Climate Justice
Who Pays for Global Warming?

Who Pays for Global Warming?

Climate change is perhaps the preeminent issue of this generation. The current effects of global warming have already indirectly led to countless deaths and billions of dollars in destruction of property and infrastructure. Without remedy, this phenomenon threatens to continue this devastating trend and render the planet uninhabitable to humans. The prevention of such a fate dominates much political thought and discussion (though perhaps less than it should). There are two central questions to this dilemma: how do we deal with climate change and who should be responsible for doing it. For the purposes of this essay, the answer to the first question will be simplified. We will amalgamate the nuances of this first question into a single dollar amount. Whatever remedies are required for preventing climate change in the long term, and for managing the effects of climate change in the present, will be reduced to a monetary figure, henceforth referred to as the climate change fund, sufficient for achieving whatever the intermediate processes would be. This essay will be primarily focused on the second question, the attribution of responsibility for contributing to this climate change fund. Specifically, it will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of three theories of climate justice: the polluters pay principle, the progressive tax code principle, and the per capita approach. Finally, this essay will conclude that a modified version of the polluter pays principle, where uncovered costs stemming from the excusably ignorant are divided between states based on their wealth, is the optimal moral solution and defends this principle from possible objections.

The polluter pays principle is, as it sounds, a theory of climate change justice that requires those who contributed most to climate change to pay the most in dealing with its current effects and preventing its continuation. Perhaps the largest strength of this theory is its intuitive appeal. In regular situations, those who caused a problem are considered responsible for rectifying it.  In environmental terms, those who created the problem of global warming (through pollution or other means) should be the ones who foot the bill for dealing with it. One objection to this view is the issue of excusable ignorance. This objection claims that the polluter pays principle treats polluters too indiscriminately. A significant portion of the pollution that is causing presently experienced climate change was created by people who lived over a century ago. These people did not know about the devastating effects that their actions would have in the future. Furthermore, there is no way they could have known. There simply did not exist data or information on the subject at the time they were polluting. They could not be considered culpable for their ignorance, so it would be unfair to make them pay. However, we cannot simply eliminate these excusably ignorant individuals from those who pay for the climate change fund. The debt cannot be forgiven. Climate change has costs that must be paid for: damages from natural disasters, health problems from air pollution, etc. One way to raise the missing funds is to distribute the missing funds across the rest of the polluters. This approach, however, seems to violate the polluter pays principle. Under this model, each polluter that is charged is being forced to pay more than their due. They are paying for their own pollution and for the pollution of the excusably ignorant. The whole point of the polluter pays principle is that people’s responsibility should be commensurate upon their contribution to global warming, but by excusing those who are excusably ignorant and then dividing their would-be responsibility across other polluters, people’s responsibility is commensurate not only on their own contribution to global warming, but also on the contribution of others.

The second theory of distributive climate justice is what I will call the progressive tax principle. Similar to how progressive tax codes charge wealthy individuals more than impoverished ones, this principle states that responsibility for paying should be a sliding scale based on the wealth of a country. This approach minimizes the negative impacts of payment on a particular country. Similar to individuals, the more money a country has the less utility they gain from each additional dollar. A billion dollars would better aid a country with few resources than an already wealthy one. There are diminishing returns on increases in wealth, but also on decreases in wealth. If a billion dollars would be extremely beneficial to one country, then taking it away would have a detrimental effect of similar magnitude. By making the amount of money we charge countries a function of their wealth, we minimize the extremity of the negative effects that are incurred in forming the climate change fund. The collection of payment from countries to fight climate change is necessary, but the costs and tradeoffs incurred should be minimized. The main objection to this theory questions the connection between wealth and responsibility. While it may be true that wealthy countries are more able to contribute to the climate change fund, that does not necessarily make it their responsibility to combat climate change. If someone spills a glass of milk, it is not necessarily another person’s responsibility to clean it up even if they are closer to the mess and better able to clean it. It may play a role in level of responsibility, but ability to help in and of itself does not imply a necessary duty to help. 

The final theory of distributive justice is the per capita approach. This principle states that the amount countries must contribute to the climate change fund depends solely on their population. Say the climate change fund needs to reach a certain threshold to solve climate change. Call that figure X. X is divided by the population of the earth to produce figure Y and the amount each state is charged is then Y multiplied by their population. This theory does not prescribe that each person within each country must pay figure Y, but simply that their country raises the total figure. There is little merit to this argument. It is unclear why each state’s moral responsibility to combat climate change is based on its population. One rationale could be that each person produces roughly a similar level of pollution, so forcing countries to pay by population is a way to distribute the cost in terms of the total environmental harm each country is responsible for. However, in this case the per capita approach is simply a crude iteration of the polluters pay principle. Under this rationale, the per capita approach wants countries to pay based on their total contribution to global warming, measured by assuming each person within the country pollutes the same, while the polluter pays principle organizes it by how much they actually pollute. There is no clear basis for why responsibility to contribute to the climate change fund must be based on population. Without this rationale the theory is no more reasonable than one that distributes responsibility based on any other random factor.

The optimal solution to the climate change crisis is a modified version of the polluters pay principle. The polluter pays principle is essentially correct. People should be responsible for fixing the harms that they created. However, as stated earlier, issues arise when we consider polluters who are excusably ignorant or dead. Both problems create complications of incomplete coverage. Excusably ignorant polluters should not be held morally responsible for their actions, so it would be unjust to force them to contribute to the climate change fund. If every culpable polluter gave to the fund proportional to the harm they created, there would still not be enough money to resolve climate change. The would-be contribution from excusably ignorant polluters would still be missing. This issue of incomplete coverage, however, is a practical complication more than one that attacks the principle itself. We should have started this process of building up the climate change fund since major pollution began a hundred years ago. The owners of the first factories should have been properly educated on the effects of pollution on climate change. Under these conditions, the issue of excusably ignorant polluters would not plague the polluter pays principle. The fact that these things did not happen, however, does not invalidate the principle itself but simply requires an addendum be added to compensate for the lost contributions. This secondary theory should be to split the gap in funding across all countries based on wealth. This approach resolves the issue of incomplete coverage, as the missing income is covered by current countries on a sliding scale based on their wealth. It also maintains that the polluter pays principle is the primary agent in determining responsibility, with the secondary principle of taxing countries based on wealth being the fairest way to resolve the current climate change crisis. One possible objection to this approach is that it still does not address the progressive tax principle’s issue of identifying a clear link between wealth and responsibility. Under this modified version of the polluter pays principle, responsibility is still primarily linked to those who caused the harm. The secondary principle we defer to of taxing countries based on wealth is a way to assign responsibility in a minimally damaging way, based on ability, to help stop a crisis. In emergency situations, direct involvement in bringing about the situation is not necessary for responsibility. If a country can help they should. It is analogous to the example of the drowning baby. Even if it is not a person’s child or the person’s fault that the child is drowning, if they are capable of saving the baby, they have a responsibility to. While the child’s parent has the greatest responsibility to save the child, if they cannot save the baby by themselves, anybody with the ability to help should provide aid. Similarly, in the crisis of climate change, if contributions from the prefered way of determining responsibility, through causation, is insufficient, responsibility trickles down to those who are able to help.