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View from Polar Ice RimNever before has climate change been so important in the eyes of the public, and the general consensus is that something must be done to attenuate its impact. Though the latest international summit on climate failed to meet expectancies, it did however register a notable evolution: countries like China, notorious for their longstanding hostility to reducing their carbon-producing activities in the name of their right to development, showed a growing sense of commitment to the global community’s efforts to fight climate change. Thus, China’s proposal to reduce the carbon intensity of its gross domestic product by 2010 represents an important step forward if, like Eric Posner and David Weisbach, one considers that an international climate treaty can only be successful on condition that it includes all emitters of greenhouse gases. Such is the thesis they defend in their recent work Climate Change Justice[1].

This thesis might appear self-evident, yet it flies in the face of the main assumptions underlying all climate treaties up till now, from the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Posner and Weisbach adopt an original, even controversial, position when they call for pursuing international justice and climate change reduction separately, leading them to argue that developing countries should not be exempt from restrictions on polluting emissions. Though it is tempting to fight poverty by means of a climate change treaty, in light of the fact that the world’s poor people bear the brunt of climate change, these are two different and highly complex issues which each require a specific response. The authors’ approach is highly pragmatic, indeed they challenge the prevailing idea that developed nations should bear the entire cost of emissions reductions by submitting it to the test of feasibility and efficiency. This idea rests both on the argument that wealthy nations are under an obligation to help poorer nations; and on the supposed historical responsibility of developed countries in the deterioration of the world’s resources and in the resulting global warming.

Addressing climate change by means of an international treaty is but one of the many ideas considered today. Some participants in the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements, a think tank for public policy options in the field of climate change, have for instance favored a national or regional approach, in the style of the European Union, in view of many countries’ reluctance to submit to constraints on their emissions, often perceived as hindering economic growth. This difficulty could be overcome were a treaty to meet the criterion of International Paretianism, which implies that every country would have an interest in adopting it, argue Posner and Weisbach. Devising a treaty along the lines of distributive and corrective justice would however unduly penalize developed nations, and reduce chances of them cooperating. Ethical considerations are certainly important, but are more relevant in terms of development aid than in the climate change context.

Although Posner and Weisbach warn against setting fairness and equity as guidelines in a climate treaty, at the risk of condemning it to inefficiency, they seem themselves to fall back on ethics as a determining factor in countries’ behaviors. Faced with the problem of the free-rider – a country that would refuse to join the treaty while reaping the benefits of it – they are unable to provide a solution, and can only state that such behavior would be unethical.

Climate Change Justice offers a comprehensive overview of the efforts, on global, national and local levels, to attenuate the impact of climate change, and briefly sketches the history of international attempts to address the phenomenon. It succeeds in conveying the strong ethical dimension of climate policies, which imply moral choices for instance in terms of what is to be saved and of the importance given to future generations in light of today’s urgent problems.  It also invites its readers to question the assumptions that permeate international climate negotiations, and argues against placing too great a burden on developed countries on grounds of fairness and feasibility. It is not however to be read as a simple apology of developed countries’ responsibility in the global warming phenomenon, but begs a general reassessment of the contributions each country should be making to fighting climate change. This point is hardly novel in itself, but Posner and Weisbach back it up with an in-depth analysis of the available measures, from emissions taxes to cap-and-trade systems, and of the different approaches to distributing the right to emit, either on a per capita basis or on the basis of existing emissions. Their analysis does not however depart from conventional economics[2].

[1] POSNER, Eric; WEISBACH, David : Climate Change Justice, Princeton University Press, 2010, 240 pages.

[2] See TICKWELL, Sir Crispin: «Climate Change Justice », in Financial Times, 12.04.2010, available at :  http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/5dc7acb8-4360-11df-833f-00144feab49a.html

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About the Author

Gabriella Czerkierska Forbes

Juriste, diplômée de Sciences Po Paris,
elle collabore régulièrement avec l’IHEJ.