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Climate change and historical emissions: Where is the justice?

FROM TILL C. JELITTO most read

"What responsibility do we, the currently living, bear for historical emissions and their damaging consequences? What obligations do we stand under as a result?" These sensitive questions were asked by a research project of the Austrian Science Fund FWF and new theoretical principles for the political handling of historical emissions were subsequently developed. To do this, legal, philosophical and political arguments were studied to begin formulating an answer to the question posed at the start of this article.

Climate target negotiations are also about justice. Such negotiations are dominated by two main principles: 1. 'The polluter pays' (compensatory justice). 2. Emissions permits should be distributed equally per capita (distributive justice). However the application of these principles to historical emissions poses an ethical challenge. After all, who of us living today are responsible for the (often unwitting) pollution caused by previous generations? And considering the current distribution of emissions, how can the fact be taken into account that the current high quality of life in some parts of the world has been established on the basis of these historical emissions? These questions were addressed in the FWF research project "Climate Change Justice. The Significance of Historical Emissions" at the University of Graz – and there are some surprising answers.

Intergenerational conflict

The FWF research project deals with the fundamental prerequisites for justice and climate ethics between the generations. In terms of distributive justice, for example, the team identified the need to clarify some very essential questions before starting to distribute climate permits, as the spokesperson for the programme Lukas H. Meyer from the Department of Philosophy explains: "To understand why climate change is so important and how we should deal with it, we first need to clarify what kind of future we want for humankind. What sort of world do we want to try to bequeath to our descendants? What are the conditions that will shape it and what are the ethical obligations that arise from the need to secure this future?"

The work that was carried out also showed that even if there were a satisfactory response to these questions, other challenges would still remain. These would relate in particular to a just distribution of emissions permits, as Meyer states: "We need to bear in mind that emissions are a by-product of all human activities that lead to an increase in people's quality of life. However, these activities – and consequently quality of life – are not evenly distributed on our planet. The damaging consequences of the activities, on the other hand, are distributed much more evenly, as climate does not recognise national borders." The group at the University of Graz has now succeeded in demonstrating how in these circumstances the consequences of historical emissions can be systematically taken into consideration when distributing emissions permits.

Climate & ethics in a state of flux

The members of the FWF research project have also succeeded in acquiring new insights into and developing principles for compensatory justice. A background theory was thus developed for the polluter pays principle. This has contributed to developing something that is much needed, namely a reliable ethical basis for the application of compensatory justice to historical emissions. In addition, the group showed that cultural aspects of climate change must also be taken into account for the development of strategies to reduce emissions or to adapt these in certain political societies. The group also reasoned conclusively that climate change causes certain rights to be violated, which fundamentally justifies the compensatory measure.

The project's results so far have been based on arguments and views in legal theory, moral philosophy and political philosophy. These arguments allowed the international team to study concepts of compensatory and distributive justice as well as responsibility and ability to act, and to put all of this in a systematic context. It was thus possible to create principles which can be used in future to examine historical emissions in the climate debate in a much more nuanced manner than before.

Scientific Contact:

Prof. Lukas H. Meyer

University of Graz

Department of Philosophy

Attemsgasse 25/ II

8010 Graz, Austria

T +43 / 316 380 – 8000

Austrian Science Fund FWF: Marc Seumenicht

Haus der Forschung

Sensengasse 1

1090 Vienna, Austria

T +43 / 1 / 505 67 40 - 8111

Copy Editing & Distribution:

PR&D – Public Relations for Research & Education

Mariannengasse 8

1090 Vienna, Austria

T +43 / 1 / 505 70 44


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Article published on 01.12.2015


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