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date: 05 June 2020

Climate Change Ethics and the Problem of End-State Solutions

Abstract and Keywords

How best to response to climate change is one of the most pressing challenges facing us all. Proposed solutions come in one of two approaches. The first is conservationist, seeking to minimize these effects by reducing, if not eliminating, them by bringing climate change to a stop. The second is focused specifically on adaptation mostly through technological advances to help us endure climate change by minimizing its effects. The dilemma for these proposed solutions is in their aim of being a solution to the problems that climate change brings. In short, they mistake the kind of challenge that climate change presents us. This is what I call the problem of “end-state” solutions. It is where we attempt to bring to an end a circumstance that might be influenced positively or otherwise by our activities, but beyond our full control. So to claim a so-called “solution” to such an ever-changing problem could make it better or worse without concluding it. If climate change is this kind of problem—and I will claim it is—then end-state “solutions” can be no more than a band-aid and the nature of our challenge is different, requiring an alternative future strategy. This chapter will set out how the problem of climate change is understood through attempted solutions that do not succeed. It concludes with some ideas about why this matters and the arising implications for how we should think about climate change justice beyond the false prism of end-state solutions.

Keywords: Climate Change, Global Justice, Adaptation, Ecological Footprint, Polluter Pays Principle, Nozick

1 Introduction

How best to response to climate change is one of the most pressing challenges facing us all.1 There is no uncertainty about whether it is happening, only the likely negative effects beyond the short term. The need for a compelling analysis of what to do is more than a question of justice, but a matter of human survival. The stakes could not be higher.

Proposed solutions come in one of two approaches.2 Each takes a different route to addressing the negative effects of climate change. The first is conservationist and seeks to minimize these effects by reducing, if not eliminating them by bringing climate change to a stop. This can take form of advocating the use of an ecological footprint or implementing a polluter pays principle. The second is focused specifically on adaptation mostly through technological advances to help us endure climate change by minimizing its effects on us. Many theorists advocate some use of both approaches in tandem, as climate change is happening, making necessary some form of adaptation and conservationism together.3 Yet it is also clear that most give greater weight to either conservation or adaptation as the primary mode of securing climate change justice.4

The dilemma for these proposed solutions is in their aim of being a solution to the problems that climate change brings. In short, they mistake the kind of challenge that climate change presents us. This is what I call the problem of “end-state” solutions.5 It is where we attempt to bring to an end a circumstance that might be influenced positively (p. 242) or otherwise by our activities, but beyond our full control. So to claim a so-called “solution” to such an ever-changing problem could make it better or worse without concluding it. If climate change is this kind of problem—and I will claim it is—then end-state “solutions” can be no more than a Band-Aid and the nature of our challenge is different, requiring an alternative future strategy. This chapter will set out how the problem of climate change is understood through attempted solutions that do not succeed. It concludes with some ideas about why this matters and the arising implications for how we should think about climate change justice beyond the false prism of end-state solutions.

2 The Climate is Changing with Harmful Effects

Climate change and its causes are not controversial. A global consensus accepts human activity is responsible for this change and its associated effects.6 The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reaffirmed that “scientific evidence for warming of the climate system is unequivocal” (IPCC 2013: 4).7 The changes include a rise in global temperature, warming oceans, shrinking ice sheets, rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and more.8 These changes are interrelated. Increased global temperature both melts ice sheets and warms oceans. The melted ice adds to sea levels, as well as to the amount of water in the global weather system. With more unlocked water freed from polar icecaps, this fosters more extreme weather patterns with more moisture in the air that increase risks of damaging storms.

These climate changes bring many harmful effects. Increased global temperature raises risk of drought in more arid areas while significantly impacting on local ecology elsewhere. This can damage crops, leading to food shortages. Rising sea levels threaten coastal communities and can force migration.9 The changing weather system can help spread tropical diseases to new geographical regions unprepared for combating it.

So climate change is not one thing or a single event. It is a trend that can be observed for over fifty years manifest in rising sea levels, droughts affecting agricultural production, and the spread of tropical diseases to new areas. These observable happenings over decades are caused by human activity, and this is leading to harmful effects for people worldwide, threatening homes, reducing harvests, and increasing risks of catching diseases.

The aim of most—if not all—influential approaches to combating climate change is to minimize these harmful effects by either reducing—if not eliminating—climatic changes so that no such effects are manifest or by reducing—if not eliminating—the harm arising from climatic change effects through adaptation. Or some combination of the two. Both aim at a solution leading to an end-state where, if a proposed solution is closely adhered to, there is no additional climate change-related concern to address in future.

