalitarian views are in one respect more demanding, both sufficientarian and egalitarian views on intergenerational justice have potentially revisionist implications when it comes to our current practices. They would likely have us condemn, for instance, some of the most influential ways of assessing the intergenerational burdens of climate change. Economists have typically operated under a utilitarian moral framework, according to which the goal of public policy is to maximize utility or well-being. But when applied to questions of intergenerational justice, utilitarianism can generate unpalatable or puzzling consequences. It might imply, for instance, that each generation ought to save as much as possible—even at the risk of penury—if it appeared likely that an indefinite number of future generations might thereby benefit. In order to avoid such a conclusion, economists have often argued that we ought to be able to “discount” the well-being of future people when engaging in the cost-benefit analysis of different policies (such as mitigation policies). Indeed economists’ (discounted) calculations of the likely costs of mitigation or of the failure to mitigate have often resonated with policymakers.

Egalitarians and minimalists will find reasons for suspicion about the utilitarian assumption that we ought to maximize well-being even at the costs of leaving some generations disadvantaged or in poverty (and in that sense the purported solution) of discounting the interests of future generations—does not in any case hold the initial appeal that it does for utilitarians. Nevertheless, they have also expressed concern about some of the forms of intergenerational discounting that economists have defended. While it is not clear that all forms of discounting are indefensible from an egalitarian point of view, for instance, some of them do appear highly problematic from an egalitarian perspective, and perhaps even from the perspective of views that aim merely to safeguard the most basic rights of future people. So-called pure time preference, in particular, discounts well-being simply insofar as it occurs at a later point in time, with the result that it becomes permissible to avoid smaller losses to those currently living, even at the cost of causing greater losses to those who will come later. If the gulf in time between us and the future people in question becomes great enough, the rate at which we can discount the interests of the latter can then be substantial, potentially rendering permissible actions that would jeopardize even the most basic interests of future people. For some political philosophers, however, pure time discounting is “arbitrary and even discriminatory” (Moellendorf, 2015, p. 175). If there is “no reason to attribute fundamental moral importance to someone’s location in time” (Caney, 2014, p. 4), such forms of discounting ought to be rejected. The egalitarian suspicion is that such forms of discounting are an unattractive fix for a utilitarian moral view that itself ought to be rejected (Rawls, 1999, p. 262).

Theories of intergenerational justice are relevant not only to the question of the harms we can permissibly impose on future people but also to the question of how any mitigation, adaptation, and compensation burdens ought to be allocated between the generations. Now, it may be thought obvious that since dangerous climate change is an imminent and potentially irreversible threat, the burden of preventing it, in particular, must be borne by those now living—lest the opportunity to mitigate be lost. But this article has already noted that the duty to mitigate, and the duty to bear the costs of mitigation, could potentially be allocated separately. Some have argued that while current generations ought to engage in mitigation, they need not necessarily bear the burdens of doing so. If there are ways in which we can pass the burdens on to future generations, “deferring the costs” may be possible even if “deferring action” is not (Caney, 2014, pp. 332–338). By way of illustration, current generations may mitigate now but recoup the costs of doing so by cutting back their spending on long-term transport infrastructure or by building less durable houses. If they did so, future generations—though they did not pay for mitigation in any literal sense—would end up bearing an equivalent cost.

Parallel points might be made, in principle, with regard to adaptation and compensation burdens. Though adaptions must be made by those affected by climate change, for instance, it is conceivable that the costs of such adaptations could be passed along to future generations. One view here is that passing costs along to future generations may be unfair from the point of view of intergenerational justice but defensible, all things considered given that tackling climate change is such an urgent priority. In particular, while sharing the costs of mitigation fairly between generations would be preferable, it may be “politically more effective” to separate the aims of mitigation and of promoting intergenerational justice more broadly (Broome, 2012, p. 155). Alternatively, we may argue that passing climate burdens down to our descendants need not involve any injustice in the first place, if our descendants are otherwise likely to be much better off than us (Rendall, 2011; Caney, 2014).

