Should Future People Pay for our Illegitimate Use of Freedoms: Intergenerational justice and climate change?

Crabtree, Andrew (2016). 'Should Future People Pay for our Illegitimate Use of Freedoms: Intergenerational justice and climate change?' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

Development, Sen has argued, is to be understood as a process of increasing the freedoms we have to live the lives we value. Yet Sen has little to say about the consequences of our functionings (doings and beings) and corresponding responsibilities – issues that loom large in the sustainability and climate change debates. This paper is in the spirit of Tim Mulgan’s Ethics for a Broken World in that it asks us to imagine future philosophers’ reflections on contemporary philosophical arguments and positions (Mulgan does not take the capability approach into consideration).
It outlines commonly argued positions held by contemporary philosophers, governments and NGOs that as developed countries (Annex I) are largely historically responsible for CO2 emissions they should pay the large part for mitigation, adaption and climate change loss and damage (as is also embodied in international environmental law’s polluter pays principle and the principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities). This argument seems to be ruled out by the capabilities approach unless we accept collective capabilities. If the capabilities approach takes the view that only individuals are responsible for actions, then the argument that contemporary generations responsibility for the consequences of climate change is small as most emissions took place before our existence. If we take the view that there are collective capabilities and collective responsibilities, then the arguments that countries of high human development seems to bare more weight. If we accept the argument that we should take responsibility for previous generations living the lives they value, the question arises as to how much forward in time the responsibilities should continue or, in other words, should future generations pay for our and previous generations’ doings and beings?
After outlining the current debates, the paper seeks to answer this question via a thought experiment in which we imagine a group of future philosophers (100 years from now) coming together to achieve not just an overlapping consensus (Rawls, Nussbaum) or an agreement on justice based on generally accepted criteria (Sen) but, from a Scanlonian contractualist standpoint, arrive at principles that cannot be reasonable rejected (i.e. they all have a veto right).
The philosophers come from different cultural, social, economic, political, geographical backgrounds and have different comprehensive views of the world. The represent the different situations in the changed world. Some of the predictions about global warming had come true. The number of extreme weather events had increased affecting both rich (including Japan) and poor countries such as Bangladesh. Some low lying states have disappeared. Biodiversity has decreased and water resources are limited in may parts of the world from Africa to California. There is greater pressure on food sources. There has been a big increase in urbanisation and there is more migration and greater incidence of diseases. But there were also some positive outcomes: new technology had supplanted indoor fires for cooking reducing carbon emissions and increasing people’s health and longevity. The change to a post-oil economy had reduced greenhouse gas emissions, increased the income (and welfare spending) of renewable energy exporting countries, however the transformation has reduced the income and welfare spending in others such as Norway (no longer a highly developed country).
India had become the most populous country and although its per capita emissions remained low, it is one of the largest emitters (due to agriculture) along with China, Brazil and Indonesia. Some countries no longer existed either because they have been submerged (as is Miami) or because they had broken up (such as the UK, Spain, and the Ukraine). The paper will provide copious empirical material (not just from the IPCC) to support the plausibility of the scenario.
The paper will argue that future generations can reasonably reject a principle requiring them to pay for our and past generations’ leading the lives we or they value or valued. Firstly, given the diversity of changes in the world, causal relations between CO2 emissions and climate change consequences are difficult to establish and therefore any causal theory of responsibility is difficult to maintain (and hence the polluter pays principle and the Principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities). Secondly, historical responsibility will be difficult to establish as borders change and as people are displaced across borders. Thirdly, those in rich countries who suffer harms due to extreme weather events or are internally displaced (for example due to the disappearance of Miami) will have good reason to reject principles demanding payment for for our doings and beings. Furthermore, Annex I countries like Norway and Scotland will reject principles requiring them to pay as they has suffered from the transformation to a non-oil economy. Furthermore, there will be new claims on India to take more responsibility as its share of greenhouse gases will become even larger despite its per capita emissions remaining low (as a result of population growth).
It will also be argued that a principle requiring mitigation efforts cannot be reasonably rejected as we always have the responsibility to stop something bad from happening unless those efforts lead to similar or greater burdens (drawing on Sen’s discussion of Kantian perfect and Imperfect obligations). Other concerns should draw on humanitarian principles demanding a greater role for climate change aid.

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