(p. 243) 3 Conservation 1: The Ecological Footprint

Conservationist approaches to solving the problem of climate change are the most prevalent and influential. They seek to halt this change to end contributions to further associated harmful effects. Conservationism is sometimes referred as “mitigation,” because its aim is to enable the mitigation of harmful environmental effects on human beings.10

One popular form this broader approach can take is an ecological footprint.11 This footprint corresponds to a share of human carrying capacity, understood as the maximum rate of resource consumption that can be sustained indefinitely.12 If everyone consumes no more than their ecological footprint, then our planet will become permanently hospitable. Climate change can be brought to an end and so too its harmful effects.

Calculating sustainable consumption as a footprint can be through measuring its maximum rate per person. Others consider everyone having an equal share of absorption capacity in our atmosphere’s sink.13 The idea is that the atmosphere belongs to all in common: no individual has a greater claim to a larger share. The atmosphere can only absorb a finite amount of emissions in a sustainable way. It is a zero-sum game where your using more than your share would deprive others of their fair share. This creates a duty for everyone to use no more than their fair share or owe compensation when we fail to perform our duty.14 Our having equal shares of a sustainable absorption capacity would entail a significant reduction in global consumption. Living within an ecological footprint means consuming much less than at present, whichever method for determining the footprint is preferred.

The problem that the ecological footprint highlights is the imprint too many of us make is much larger than can be sustained long-term. There is much evidence for this.15 Common estimates show that seventeen of eighteen of the warmest years recorded over 136-years have occurred since 2001, with the exception of 1998.16 Living within our footprint means a significant reduction in global consumption, including the production of carbon emissions.

An important motivation for reducing consumption levels to within a sustainable ecological footprint is because failing to do so would contribute to climate changes and their associated effects that may give rise to causing harm to others.17 Environmental change is not always the same as environmental damage. Plant and animal species may change in relation to ecological factors without experiencing harm in any obvious sense. But where such change is detrimental to their flourishing, this presents a case of avoidable harm.18 Additionally, such harmful effects might impact on future generations, a complex topic with its own literature that I will bracket here.19

The ecological footprint faces four key limitations against endorsing it. The first is its problematic anthropocentrism.20 Footprints are determined to ensure the indefinite sustainability of human beings. We measure the impact of our activities on the environment, but not the impact of plant and animal species as well. Such a perspective may be (p. 244) critically important for setting a measure of human sustainability, but a sustainable carrying capacity of humans may not be coextensive with such a capacity of non-human sustainability. The flourishing of the former could be secured at a cost to the latter. This might be a price some may find worth paying, but it is at least counterintuitive as a form of climate change justice to potentially neglect or harm non-human species to achieve justice.

A second limitation concerns inequality. The ecological footprint is thought to derive part of its normative power from its treating every individual equally.21 We each have the same-sized footprint whoever or wherever we are. This falsely assumes satisfactory nourishment and bodily needs are the same, but they can differ. For example, childbirth and old age may require a need for greater resources. Individuals will also differ in resource needs according to height and body mass. There may be potential gender differences in resource needs pertaining to pregnancy. Plus, people living in different climates will have variable needs to inhabit such contrasting environments.22 So there is no “one size fits all” ecological footprint we can apply equally to everyone. Nor is there any single fixed footprint for any individual, because resource needs will change during the course of most lives. To treat everyone the same at all times is what the ecological footprint calls us to do to achieve justice for all, but at the same time to do so is to impose an injustice on many.

The ecological footprint can, if adopted, create global injustice in pursuit of climate justice. Consider this third limitation by supposing we imposed an equal footprint for all. Each country would have a footprint equal to the collective footprints of its population—and this would lead to a reduction in global consumption. This equal distribution would have the likely consequence of benefiting wealthy states over the poor. Affluent countries more technologically advanced would be in a much stronger position to adapt and thrive in these conditions than countries affected by severe poverty, which would be far more vulnerable to climatic changes.23 Securing an equal footprint for all would ossify the global privileges of the wealthy over others.

A similar scenario potentially arises with carbon trading.24 The idea is each country has an equal share of emissions based on population size. If a country wishes to produce carbon emissions in addition to their share, this is only permissible through purchasing emission credits from others. One benefit is that it makes it easier for countries with higher emissions to bring them down gradually to lower levels. Typically, the more wealthy produce more emissions than less affluent states.25 Carbon trading has a second benefit in helping redistribute wealth from more wealthy states to the less affluent.