Climate Change and Global Justice

Climate change is a global problem, and the arguments discussed in this article have been made by scholars who believe we can have grounds of justice for objecting to the impacts unmitigated climate change may have upon distant others. As such, these approaches are at least weakly “cosmopolitan.” That is, they assume that concerns about distributive justice and injustice do not stop short at national borders. They claim, rather, that talk of global justice and injustice is intelligible and that our actions should be constrained by at least some principles of global justice (though they may disagree on the character of the relevant principles). For this reason, our question about how climate burdens ought to be distributed globally is agreed to be an intelligible one.

Nevertheless, the relationship between concerns of climate justice and broader concerns of global justice is contested. A key question is whether our preferred “solution” to our question about mitigation, adaptation, and compensation costs should advance global justice more generally. For instance, if our conception of global justice is egalitarian in nature, how far should our position on the allocation of climate burdens be influenced by a concern to reduce inequality in general? We can imagine at least three positions in response to this question. A first view would hold that we should seize the opportunity offered by climate change to ease global injustices in general (Gosseries, 2014, p. 101; see also Caney, 2012). A second view would hold that our allocation of climate burdens should not make global injustice worse. For instance, it may be argued that whatever allocation of climate burdens we choose, we should not make it harder for the poor to escape from their poverty (Miller, 2008; Moellendorf, 2014). A third view would be that the allocation of burdens should not be influenced by wider concerns about global injustice. Miller (2008, p. 150), for instance, has argued that we should not turn climate policy into an occasion for general egalitarian redistribution (though, as we have just observed, he also argues that our division of burdens should not exacerbate global poverty). A similar view is defended by Posner and Weisbach (2010) on the basis of a concern for feasibility. Specifically, they argue that any politically feasible climate agreement will necessarily be one that brackets questions about wider economic injustice and disdains proposals for redistribution. It is contentious, however, whether a concern for feasibility speaks in favor of bracketing wider distributive questions. On some rival views, it might be that eliciting the cooperation of developing countries in a global climate agreement will demand that we address background injustices (Moellendorf, 2014; Caney, 2012).

Allocating Climate Burdens

This section will look at three well-known principles that may inform the allocation of climate burdens. Before we begin, however, it will be useful to bear two points in mind.

First, we face a question about who the relevant bearers of climate burdens are. Some discussions of climate justice assume that our task is to properly share the burdens carried by particular nation-states. But “cosmopolitan” views on justice hold that it is the well-being of individuals that fundamentally matters from the point of view of justice. If so, then our concern should be that burdens are properly shared between individuals. It may be that states (rather than individuals) are the entities with the power to make and enforce any deal to stabilize the global climate. And perhaps the nature of international law, and of negotiations between states, ensures that a global climate agreement would allocate specific burdens to states in the first instance. But even if it did, for the cosmopolitan we would then need to find some way of making sure that the individuals who ought to bear the greatest burdens ended up shouldering them. For instance, if we believed that the rich ought to bear the greatest climate burdens, ensuring that richer countries bore greater burdens would not be enough. We would also have to ensure that richer individuals in rich countries—and, potentially, richer individuals in developing countries, too—bore greater burdens than their poorer compatriots. Similarly, if we believed that duties to bear climate burdens should in some way track emission levels, government policies that placed greater burdens on the shoulders of high emitters within a particular country, rather than low emitters, would be required. If so, we ought not to be content with a situation in which the distribution of burdens within countries was left entirely at the discretion of their governments (see Miller, 2008, pp. 121–122).

