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Climate justice in a carbon budget


The fact of a carbon budget given commitment to limiting global-mean temperature increase to below 2 °C warming relative to pre-industrial levels makes CO2 emissions a scarce resource. This fact has significant consequences for the ethics of climate change. The paper highlights some of these consequences with respect to (a) applying principles of distributive justice to the allocation of rights to emissions and the costs of mitigation and adaptation, (b) compensation for the harms and risks of climate change, (c) radical new ideas about a place for criminal justice in tackling climate change, and (d) catastrophe ethics.

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  1. In modern times, the most famous theory of this type is John Rawls’ ‘justice as fairness’ (Rawls 1971). Thinking about distributive justice from a philosophical perspective has a long history, and much contemporary political philosophy (at least in the Anglo-American tradition) is concerned with questions of distributive justice.

  2. An important book in this field is Coleman 1992.

  3. The philosophy of criminal justice is enjoying a renaissance at present. One could do no better than to start with Duff 2009.

  4. The term ‘Anthropocene’ refers to a new epoch in the Earth’s history in which human activity is, for the first time, having a significant global impact. See Crutzen and Stoermer 2000.

  5. Rawls uses his famous ‘veil of ignorance’ to justify this principle as the one any person would choose if they did not know the particular generation to which they belong. For Rawls, this models the irrelevance of temporal location to any person’s status as a being deserving of justice. Note that the claim does not imply that all generations are required to save at a uniform rate for the sake of later generations. (Rawls 1993).

  6. An extended discussion of the equal per capita view, and other issues related to distributive justice in the allocation of emissions see Caney 2012.

  7. A promising approach to these questions draws on Sen and Nussbaum’s ‘capabilities’ approach (Sen 1992). On this view, what matters, from a political point of view, for the assessment of advantage is not levels of welfare enjoyed, or amounts of resources owned or controlled, but rather the extent to which people are free to achieve well being, understood in terms of objective opportunities to do, and become, what they have reason to value.

  8. Most people would think it would be very generous of you to act in the ways specified by the demands, but given the unreliability of generosity as a motive - especially when the sacrifices involved relate to all the comforts and pleasures of living in a more developed country - what we really want are arguments to show that you can be legitimately compelled to make the sacrifices required to meet the demands.

  9. He analyses the Kyoto Protocol in exactly these terms.

  10. Gardiner argues that geoengineering presents significant opportunities for morally corrupt intergenerational buck passing. It enables the geoengineering generation to tell themselves that they are making a ‘morally serious choice’ by doing this instead of reducing emissions, when the reality is that the geoengineering generation will probably not have to bear any of the risks of implementing the technology, and will have increased the emissions reductions burden for subsequent generations (Gardiner 2011, 364).

  11. These worries also apply to offsetting schemes (Hyams and Fawcett 2013).

  12. McKinnon, ‘Climate Change as Postericide’, Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship 2014–16, grant number RF-2014-021/8.

  13. This line of argument draws on ideas in Luban 2004 and Duff 2010.


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I am very grateful to Reto Knutti and Joeri Rogelj for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Comments made by Dominic Roser and two anonymous referees for the journal also greatly helped to improve the paper.

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Correspondence to Catriona McKinnon.

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This article is part of a Special Issue on “Climate Justice in Interdisciplinary Research” edited by Christian Huggel, Markus Ohndorf, Dominic Roser, Ivo Wallimann-Helmer

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McKinnon, C. Climate justice in a carbon budget. Climatic Change 133, 375–384 (2015).

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  • Criminal Justice
  • Emission Reduction
  • Distributive Justice
  • Climate Ethicist
  • Carbon Budget