Climate Change and the Moral Significance of Historical Injustice in Natural Resource Governance

In Aaron Maltais & Catriona McKinnon (eds.), The Ethics of Climate Governance (2015)
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In discussions about responsibility for climate change, it is often suggested that the historical use of natural resources is in some way relevant to our current attempts to address this problem fairly. In particular, both theorists and actors in the public realm have argued that historical high-emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGs) – or the beneficiaries of those emissions – are in possession of some form of debt, deriving from their overuse of a natural resource that should have been shared more equitably. These accounts of what might be termed ‘natural debt’ generally focus on one particular natural resource (global GHG sink capacity); invoke a principle of justice by which rights to consume this resource should have been allocated (most commonly, equal per capita shares); and then argue that historical violations of this principle give rise to certain rectificatory duties in the present (generally, duties on the part of those who have historically consumed an excessive amount of the world’s GHG sink capacity, or who have benefitted from such excess consumption, to offer some form of compensation to those who have not – such compensation usually taking the form of emission credits or cash). Though many seem to find it intuitively plausible that historical high-emissions have incurred some form of debt, significant challenges arise in rendering the concept of natural debt both coherent and defensible. Such problems are not, however, my focus in this piece. Instead, I here suggest that discussions about historical responsibility for climate change commonly fail to recognise certain other past injustices concerning natural resources that appear to hold contemporary relevance. In particular, I argue that it is not just the unequal consumption of global GHG sink capacity that may be of moral significance here; but also the way in which the world’s resources have more generally been governed.



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Megan Blomfield
University of Sheffield