Second, we should be clear about what qualifies as a climate burden. In the case of mitigation burdens, we should resist the temptation to simply equate those burdens with cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Discussions of mitigation are sometimes dominated by the question of who ought to cut their emissions by how much—or, to put it the other way around, who has the right to use up what proportion of the remaining carbon budget. But our question about mitigation burdens does not reduce to this narrower question about emissions rights. While it is true that, globally speaking, mitigation will almost certainly require cuts in total emissions (that is, unless scientists are wrong about the limited prospects for carbon capture and storage or various geoengineering schemes, for instance), it is not necessarily the case that each individual can only contribute to mitigation by cutting her emissions. There could be a variety of ways in which any given individual can advance the goal of mitigation (and carry burdens in the process). For instance, it may be that the best way any given individual can contribute to the collective mitigation effort is by working to develop a new clean technology, by securing greater investment in public transport, by protecting or enhancing a forest, or by lobbying politicians to make serious commitments to binding emissions cuts. Aïsha, a hugely persuasive activist, may make a significant overall contribution speaking at public events even if this means she must drive, or fly, to those events.

But if there are a variety of ways in which individuals can bear the burdens of mitigation, there need not be any tight connection between the allocation of mitigation burdens and the allocation of emissions rights. Neither need it be the case that our hypothetical individual can only contribute to mitigation by making changes to her own consumption behavior more broadly. An individual in one country might in principle bear her proper share of the mitigation burden by helping to fund the rollout of clean technology in another country. Alternatively, she may do so by protecting or extending—or funding the protection or extension of—forests on the other side of the world. Unless we have some special reason for believing that we ought to each cut our emissions regardless of the other impacts we have on the climate, all of these activities might potentially count as carrying one’s fair share of the burden (see Caney, 2012). Likewise, it is perfectly conceivable that one individual may bear costs by paying another individual to restrict his or her emissions. This, in essence, is what carbon-trading schemes allow, unless we have some decisive reason for rejecting such schemes (Gosseries, 2015; Caney, 2010b). Indeed, this separability of emissions cuts and mitigation burdens should not come as a surprise. After all, we have already established that in principle future generations may bear the costs of mitigation efforts (including emissions cuts) made by current generations. In that case, future generations would, in a sense, be paying us to cut our emissions. Mitigation burdens cannot be reduced, then, to duties to cut one’s emissions. The same goes a fortiori for adaptation and compensation burdens, which in principle might be discharged in a variety of ways. Indeed, although this section has concentrated on mitigation, there is no obvious reason why mitigation burdens ought to be allocated separately from adaptation or compensation burdens. If not, an individual may discharge his or her fair share of climate burdens by helping others to adapt, or by reducing losses attendant on climate change, even if she does not contribute to the goal of mitigation at all.


At its broadest, the so-called contributor pays principle stipulates that those who are responsible for bringing some harm (or threat thereof) into being should carry any costs that it generates. If it was applied to the burdens of mitigation, adaptation, and compensation, the principle would place greater burdens on the shoulders of those whose actions have caused greater quantities of greenhouse gases to be emitted. It is not, to be sure, the case that we can trace any particular instance of harm back to any specific individual’s (or even state’s) emissions (Page, 2011, p. 416). When we emit, we simply add to the global concentration of greenhouse gases and increase the risks of harm coming to pass at some point. Still, the quantity of harms that ensue will presumably track emissions, and individuals, we could stipulate, are responsible for those emissions and hence for contributions to the net sum of harms.

The idea that we ought to bear the costs of ameliorating any harms we have engendered enjoys considerable intuitive appeal. The suggestion that farmers who allow pesticides to leak into rivers ought to pay for the rectification of the environmental damage that ensues, for instance, exerts an immediate pull on our moral sentiments. In common parlance, the thought runs something along the lines of “you broke it, you fix it.” In the words of one defender, the contributor pays principle “acknowledges that we are agents who make an impact on our surroundings, and who should be held responsible for that impact” (Miller, 2008, p. 126).

