Ethics and climate action: we’re in this together

By Bryan Walker 12/01/2010

World Ethics and Climate Change: From International to Global Justice (Edinburgh Studies in World Ethics)The reason international negotiations to tackle climate change are not working is because they have been premised on long-established norms of state sovereignty and states’ rights. Consequently they are characterised by ’diplomatic delay, minimal action -— especially relative to the scale of the problem — and mutual blame between rich and poor countries, resulting in a ‘you-go-first’ mentality that has prevailed even as global greenhouse gas emissions have exploded.’ 

This is Paul Harris’s perception in his book World Ethics and Climate Change: From International to Global Justice. He argues that the communitarian principle which underlies the concept of the sovereign state is too limiting to be able to deal adequately with environmental issues which extend beyond state borders. It’s not that states have completely ignored the problem of dangerous climate change. They have recognised that collective action is required, and have agreed that climate change is a common but differentiated responsibility, with developed states obligated to act first before developing countries are expected to limit emissions. Some governments have already started to act on their obligations. But national responsibility remains the focus and although international justice is enunciated it is not implemented. It’s almost as if it can’t be because it is easily at odds with perceived national interests — as we’ve seen all too clearly in New Zealand’s highly cautious approach to participating in the global effort.

Harris makes the case for the cosmopolitan ethic to be brought into play as a supplement or corollary to the communitarianism which governs inter-state relations.  As its name suggests cosmopolitanism emphasises the sense of global community.  It draws attention to human obligations beyond state boundaries. It sees the world as one domain in which there are some universal duties and global responsibilities.  Unless such a perspective can find a place in climate change negotiations Harris thinks we are likely to remain locked in the limitations of national interest which so easily block effective action. 

Harris values the cosmopolitan principle not least because it focuses on people. He lives in Hong Kong and observes that the emerging affluent groups in the large developing states are engaging in similar behaviours to the affluent in the developed states and becoming responsible for increased greenhouse gas emissions. The focus on states means that this now very substantial group may escape accountability for their contribution to climate change, simply because they belong to a developing country. He lays climate change responsibility at the feet of affluent people wherever they live. They are the people who actually cause the most pollution and are the most capable of reducing it. The consequences of climate change, on the other hand, are suffered most by the poor, wherever they are to be found. They are disproportionately in poor countries, but even in developed countries the poor suffer first, as was apparent in the effects of hurricane Katrina. Climate change shows the world’s affluent benefiting at the expense of the world’s poor in a relationship that can be plausibly described as exploitation.

Questions of justice are involved. But what is fair and just from the perspective of international justice is not necessarily fair and just from other perspectives. He agrees it would not be fair if China and other less-developed countries were required to take on the same obligations to combat climate as the US and other affluent countries. ’But it is also not fair, nor is it environmentally sound, for the many affluent people in developing countries, and especially the rich elites there, to be absolved of duties regarding climate change.’ Cosmopolitanism demands more than international justice; it requires global justice. The discourse about justice needs to shift to some degree from a focus on rich and poor countries to one on rich and poor people. 

Sounds good, but how does cosmopolitanism get a look in in a world where states’ rights and interests predominate? Harris doesn’t seek more than a supplementary role, but he describes the cosmopolitan corollary as principled, practical (because it reflects climate change realities) and politically viable. Indeed it is likely to become politically essential if the climate change regime is to move towards more robust outcomes. Implementation will be through changes in international agreements which will recognise and enable global citizenship, at least in the context of climate change, alongside national citizenship. 

New funding mechanisms are suggested as one example of how the cosmopolitan corollary might be implemented among states. Specific measures might include a carbon tax on greenhouse gas emissions collected directly from the users or polluters, and other earmarked taxes on non-essential activities related to climate change, such as international airline flights and luxury goods. The international funds collected could pay for things like disaster relief, poverty alleviation, sustainable development, mitigation and adaptation measures, and technology transfers.

In a section on the implementation of the corollary within states he urges the establishment of a climate change curriculum in all countries with effective and sufficiently funded educational systems. This would attune people, especially the young, to the need for action and to precisely what they can do.

The book is intended for academic use, and Edinburgh University Press provides a freely downloadable learning guide to assist lecturers and students who will be reading it as part of courses and seminars. But although the author has done plenty of scholarly research he emphasises that he does not intend the book as a work of abstract philosophy. He sees it as about practical world ethics —- what we ought to do as well as why we ought to do it. I think he succeeds in this aim. I was prepared to plough stolidly through an academic treatise if need be, because I wanted to know what an academic might be saying about the subject. But the book has an edge which made reading it much more engaging than I expected. Harris cares deeply about what climate change is doing to the world and advances his cosmopolitan ethic as necessary to effective action. It is in keeping with his commitment that he has arranged for all the royalties on his book to be paid directly to Oxfam, in support of their work among the world’s poor, including those people most harmed by climate change —- an act not of  altruism, charity, or generosity, he insists, but of straightforward cosmopolitan obligation.

Cynics may scoff at the notion that ethics can play much of a part in international negotiations, but cynics don’t have a monopoly on wisdom.  I liked Harris’s quote from Brian Barry: ’unless the moral case is made, we can be sure nothing good will happen. The more the case is made, the better the chance.’  Some of the generation of students that engages with books like Harris’s may well carry the cosmopolitan perspective into spheres where it can be employed to good effect.