A common complaint by pro-conservation theorists concerns motivations.26 They are troubled that carbon trading could have a negative effect on motivations to conserve. Carbon trading does not ensure every state is more sustainable, only the system overall. Since sufficiently wealthy countries have the spending power to purchase carbon credits, they could choose to continue with overconsuming lifestyles and luxuries at the expense of the less well-off, which might be left with even less.27 So even if overall consumption was reduced, it would come at a cost of ensuring the rich stayed rich, while the poor remained poor.28 Ossifying the status quo might also be seen as a price worth paying, (p. 245) but yet again this approach to climate change justice might increase risk of increasing other systemic injustices.

A fourth limitation is that the ecological footprint requires no possibility of human overpopulation. The footprint is a share of a sustainable ecological space. If there were so many humans that equal shares would become too small for all to be sustained, then no such footprint would be possible. So ecological footprints require the absence of overpopulation and assume sufficient sustainable ecological space for everyone present and future, which may be untrue in the long term. Since the relative size of everyone’s footprint would increase if the overall human population were less, this might hypothetically offer unjust regimes a perverse reason to launch military attacks in order to expand the size of their footprints.29

The ecological footprint offers itself as a fair and equal way to reduce global consumption to an indefinitely sustainable level. Adopting this approach is potentially likely to be unfair, effect individuals and countries unequally, and create global injustice—but its chance of success in achieving its conservationist aim requires the possibility of achieving such a sustainable end state.

4 Conservation 2: The Polluter Pays Principle

A second popular conservationist approach is the polluter pays principle.30 The principle claims we each have a negative duty to compensate others for the harm we cause them through our carbon emissions. In contributing to exposing people to a risk of harmful effects, we have a (negative) duty to annul however possible the environmental damage caused by our activities.

The polluter pays principle utilizes complex and contested concepts like harm and conservationist compensation. It has already been noted in Section 2 that harm is about detrimental effects: environmental change might not always be an instance of environmental damage. But there is an additional consideration of cause and effect. Overconsumption globally causes climate change’s harmful effects, but not every case of extreme weather is caused by such change. Extreme weather existed before human beings, even if human activity increases its frequency. It is difficult to pinpoint any specific individual human activity to any particular weather event.31

Compensation for risk of environmental damage is no less unclear. The polluter pays principle can be understood as a compensation principle: the polluter ought to pay because she did some wrong requiring recompense. Paying can compensate for polluting. The idea that polluters should compensate rather than merely pay highlights their polluting activity as a wrong to be put right. This indicates that the polluter pays principle is a kind of fine and not a fee.32 A fine likewise evokes a wrong, whereas a fee does not.

(p. 246) But this assumes the possibility, and permissibility, of compensation. What compensation should be owed for making a species extinct—and who would be paid? What if an offer of compensation is rejected? The polluter pays principle assumes too much in taking for granted that any potential harmful effect will have a price. Some environmental goods, like a species’ existence, may be non-compensatory in their nature, lacking any discernible monetary price. Such effects can be beyond compensation. Nor is it clear why, in principle, we should permit compensation from others to address our being continually subjected to the ongoing harmful effects if polluters are able to pay something to do so.

Suppose compensation was possible. How much should polluters pay? Greenhouse gas emissions have been called “the greatest market failure the world has ever seen,” by Nicholas Stern (2009: 11). This is because the prices of many goods do not reflect the full costs of their production and use. The polluter pays principle focuses on consumption, but not on production: it should cover both.33 If we claim that creating carbon emissions entails having to pay for the pollution caused, then we should recognize that emissions are linked with production too. Both should be reflected in how much polluters should pay.

There are further limitations concerning the problem of identifying relevant polluters. We are all the polluters and victims of pollution. So who pays whom?34 For example, we might think that states with collective responsibilities are the relevant agents.35 This would raise issues of whether present generation should compensate for the policies of the past that have contributed to climate change today. James Garvey (2008: 115) argues: “It is a straightforward fact that some countries emitted more greenhouse gases—used up more of the planet’s atmospheric sink, caused more climate change—than others. It’s a quantifiable fact: we know something about cumulative emissions.” So how far back in time should we go to assess past emissions? Our data per country do not conclusively cover the full range of all gases previously emitted and remaining in our atmosphere. We then lack a clear rationale for penalizing some states more than others based on these past emissions.