It is not clear, though, that the principle can govern the allocation of all climate burdens. Climate change is not caused solely by the greenhouse gases that are currently being emitted but by gases building up in the atmosphere across several generations. Some of these emissions will not have been caused by humans at all. And some will have been caused by people who are now dead. Obliging past generations to bear any additional climate burdens is, however, impossible (though we may still believe that if we could do so we should). Some have, to be sure, thought that the contemporary descendants of high emitters ought to bear a greater share of climate burdens (e.g., Shue, 2014, p. 186; Miller, 2008, p. 129). But if there are good arguments to that effect, they cannot be grounded upon the contribution that current generations have made to bringing those historical emissions about. Rather they must rest on some other idea, such as the claim that those who have benefited from past generations’ emissions ought to bear greater burdens. Such an argument would, in that case, rest not on the contributor pays principle but on the “beneficiary pays principle” (see “benefits,” below).

Even when it is the current generation that has caused specific emissions, it is not beyond dispute that they ought to bear greater climate burdens as a result. Some theorists have certainly defended a “strict liability” view, according to which a causal contribution to emissions is sufficient to justify greater burdens. But a strict liability view might be resisted on several grounds. One concerns an agent’s knowledge of the likely consequences of her actions. It may be that in some cases those who emitted were excusably ignorant of the contribution they were making to climate change. For instance, some emissions may have occurred at a time when processes of climate change were not well understood. Even if we believe that the risks of climate change have been known since the 1980s, it is not a given that those who emitted before that time ought to bear greater burdens (Miller, 2008; Singer, 2002).

A second ground for skepticism about the strict liability view concerns the presence or absence of alternatives. Perhaps in some cases people who engaged in activities that generated emissions did not possess alternative options at all. Or perhaps the alternatives they possessed would have been unduly costly to pursue. In such cases, it may be remiss to require agents to bear greater burdens. Imagine, for instance, that for some people emitting substantial quantities of greenhouse gases is the only available means of escaping severe poverty. Saddling those people with the task of reducing their emissions may only serve to keep them in poverty. To the contrary, on some views the very poor should not be required to cut their emissions, at least until the wealthy have made available to them affordable alternative sources of energy (Shue, 2014). But if the poor ought to be allowed to emit in the meantime, lest they remain in poverty, then requiring them to bear climate burdens as a result of their emissions seems to be ruled out, too.

Indeed, we can imagine still other ways in which the conclusion of strict liability could be resisted. Some people might have caused emissions in the pursuit of morally valuable endeavors—some of which may even have been morally required, on balance, even though they generated those emissions. An aid agency that drove trucks full of aid to the poor of the world, for instance, will have generated emissions in the process. But we may believe that those emissions ought to be “forgiven,” given the urgency of the need to which the agency was responding (indeed we might reach the same conclusion in the case of Aïsha, our imaginary climate activist from earlier in the article). In principle, then, some of the emissions made by the well off in our world could have been made in pursuit of activities that were morally valuable all things considered; and if so, perhaps they should not lead to greater climate burdens, falling on their shoulders either. Now, for the rich to claim that a substantial portion of their emissions were incurred in the process of delivering benefits to the neediest in the world would almost certainly stretch credulity (Shue, 2014, p. 184). But in some cases, the claim could be true, and in those cases causal (even knowing) contributions to climate change might not justify greater climate burdens. While the contributor pays principle enjoys considerable appeal, it also appears to have limited scope.


The ability to pay principle also enjoys substantial intuitive appeal. Such a principle would require individuals to make sacrifices in line with their underlying levels of advantage, so that better-off people made greater contributions than the worse off. In the case of climate change, we could argue, for instance, that wealthy people can more easily carry climate burdens than very poor people, while still being able to lead lives of comparative luxury. Whereas the contributor pays principle is backward looking, in the sense that it requires burdens to track (some) emissions to date, the ability to pay principle allocates burdens on the basis of the present or future capacity of agents to absorb those burdens.

