Climate change compensation

At COP27 it was agreed that we’re not doing awfully well in our aim to limit global warming to a largely survivable 1.5°C before 2030. We’re likely to end up somewhere between that desirable aim and 2°C which is obviously worse, but how much worse, we do not know exactly.

At least we shall not end up in the BAU scenario -  the ‘business as usual' scenario. This was used at the outset to tells us what would happen if we did nothing at all and simply carried on using carbon based fuels for our industry, our heating and our travelling - a world in total chaos, with huge areas under water, completely unliveable temperatures in our already hot areas and all resulting in massive global migration. In other words the Extinction Rebellion play-book.

Even before the war in Ukraine, however, we had made massive changes in our behaviour. But particularly with the help of Putin, we’re now having to depend much more on green energy – wind and solar. So then perhaps it’s time to forget the uber-doomsday scenario and provide some hope to us all that, with actions which we can achieve, we may be able actually to prevent the very worst happening. Surely some hope would actually encourage us to move forward with useful action rather than wallowing in despair at the impossibility of the situation or being urged to adopt the self-defeating hair-shirt tactics of ‘Just Stop Oil’.

The second and more contentious point at COP 27 was the matter of compensation for the nations more affected by climate change. The reality is that some are potentially in great difficulty – mainly the poorer countries - whilst others will not be greatly affected. The issue of richer countries compensating for the “loss and damage” suffered by poorer countries was the COP27 summit’s biggest sticking point. A fund was established but it’s a fund without any money.

At COP15 there was a promise of a fairly meagre $100bn a year to help poorer nations cut emissions and adapt to rising temperatures, a promise honoured more in its breach that its observance. And things are not now looking any better for the compensation fund. it’s doubtful whether enough countries will pay in the money they have (sort of) promised.

The question is whether there is the political will to divert immense amounts of money to other countries. A forthright explanation for this likely failure was given by the European Commission’s Frans Timmermans in September. He said: “Let’s be frank, many of our citizens in Europe will not buy this argument” because “what is closer to your own worries is always bigger on our agenda than somebody else’s worries.”.

Many though say that there are real moral arguments for compensating poorer nations for climate damage. Usually, the moral imperative is framed as a matter of restorative justice: those who engaged in wrongdoing need to fix the harm they’ve caused. This principle has a long pedigree. John Locke was one of the first to suggest that there was a case for reparations: when someone “receives damage” as a result of a transgression, then “he who hath received any damage, has… a particular right to seek reparation from him that has done it.” Locke’s principle gives the victim a right to appropriate “the goods or service of the offender” as compensation.

But who is the offender in the climate case? Most people who set the world on the fossil-fuelled road to disaster are dead and I suspect that, unlike in some ancient cultures, the majority of us would rely on the principle set out in Ezekiel 18:20: “The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son.” in other words, however closely we are related to a wrongdoer we don’t bear responsibility for what he has done.

It also rather depends upon what you mean by wrongdoing. If you do something without any knowledge of what may be its consequences a long time in the future, are you in the wrong from a moral point of view? Surely, to be responsible for the bad consequences of an action it must be clear you knew, or should have known, it would have those consequences.

In the case of climate warming, a large proportion of the harm was caused before it was widely accepted that fossil fuels had catastrophic consequences. Indeed for a long time, even when it was realised that global warming was happening, the suggestion amongst many was that it would prevent us from drifting into another ice age. So then, it would be beneficial.

And in the absence of retrospectively attributing present day knowledge to our ancestors then, on any basis, making current polluters pay for their ancestors actions would create its own injustice. It is for example harsh to blame those who inherited climate-warming infrastructure, such as gas heating systems, when alternatives to replace them are beyond their means. Or cars powered by fossil fuels. Unless we adopt the Greta Thunberg play-book and declare that we will never touch another coal-powered calorie.

Another suggested way of looking at the moral obligation of those who benefit from wrongdoing is based on the idea that In UK law, you are not the legal owner of stolen goods even if you bought them in good faith. So then we should give up our unjustly derived benefits when our ancestors wrongdoing comes to light.

But the analogy is very poor. We, the beneficiaries of our industrialised past, are not in the same position as a thief. As mentioned above, there is not even any obvious initial transgression which might make the comparison more apt and so make the gains recoverable. Our forebears simply did not know the consequences of their actions. And there are no specific assets, like brass candlesticks, to return.

How much though is involved? One study estimated that countries potentially entitled to loss and damage payments will suffer climate costs between $1,132bn and $1,741bn a year by 2050. There aren’t enough clear-cut culprits from which to demand such reparations. Energy firms such as Exxon knew the harm they were doing decades ago.

We have now been able to read the scientific advice they were receiving in the early 1980s: it was exactly the same as the warnings coming from the scientific community as a whole. Just like the tobacco companies, they buried the research so that they could continue to deny the reality of global warming and its noxious effects.  But, unfortunately, even if we were to bankrupt all the petroleum companies the sums needed are way above anything that could be seized from them.

And if compensation payments were based on emissions per capita, a poorer state such as Trinidad and Tobago would have to pay proportionately more than Finland. Which makes no real sense.

It is though clear that it is mainly the poorest of the world who will suffer most. They generally live in countries more likely to flood or overheat and less able to afford mitigation. We have seen however that the various versions of the reparations argument lead to a moral quagmire.

So what about that distant relative of philosophy – politics? The philosopher John Rawls famously argued that to decide what political arrangement is just, you should imagine what kind of system you would choose to live under if you didn’t know where in that society you would end up. The thought experiment suggests no one should endorse a system of global governance in which poorer countries are left to fry or sink.

But not many people are aware of Professor Rawls’ thinking and I suspect that even if explained to them it would not have much effect. I think though that most of us would, albeit reluctantly, agree that ‘something should be done’. And as global warming creates greater suffering, no doubt our moral sympathy will be stirred more than it is at present.

For real action to be supported by the electorate, however, we shall need to persuade ourselves and others that it’s in our own best interests to provide climate aid. Rather than clever philosophical theories, however, enlightened self-interest is actually the main basis of our morality. And if we cannot keep out migrants from poorer parts of the world even now, how is going to work when people literally have to abandon large areas of currently habitable areas? Shall we build a Trumpian wall around our island?

23 January 2023

Paul Buckingham

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