A more fundamental problem is that the polluter pays principle does not guarantee conservation. Most proposals for implementing the principle take the form of a tax on oil consumption. The idea is that increasing costs will incentivize reduced consumption and secure carbon emissions at an indefinitely sustainable level. While higher costs can help reduce emissions, there is no evidence that these costs will reduce levels sufficiently by themselves.36

Moreover, polluters can pollute as much as they can afford to pay.37 If polluters have sufficient resources, they might not reduce emissions and so conservation will not be secured. For example, Thomas Pogge (2008: 202–21) supports a Global Resources Dividend (GRD). Pogge argues that the consumption of oil products and its corresponding production of carbon emissions, especially by affluent states, present significant threats to states with populations in severe poverty. Affluent states receive benefits of improving economies at the expense of less wealthy states left to bear the costs of the resulting environmental damage to which they are more vulnerable. So affluent states have a negative duty to provide some effective means of compensation. Pogge offers his (p. 247) GRD—a tax of about $2 per barrel of oil—which is collected by governments and paid to less affluent states as compensation funding mitigation and adaptation strategies.38 We can tax our way to climate change justice and a sustainable future.39

The GRD is an imaginative way for affluent states to recognize negative duties while reducing global inequality. But it assumes too much in guessing that a tax raising the price of oil for consumers only slightly will yield a sustainable path to long-term conservation despite all evidence to the contrary that global consumption would remain at unsustainable levels. Taxes may be inevitable in modern states, but they do not inevitably lead to ending the harmful effects of climate change.

Some advocates of the polluter pays principle are sensitive to these concerns. For example, Simon Caney argues we are all under a duty not to exceed an equal quota of greenhouse gas emissions, in his defense of the principle.40 Our global emissions must be capped at an indefinitely sustainable level. The emissions produced under this cap—and within this sustainable amount—are subject to a tax. In this way, Caney brings the polluter pays principle to operate within an overall cap providing funding for compensating the harmful effects produced in a sustainable way.

The problem with this framework is that the polluter pays principle loses its motivational and justificatory force. Caney wants to retain the principle because of the view that negative duties are more compelling than positive duties. Polluters pay not out of charity, but because of justice for the harmful effects they contribute towards. But if there is a global emissions cap that secures a sustainable level of emissions that the atmosphere’s sink can reasonably absorb, then it appears polluters do not cause any harmful effects under this cap and so do nothing to compensate others. What is doing the conservationist work is the cap, acting like the ecological footprint but without dividing out the equal shares. Instead of operating like a fine, Caney’s principle becomes a fee that helps raise resources to support conservation efforts. However, it is not justified as a negative duty, and what does the justificatory work is enforcing the overall cap, but not any need to compensate, because no such harmful effects would arise.

The polluter pays principle is a second popular approach to achieving an indefinitely sustainable future. Most variations assume we can set a tax that will sufficiently incentivize such a sustainable effort, but there is little to no evidence this could be achieved. These models assume we can put a price on compensation where it would seem unlikely, if not impossible, we could do so for any environmental goods at risk of damage. While Caney’s framework is more persuasive than its rivals, it does not really utilize a polluter pays principle and, like other versions, assumes a sustainable end state is achievable.

5 The Adaptation Alternative

Conservationists do not have a monopoly on popular proposals for responding to the harmful effects of climate change. The main alternative is adaptation. This is (p. 248) widely understood to be a reality and not an option, given that environmental damage is happening already—conservation “will not be enough” on its own.41 Stephen Gardiner says:

The first thing to note … is that adaptation measures will clearly need to be part of any sensible climate policy, because we are already committed to some warming due to past emissions, and almost all of the proposed abatement strategies envisage that overall global emissions will continue to rise for at least the next few decades, committing us to even more.

(Gardiner 2004: 573)

While most policymakers would concede any climate change policy should include conservation/mitigation and adaptation strategies together, we find that some believe we should prioritize adaptation aims over conservation (as we saw others claim the opposite in Sections 3 and 4).

Adaptation advocates share several core commitments. The first is skepticism about how much of a reduction in carbon emissions will be necessary to secure indefinite survival. Matthew Kahn (2010: 7, 12) argues: “we will save ourselves by adapting to our ever-changing circumstances” because “At the end of the day, the story will have a happy ending.” While such views do not deny climate change is happening, there is greater certainty that such storms can be endured through adaptation to these changing conditions.42 We can adapt sustainably through greater urbanization of our communities, increasing our reliance on weather-resistant genetically modified foods and using nuclear energy.43 As the climate changes, we can change with it and immunize ourselves to many harmful effects.