As it stands, the principle requires further specification. Notably, adherents of the principle need to specify a metric for the capacity to bear burdens. For instance, individuals may be thought to stand in line to bear greater burdens because of their greater income, or their possession of greater resources in general, because of their higher functioning as measured for instance by the Human Development Index, or because of their greater overall welfare. Adherents also need to specify in more detail what it means for burdens to track ability to pay. For example, we may embrace a simple linear rate of contribution, according to which those who are better off are required to sacrifice more, and absolute sacrifices rise in strict relation to rising levels of advantage. Or we might favor a progressive rate of contribution, according to which the proportion of their advantage agents are required to sacrifice rises in line with their overall level of advantage (Shue, 2014, p. 187). In addition, the ability to pay principle may be modified in various ways. One variant is defended by Caney (2010a). From his point of view, those with greater ability ought to bear greater mitigation burdens other things being equal. But those whose resources have arisen from the unjust past emissions of previous generations also ought other things being equal to bear greater burdens, on the basis that their claim to those resources is weaker. One question here is why we would not generalize such a principle so that those who possess resources derived from all kinds of injustice ought to pay more, rather than those whose resources are derived from climate injustices alone. Another is whether there is anything morally distinctive about possessing resources derived from past injustice as opposed to, say, one’s own good brute luck. But in principle we could construct a hybrid principle that tracked not ability simpliciter but some combination of both pure capacity and the “taintedness” (Butt, 2007) or otherwise of particular advantages.

The ability to pay principle has been considered particularly attractive by egalitarians, who want to ensure that the distribution of climate burdens either does not exacerbate, or indeed actually reduces, broader global inequalities. But we can also envisage limited variants of the principle, which may appeal to those who hold sufficientarian views on justice. For instance, some accounts stipulate that the worst off ought not to bear any of the costs of dealing with climate burdens. Some other principle or set of principle would then need to be introduced to determine sacrifices above the relevant threshold of well-being. Such an account would not allocate burdens strictly on the basis of ability to pay, but it would exempt some actors from bearing burdens on the basis of their inability to pay. The rationale for such a proposal would presumably be that even if mitigation, adaptation, and compensation are urgent priorities, the world’s poor have a still more pressing priority: escaping from poverty. It would therefore be unfair to ask the global poor to divert their efforts, or their resources, to tackling a problem that the world’s rich could easily solve on their own (Moellendorf, 2015; Shue, 2014, p. 193).

On what basis, though, could we then allocate burdens above the relevant threshold? One proposal is that while countries with endemic poverty should be excused from making any sacrifices, above that threshold burdens ought to be shared equally. On David Miller’s account, the “principle of equal sacrifice” holds that (here, mitigation) burdens ought to be “allocated on an equal per capita basis among the members of the better-off societies” (Miller, 2008, p. 146). Miller considers this principle a version of the idea “from each according to his ability.” But from the point of view of ability to pay, this proposal actually looks somewhat counterintuitive. For in requiring the same sacrifice (construed in terms of a reduction in per capita income) from each person who sits above the poverty threshold, it is insensitive to the comparative position of everyone above that baseline. It would require exactly equal sacrifices from someone considerably above the poverty line and someone living only just above it. Indeed, it would also require the same (i.e., no) sacrifices from those just below the threshold and those far below it. Though it does track ability in one way (by exempting those below the threshold from any sacrifice), the overall effect would depart considerably from proposals based on ability to pay proper.

