Harm avoidance and burden sharing in debates about climate justice

Convenor: Joshua Wells (j.r.wells@pgr.reading.ac.uk)

The issue of climate change is one which is at the forefront of the agenda of the international community. The most recent agreement on climate change was reached in December 2015 at the 21st Conference of Parties in Paris. From Paris a host of issues arose such as what would be an appropriate target (be it 1.5 or 2 degrees) for limiting global average temperature rise, how this target should be met and whether rich states can be considered liable for the harms experienced by poor states. Climate change consequently throws up a multitude of normative questions, which challenges our conceptions of intra- and intergenerational justice. Political theorists have struggled with the complex nature of the problem. However, recently some have made a distinction between considerations of harm avoidance and burden sharing.

In attempting to adequately tackle climate change in the context of politics there are both burdens and benefits to consider. Most take it that the transition to a non-carbon economy will impose substantial costs given our current dependence on fossil fuel based energy. However, there are undoubtedly also benefits in making the transition to a more sustainable future for society. This prompts political theorists, among other things, to ask what a fair account of burden and benefit sharing would look like. An arguably more pressing concern, though, is the imperative to avoid catastrophic harm. To fail in our efforts to mitigate climate change or adapt to it effectively would represent a profound moral failure. This would harm not only those most vulnerable groups in the present, but also those far into the future.

These components of climate justice, however, do not necessarily pull in the same direction. Given the priority of harm avoidance many think that we need to be less ambitious with our theoretical accounts of burden and benefit sharing so as not to pose unnecessary obstacles to the negotiation processes. On the other hand, in the context of climate change negotiations we are currently relying on voluntary agreement from states. Theory can be helpful in this regard as it can be used to help persuade states that what they are committing to meets at least some standard of justice. This clearly raises numerous issues of for political theory, as we not only have to weigh a number of different theoretical positions, but also decide to what extent real-world constraints should decide right from wrong in climate action.

Focus on harm avoidance and burden and benefit sharing might lend itself to at least three sessions. One of which to focus on harm avoidance, the other on burden sharing, and a third considering the relationship between the two.