This priority of adaptation over conservation is, for some, about cost-effectiveness. For example, Bjorn Lomborg (1998: 318) claims “it will be far more expensive to cut CO2 emissions radically than to pay the costs of adaptation to the increased temperatures.” Conservation efforts have been estimated to cost approximately 2 % of GDP per annum, or roughly $1 trillion each year.44 Lomborg (2008: 8, 35) argues that we can spend much less than this amount in adapting ourselves to changing climatic conditions and using our savings on other major social issues like poverty alleviation where this cash could go much further and do more good.45

Adaptation can take many forms. Flood defenses or relocation can adapt coastal communities to rising seawater threatening coastlines. Genetically modified crops that can thrive in more arid conditions can permit farming to adapt to less agriculturally productive conditions. Inoculation measures can protect us from the spread of tropical diseases to new geographical areas. Such measures are designed to adapt us to withstand or overcome any otherwise harmful effects of climate change. We reduce the effects of change primarily by adapting to them, rather than through conservation. All such forms are primarily anthropocentric.46 We are first and foremost adapting ourselves, although some advocate ways of adapting habitats to reduce the impact of climate change on plant and animal species living in those habitats.

(p. 249) There are several key limitations to adaptation. The first is an overconfidence in our ability to adapt successfully. We have uncertainty about the future environment—but must know to which future we must adapt ourselves to. Adaptation is a strategy for enduring a future that we lack sufficient clarity and certainty about to ensure an indefinitely sustainable future.

This uncertainty about the future environment is amplified by uncertainty how successful our adaptation measures will be to overcoming such changes. This is what might be called a “Unknown Unknown” and the least confident position we could have.47 So even if we could be confident in our models of what future conditions will be like, we cannot safely test proposals in the way a chemist might conduct experiments in a controlled laboratory. The high uncertainty is matched by the very high costs of failure. Many proposed measures of adaptation have never been tried or do not yet exist.48 For example, one such measure is “carbon capture,” where carbon is removed from the atmosphere and pumped into depleted oilfields underwater.49 The problem is that the future risk to human and marine life is unknown, with potentially deadly consequences for both.50 Far too much faith is put in our non-existent future technology saving the day from an unknown future environment. Claims that “in a world with billions of educated, ambitious individuals, the best adaptations and innovations will be pretty good” (Kahn 2010: 243) beg the question of how can we be sure that this will be good enough? This may be a risk not worth its potentially catastrophic costs.

Surprisingly, technological advances can produce unforeseen problems too. For example, consider how the creation of energy savings has led to higher overall energy use:

More power-efficient washing machines or better insulated homes will help the environment; but they also cut our bills, and that immediately means we lose some of the environmental gain by spending that saved money on something else. As cars have become more fuel-efficient we have chosen to drive further. As houses have become better insulated we have raised standards of heating, and as we put in energy-saving light bulbs the chances are that we start to think it doesn’t matter so much leaving them on.

(Wilkinson and Pickett 2010: 223)

Technological advances producing much greater energy efficiencies have not led to a reduction in overall energy consumption, but instead increased it. If we are to put most of our eggs in an adaptation basket, we must have confidence that we can correctly guess the future climatic changes, the technology required for adapting to them, and that no such counterproductive (and perhaps counterintuitive) consequences will follow. Otherwise, the adaptation alternative is less compelling than conservation where the uncertainty remains but is less.

Adaptation is an important part of any climate change policy. But it is built more on faith in what the future will yield and a reduced aversion to risks that are at least questionable, if not reckless, as a primary strategy. Like conservation-focused proposals, adaptation promises the possibility of “a happy ending” (Kahn 2010: 12) indefinitely, assuming yet again that climate change does have an end-state solution.

(p. 250) 6 Beyond End-State Solutions

Conservation and adaptation are not incommensurable. Most theorists advocating for how to address climate change emphasize one or the other, but in fact policymakers usually support some combination of both conservationist and adaptation measures. It is not fundamental to my argument that we can only support one side or the other.51

But what is critically important is how the wide array of approaches considered understand the challenge of climate change in the same way, notwithstanding their different ways of addressing it. This shared viewpoint is of seeing climate change as a problem that can be solved, bringing about an end state of indefinite sustainability. Others, like Stephen Gardiner (2011: 7), argue that “existing theories are extremely underdeveloped in many of the relevant areas, including intergenerational ethics, international justice, scientific uncertainty, and the human relationship to animals and the rest of nature.”