Still, some have found the ability to pay principle in itself unpersuasive, at least if it is intended to serve as a comprehensive principle for regulating the allocation of climate burdens. According to Page (2008, 2011), for instance, a deficiency of the ability to pay principle is that it would require wealthy but low-emitting countries to bear precisely the same burdens as countries which are equally wealthy but have become so only by emitting large quantities of greenhouse gases. To provide a concrete example, an (income-linked) ability to pay principle would place slightly higher burdens on the shoulders of contemporary Australians vis-à-vis contemporary Germans. But the cumulative emissions attributable to many generations of Germans are more than three times greater than those attributable to Australians (Page, 2011, p. 419). Requiring smaller sacrifices from contemporary Germans compared to contemporary Australians would be an implausible conclusion, on Page’s view, because the former are as well off as they are in significant part because of the excessive emissions of their ancestors. If we gave proper consideration to the ways in which current levels of advantage were derived, we may instead endorse the idea that the present-day beneficiaries of disproportionately large past emissions ought to bear greater burdens. We would be led to endorse, that is, the beneficiary pays principle.


The so-called beneficiary pays principle requires people who have benefited from the activities that have generated the problem of climate change to bear a greater share of the burdens of dealing with it. Unlike the ability to pay principle (which, at least unmodified, requires sacrifices to track capacity to bear burdens, regardless of how that capacity has emerged), the beneficiary pays principle suggests burdens ought to track the ways in which agents’ wealth or well-being has come about. It places normative weight, specifically, on causal connections between the past emission of greenhouse gases and current levels of advantage. Even among individuals with strictly equal capacity to bear burdens, an individual whose wealth or well-being can be traced to excessive historical emissions should have to bear greater burdens.

The beneficiary pays principle offers guidance potentially at odds with each of the principles we have considered thus far. For instance, its implications may depart quite radically from those of the ability to pay principle. An individual who becomes a billionaire today as a result of inventing some new green technology, for instance, may be said to have derived those financial benefits in a “clean” fashion—and if so, would not stand in line to bear any climate burdens as a result. The ability to pay principle, on the other hand, would presumably require greater sacrifices of him simply because he is now very well off.

The principle will also offer guidance contrary to that provided by the contributor pays principle. Notably, those liable to bear burdens under the beneficiary pays principle need not be considered morally responsible in any way for the emissions from which they have benefited (Page, 2011, p. 421). The principle is therefore sometimes thought to have a wider scope than the contributor pays principle. In another respect, however, its scope appears to be narrower. For it seems that the contributor pays principle would require greater burdens to be borne by people who are responsible for emissions even if they did not benefit from them; the beneficiary pays principle, by contrast, would not (Page, 2011)—with the apparent implication that those who (or whose ancestors) simply emit greenhouse gases to no good end do not thereby incur greater climate burdens.

The beneficiary pays principle is perhaps the most controversial of the three principles we have considered. Whereas contribution and ability are commonly taken to be relevant to the allocation of climate burdens, some scholars deny that the beneficiary pays principle has any relevance—or indeed any moral force—at all. A major strength of the principle, according to its adherents, is that it needs to lean on modest (or perhaps no) claims about causal responsibility for emissions. In order to justify placing greater burdens on his or her shoulders, it is enough to establish that an agent has benefited from past emissions, whether he or she had any hand in generating them or not. But for its critics, this purported strength is in fact a weakness. For why should those who benefit from others’ carbon-intensive activities have to bear greater burdens? The claim typically made by defenders of the principle is that if our ancestors’ emissions were disproportionately large, then the economic growth resulting from them constitutes an unjust form of enrichment. If the benefits arising from that growth now pass down to us, we may be morally obliged to relinquish them (Page, 2011; Butt, 2007). It need not be the case here that we played any part in the perpetration of the relevant injustices. Even if we did not, we may be strictly liable to give up the benefits arising from those injustices (Page, 2008, p. 562).

