Books: whose climate is it anyway?

Climate Change Justice seeks to address both the practicalities of reducing carbon emissions and the ethical principles involved. It’s a tricky area, writes Crispin Tickell, and this book is only a guide.

Climate Change Justice
Eric A Posner and David Weisbach
Princeton University Press, 2010

The stream of books on climate change continues, although the character of the public debate has changed. The combination of the e-mail scandal at Britain’s University of East Anglia, a few mistakes in the last report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the disappointing outcome of the Copenhagen Conference last December has created varying degrees of public scepticism.

But the problem will not go away. The science remains pretty robust. Sooner or later there will have to be some kind of global solution to a global problem.

Among the issues is that of the justice or equity underlying any future system to manage the effects of change. The good health of the atmosphere is vital to all forms of life, including our own. But we all have free access to it and can pollute it as we will. How should we value a public good? How should responsibilities, past, present and future, be allocated? This is the central theme of Eric Posner’s and David Weisbach’s new book, Climate Change Justice.

One reason for the relative failure of Copenhagen was the sheer scope and complexity of the issues. The impacts of climate change are themselves uncertain. There are tipping points when one climatic regime can slide, often quickly, into another. The trouble is that we do not know where they are until we have passed them. Then there are wider issues regarding our ability to respond to change: among them are human proliferation and migration; exhaustion and pollution of natural resources; and damage to essential ecosystems.

This leaves one or two relative certainties. The rapid increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases is a product of the industrial revolution, and the rise is ever more steep as the world follows the western economic model of “development”. There can be argument about how and when this affects temperature here or there, but the long-term relationship between greenhouse gases and global temperature is not in serious dispute.

So should industrial countries accept prime responsibility for what has happened? And what should they say to those countries that simply want to follow the western model and raise their citizens’ living standards?

No easy answers exist. Posner and Weisbach look not only at the ethical principles, such as corrective justice or distributive justice, but also at how they relate to the practicalities of reducing emissions. Two broad approaches exist: the first can be labelled command and control; the second is to rely on market forces and individuals to choose the right technologies and apply them. The best approach is a mix of the two. Authorities can set incentives and disincentives, impose carbon taxes and organise sequestration of carbon. They can also establish cap-and-trade arrangements by which, having set an overall limit on emissions, they can issue permits to pollute that can be bought and sold.

Underlying everything is the problem of how to calculate costs and benefits. Discounting the future is already a fraught subject among economists. We simply do not know enough and probably never will.

We are back to problems of justice. In varying degrees, the main industrial countries are already trying to lower their emissions and help others. But by what means, by how much and in what form remains in dispute. Countries such as China also accept the need to lower their emissions, and are investing in new technologies to do so. Other nations give the issue low priority and demand help before considering any real action.

Posner and Weisbach conclude that, given the uncertainties, the best outcome would be a “welfare promoting agreement to deal with climate change, using science and economics to settle the optimum level of emission reductions”. They recognise when assessing national interests that some may have to contribute more than others but all should see some kind of advantage, whether in economic, moral or other terms. They also think that states should seek justice-related goals independently of climate issues. In other words, nations should deal with the problems of global equity and redistribution of resources on their own rather than include them in a climate change agreement. In their view, mixing the two could prejudice both.

This book contains many good points but is no easy read. It is dominated by conventional thinking about economics and works on a somewhat misleading division between developed and developing countries. It also tends to see the future as simply a continuation of the present. There is relatively little about the possibilities of rapid climate change increasing damage to the environment. Justice is an elusive concept throughout.

Anyone taking part in the next round of climate negotiations in Mexico in December should take this book with them. It is not exactly a primer but it is certainly a guide. Legislating for the future is always tricky. This area is trickier than most.

Crispin Tickell is director of the Policy Foresight Programme at Oxford University.

Copyright © Crispin Tickell, 2010