I agree, and my main aim has been to critically highlight the ways in which the main proposals advanced on each side of the climate change debate are unconvincing, but also drawing attention to the problem of their sharing a belief in the myth of end-state solutions for our climate. One side claims “the world now has the technologies and financial resources to stabilize climate” (Brown 2011: 198). The other claims that if only governments had us live within an ecological footprint or launched a polluter pays principle, then the harmful effects of climate change would begin to disappear as changes are brought to an end.

This is not to deny that most commentators taking either approach might accept additional policies may be required beyond what they recommend. It remains the case that if something more than adoption of conservation or adaptation is required, then this too often goes unacknowledged. This is not a question of making clearer the precise combination of conservationist and adaptation approaches within a unified policy. Instead, this is about the failure of most commentators to acknowledge the limits of their favored policies as a kind of end-state view that might do no better than temporarily manage the climate change we experience in the short to medium term.52

In short, end-state solutions are no solutions at all for the kind of problem that climate change presents us with; they are not a reliable roadmap of how to save the planet.53 The problem is there is no guarantee of a happy ending notwithstanding our best efforts. It is as false to believe only human activities can impact on the climate as it is to claim our activities could put the global climatic system in a kind of holding pattern. We cannot stop the climate from changing any more than we can stop the world from turning. The climate changed before there were humans and would almost certainly do so still without us. Likewise, environmental catastrophes have not required human beings to cause them in the past even if our activities make them more likely in our future. Such an event is not something we might prevent forever, but rather postpone or mitigate, at least for the foreseeable future.

If this is correct, our response should not be to surrender. The fact the climate is changing is not a compelling reason to exacerbate conditions likely to increase the risk (p. 251) and severity of harmful effects creating problems more frequently. We should ask new ethical questions: What are the moral implications of a future climatic catastrophe that might only be delayed, but not averted? What practical consequences might these implications yield? We must reflect on sustainability in the shadow of catastrophe for a tragic world—our tragic world—where there is no magic wand to cast away these challenges.54

The fact of a foreseeable—and perhaps inevitable—climatic catastrophe expands our normative horizons. If such an event is avoidable by adopting a particular policy, our judgment about how best to proceed will focus on the certainty of success. This is how climate change policy looks like from an end-state perspective. But now consider that this catastrophe is not avoidable. There is not one right course of action to take, but a future of many different actions in a future of changing climatic conditions. This changes not only what we might do about climate change; it changes how we might think about the nature of the problem as well.

7 Possible objections

There are several potential objections worth considering. The first is that just because there have been catastrophes in the past does not mean there will more again in future: what is done is gone. It might be replied that we are much better at understanding how to damage or destroy the planet than save it. Climate scientists accept climatic changes happen cyclically, but yet remain divided on what causes them.55 One scientist explained: “Many aspects of ice-age dynamics remains a mystery” (Marshall 2013: 159–60). We need to understand better such fundamental aspects of climate change before we can begin to imagine how our efforts might control or halt them. Until that time, end-state solutions are beyond our grasp.

A second objection is, if I am correct and a future environmental catastrophe is foreseeable and likely unavoidable, what should we do now that we are not doing already? In other words, what does this change? A response might be that reducing our impact on the climate through conservationism may be one important—if not the most important—means to delay a future environmental catastrophe for as long as possible. This is because the more manageable route to sustainability is to foster conditions that are easier to adapt to—and increased conservationism would better enable adaptation to the circumstances. Reducing our emissions globally might not be achieved by a polluter pays principle or reach a level of indefinite sustainability, as aimed for by the ecological footprint. But having this as our main focus is the best way to prepare ourselves for whatever future conditions are ahead.

A third objection claims my analysis confuses theory and practice. It says that “the value of philosophy rests not on successful policy action, but in the process of moral evaluation” (Lee and Kincaid 2016: 142). Philosophy can continue to guide moral mitigation even in a world where mitigating the climate is no longer possible—and so climate ethics (p. 252) is immune from my critique, not least what is presented in this chapter. In response, it is unclear what guidance philosophy can bring where we cannot act on it, especially when we are grappling with applied philosophy, as we are here. If the polluter pays principle purports to provide an end-state solution which it cannot, in fact, secure, then perhaps there is ethical merit in its drawing attention to a negative duty we might have. But our assessment of this principle which claims to bring about a certain state of affairs should not be unconcerned with its efficacy. It is a part of the theory that it is best placed to achieve certain outcomes in particular ways. In applied philosophy, this matters.