But the key question is why the causal connection between perpetrators of injustice and present beneficiaries is morally significant at all, if there is no causal responsibility on the part of current generations (Huseby, 2015). Some would simply deny the claim that equally well-off individuals ought to bear unequal burdens merely because one of them possesses benefits that were initially generated (by others) through the perpetration of some injustice, whereas the other does not. Indeed, it could be argued that the beneficiary pays principle offers arbitrary guidance. For instance, we might ask: why should it be those who have (innocently) benefited from others’ unjust emissions who should bear greater climate burdens, as opposed to those who have (innocently) benefited from other forms of injustice? We could also ask: why should beneficiaries of unjust emissions disgorge resources so that climate change can be dealt with, as opposed to other valuable goals such as the alleviation of poverty? It could be that the benefits that innocent beneficiaries of wrongdoing are obliged to give up should be made available for advancing justice goals in general (see Goodin, 2014). If good answers cannot be provided to those questions, it may feed the suspicion that the beneficiary pays principle has no intrinsic moral force, and that it appears to provide reliable guidance in some cases only insofar as it leans on some other underlying normative principle (Huseby, 2015; Lippert-Rasmussen, 2017).


This article attempts to clarify the moral problem of the fair allocation of climate burdens. When it comes to the moral principles we should turn to in allocating those burdens, we have considered three leading contenders. It may be thought, however, that the latter discussion has been needlessly esoteric, especially in the face of such a pressing political problem. For is it not the case that arguments from contribution, ability to pay, and benefits all point in largely the same direction when it comes to allocating climate burdens? In the real world the richest countries also tend to be high emitters, after all; and they also tend to have emitted (and benefited from emitting) disproportionate shares of greenhouse gases in the past (Shue, 2014, p. 205; Singer, 2002, pp. 26–27; see also Shue, 2015).

Even if that is generally true, cases in which it is not true are easy to imagine, and we need to know how to deal with them. It is far from inconceivable that a low-emitting state could nevertheless become rich—for instance by selling natural resources. It is also perfectly conceivable that among two states with similar present standards of living, one may have benefited from substantial historical emissions, whereas the other may have begun to emit large quantities of greenhouse gases only relatively recently (this is precisely what the Germany/Australia contrast appears to show). In such cases contribution, ability and benefits may pull in different directions when it comes to assigning burdens. Indeed, even if they did not, it may be philosophically important to understand precisely on which basis climate burdens ought to be allocated. Even if all three arguments seem to point in the right direction, it might turn out that one or two of them are false. If so, we should want to know which argument is sound and therefore doing the normative work in sustaining our conclusions about climate burdens.

The arguments of the previous section appear to suggest that no single principle is equipped to provide a comprehensive guide to the allocation of burdens. Insofar as people have knowingly and avoidably emitted disproportionate quantities of greenhouse gases, it will often make sense to require them to bear greater climate burdens. But some emissions are non-anthropogenic, and others will have been generated in conditions under which, on some plausible views agents cannot or should not be held responsible. In such cases some other principled basis must be found upon which to allocate burdens. A leading suggestion here is that the ability to pay principle can step in when the contribution principle ceases to apply (Caney, 2010a). Alternatively, we could compose a framework by way of which burdens tracked some weighted combination of both ability to pay and past emissions (Baer et al., 2009). A further possibility would be to adopt a division of labor whereby, for instance, some version of ability to pay governed the allocation of mitigation costs, and contribution governed the allocation of adaptation costs (Miller, 2008, p. 151). But for such a solution to be compelling, we would need some reason to think that mitigation and adaptation costs ought to be allocated according to different criteria, and it is not immediately clear what such a reason would be. Finally, some have thought that patterns of benefits arising from the activities that have generated climate change possess independent moral significance—significance that is not simply related to facts about either contribution or ability to bear burdens. But it remains contested whether such facts about benefits possess such significance in their own right. None of this disagreement suggests that climate change is anything other than an urgent problem, which if left unmitigated would cause unacceptable harms on an enormous scale. Neither should we downplay the important fact that the most plausible principles for distributing climate burdens do point to a large extent in the same direction: that inhabitants of wealthy countries ought to bear the lion’s share of climate burdens. But it does suggest that philosophical debate about the precise reasons for that judgment is lively and ongoing.


Thanks to Dominic Roser, Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen, and two anonymous referees for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.


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