Capabilities, consequentialism and climate change loss and damage

Crabtree, Andrew (2019). 'Capabilities, consequentialism and climate change loss and damage' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA 2019, London, UK.


One of the failures of Sen and Nussbaum’s work on the capability approach is that neither author has fully integrated issues of environmental sustainability into their work. As recently as 2013, inAn Uncertain Glory, Drèze and Sen supported the idea that India needs rapid growth but made no effort to show how that could be achieved in a sustainable manner. Although India is the third largest Greenhouse Gas emitter, Drèze and Sen give it little attention. Growth for Sen has always been seen as instrumental to achieving capabilities, he has not questioned growth per se. A number of authors working within the capability approach are now much more concerned with the limits of capability expansion (Robeyns’ Limitarianism, Holland’s Capability Ceilings and Crabtree’s Legitimate Freedoms). One reason for doing so has been the realization that leading the lives we value has had and will have negative consequencesfor ourselves and others especially in relation to climate change. This raises issues related to responsibility and restitution for harms done.

One of the main contemporary debates concerns whether present generations should pay for past generations’ Greenhouse Gas Emissions. This debate relates to countries, companies, global elites and individuals all of whom have been seen as the major causes or beneficiaries of GHG emissions. These discussions are reflected in the Polluter Pays Principle, the principle of Common by Differentaited Responsibilities, the beneficiary pays principle (Caney, 2005). This paper considers causal theories of responsibility that lie behind the principles and maintains that these arguments are problematic as the identities of countries, firms and elites change over time and hence there is insufficient clarity to attribute causation or establish beneficiaries.

The paper then turns to the Disaster Risk Reduction literature and, drawing on Thomas Scanlon’s (1998) theory of responsibility, it points to the responsibilities people have for stopping harms being done. The issue is exemplified by Sen’s work on famines where he has argued that famines are not due to there beingnot enough food but people not havingenough food. Famines, Sen has maintained are not difficult to prevent (Sen, 2009). Similar arguments have been made about disasters more generally (Wisner, 2004). This brings out the importance of agency, relationships and processes.

Philosophically, the climate change loss and damage debate emphasizes the consequences of our actions and is reflected in international customary law’s use of Mill’s no harm principle. The capability approach has often been critical of traditional utilitarianism and consequentialism (Sen, 1999). However, Sen (2009) has argued for a broader understanding of consequentialism which takes not just ends but also takes agency, relations and processes into account. Thus, the paper ends by exploring the relationships between the capability approach and consequentialist ethics in the light of the loss and damage debate and argues that Sen’s approach is more attractive than classical utilitarianism or deontological ethics. The paradox being that Sen does not apply it to his own work when discussing India’suncertain glory.

scroll to top