A final objection is that my critical strategy, such as my concerns about the ecological footprint, misses the point of it. Affluent states are living beyond their means, and poorer states suffer from the change-related harms their overconsumption creates.56 An ecological footprint makes possible a sustainable global economy that would help buy time to pursue the adaptation strategy I have advocated.

In reply, my criticism of the footprint strategy took more than one form. I argued its one-size-fits-all footprint does not treat countries equally (some will have greater or smaller resource needs, depending on local climates) or fairly (some individuals over a lifetime will require different-sized footprints). I further observed that locking countries into the same-sized footprints relative to their populations would likely ossify the privileged position of the affluent over less wealthy states, because the former would be best placed to exploit conditions to their advantage. If our reason for supporting the footprint approach is a desire to improve conditions for the global poor, it is unclear that the global order will necessarily become more equal through use of the footprint model alone.

8 Conclusion

Climate change is happening. The only question is about how best to respond, not whether to act. This chapter examined conservationist and pro-adaptation approaches aiming to solve this problem. The first can take multiple forms, such as ensuring we all live within an ecological footprint or adopt a polluter pays principle. The second takes various shapes, putting its faith in future technologies. The former seeks to minimize, if not end, climate change and so stop its negative effects, while the latter aspires to mitigate the effects of these changes through adapting to them. In short, both approaches see themselves as enabling an end-state solution to the problem of climate change’s harmful effects.

I have raised concerns with both approaches, but they also get wrong their fundamental understanding of the kind of problem that climate change presents us with. It is not like a puncture that only needs the right patch. Nor is it simply a matter of coordinating an enormous global effort across continents, as difficult politically as that is. Even if there was no problem of collective action, the proposed solutions on offer will not achieve their desired aims.57

(p. 253) A core issue is viewing climate change as a phenomenon that can be fully controlled; that through conservation and/or adaptation an end state can be achieved. Such a happy ending is beyond our grasp, at least for the foreseeable future. While our actions can influence the speed and intensity of climate change effects, the planet has not required human beings to undergo an ice age in the past. Catastrophe is not something we can simply avert forever if human emissions are cut sufficiently or even if all of us left the planet for a new life on Mars.

This is not a pessimistic perspective, but a sober reflection. Dale Jamieson (2014: 9) claims that we should “not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” This is correct. Likewise, we should not let an imperfect set of circumstances demotivate us, but instead raise the stakes. Achieving global climate justice is a bigger challenge than many assume and one that lacks any ready-made off-the-shelf solution. My critical look at existing proposals is meant not to claim such attempts are destined to be futile, but rather to inspire others to embrace this challenge for the good of all today, and in future generations.


I am indebted to many colleagues for discussions about issues raised in this paper that have greatly improved my considered views beyond earlier versions. Specific thanks are owed to Robin Attfield, Gillian Brock, Alan Carter, James Connolly, Rowan Cruft, Liz Fraser, Fabian Freyenhagen, Clare Heyward, Pauline Kleingeld, Melissa Lane, Jonathan Lowe, David Miller, David Owen, Soran Reader, Esther Shubert, Matthew Noah Smith, Suzanne Sreedhar, Daniel Star, Martin van Hees, Jo Wolff, Hiro Yamazaki, and Lea Ypi.


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Further Reading

Brennan, Andrew, and Yeuk-Sze Lo (2015) “Environmental Ethics,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,, accessed August 18, 2019.Find this resource:

Brooks, Thom (ed.) (2020) The Global Justice Reader, rev. edn. Oxford: Blackwell.Find this resource:

Dobson, Andrew (1990) Green Political Thought. London: HarperCollins.Find this resource:

Dryzek, Jay (1997) The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:


(1.) See Gore (1992).

(2.) For an excellent if somewhat dated survey, see Gardiner (2004).

(3.) For example, see Moellendorf (2009). For alternative views, see Hulme (2009) and Lovelock (2000).

(4.) See Giddens (2009: 13).

(5.) The idea of such an “end-state” approach is inspired from Nozick’s critique of end-state distributive principles. See Nozick (1974: 167–74).

(6.) See Doran and Zimmerman (2009).

(7.) See NASA (2019a). See also IPCC (2014), its most recent and fifth report. There are multiple websites reaffirming these findings. Those selected are chosen for their accessibility as much as their scientific authority.

(8.) See NASA (2019c).

(9.) On the phenomenon of environmental refugees, see Nine (2010).

(10.) See the Society for Ecological Restoration,, accessed August 18, 2019.

(11.) See Wackernagel and Rees (1996) and Vanderleiden (2008).

(12.) See Rees (1992) and Jamieson (2008: 184).

(13.) See Singer (2004: 28).

(14.) The idea of compensation for harming the environment will be discussed in Section 4.

(15.) See Bleys, Defloor and Ootegem (2018).

(16.) NASA (2019b).

(17.) See Singer (2004: 14–50).

(18.) This is one of many ways to conceptualize such harm. Another is of a damage to our aesthetic experience of nature. See Jamieson (2008: 158–62).

(19.) One compelling approach is offered by Mazor (2010). See Parfit (1984: 351–80).

(20.) On anthropocentrism and climate change justice more generally, see Hassoun (2011).

(21.) See Baer (2002).

(22.) See Ding and Peng (2018: 765).

(23.) See Hayward (2005: 198).

(24.) See Lederer (2017); Caney and Hepburn (2011); and Tietenberg (2006: 25–47, 192–203).

(25.) There is some evidence of increased resource efficiency weakening the link between economic growth and domestic resource use. See Sadler (2018).

(26.) See Dobson (2003: 2–3) and Posner and Sunstein (2009). For an alternative view, see Aldred (2012).

(27.) See Shue (1993).

(28.) See Vanderheiden (2008: 446–7).

(29.) I do not seriously think such a regime would care so much for climate change justice that they would resort to war in order to achieve a larger footprint through reducing the total number of human beings. My aim is only to signpost this hypothetical scenario.

(30.) See Caney (2005); Gaines (1991); Giddens (2009: 92); Neumayer (2000); and Shue (1999).

(31.) This has relevance for claims that an individual violates the human rights of another by producing emissions and that other person suffers later from some harmful climate-related effect. Such cause and effect on the level of individual human rights is difficult to establish. Those wanting to link emissions to human rights violations are on firmer, but contested ground when viewing responsibility for contributing to a cause enabling demonstrable risks of harm that do befall a group violating the rights of that group. For an overview of these issues, see Moellendorf (2012).

(32.) See Sandel (2005).

(33.) Stern, A Blueprint for a Safer Planet, 159.

(34.) See Baer (2006).

(35.) See Caney (2005: 755). But also see O’Neill (2001).

(36.) For example, see US Energy Information Administration (2011: 6–7).

(37.) See Brooks (2012).

(38.) Pogge (2008: 202–21).

(39.) See Brooks (2015), esp. p. 423.

(40.) See Caney (2005: 769).

(41.) Mastrandrea and Schneider (2010: 13). See Giddens (2009: 161).

(42.) See Levitt and Dubner (2010: 169).

(43.) See Brand (2010).

(44.) See Stern, A Blueprint for a Safer Planet, 54.

(45.) But on problems with such cost-benefit analysis in this area, see Broome (1992).

(46.) See Lomborg (1998: 11).

(47.) See Graham (2014).

(48.) See Pacala and Socolow (2004).

(49.) See Haszeldine (2009).

(50.) See Fogarty and McCally (2010).

(51.) It is fundamental to my argument that the scientific consensus for the existence of climate change and its observable effects are accepted. Those that are skeptical about the pace of change—for whatever reason—can still accept my conclusions even if their expectation of human-caused catastrophe will not be until much further into the future. However, those who reject the existence of climate change not only disbelieve the kind of problem others, in my view, have wrongly characterized but the challenge that does face us and so will not accept my conclusions. But this is a problem for their non-scientific analysis and not mine.

(52.) For an exception, see Jamieson (2014).

(53.) See Brooks (2016); Loo (2016); and Brooks (2013).

(54.) While an ice age might now be much less likely than previously thought, now the concern has shifted to whether short-term catastrophe due to global warming is inevitable. So while the nature of the form of any future catastrophe might take is changing, there is no less a concern about the likelihood of an environmental catastrophe because of climate change and its possible effects.

(55.) See Abe-Ouchi, Saito, Mawamura, Raymo, Okuno, Takashi, and Blatter (2013).

(56.) Schwartz (2016).

(57.) On the problem of collective action, see Hardin (1968) and Knapp (2011).