Climate and Justice

John Foster links climate, justice and morality in a way which readers may not be expecting. He argues that instead of seeing our responsibilities here as obligations of justice, now very much the standard story, we need to contrast them with the kind of obligation which justice imposes on us.

I want to introduce some of the ideas in my recent book Realism and the Climate Crisis by juxtaposing those two concepts, climate and justice. But I want to do this in a way which I expect readers won’t be expecting. Instead of arguing that our responsibilities in relation to climate change and its consequences are best understood as obligations of justice (which is now very much the standard story, on both sides of the Atlantic), I’m going to suggest that to grasp those responsibilities properly, we need to contrast them with the kind of obligation which justice imposes on us. Indeed, we need to contrast them with moral obligation more generally. If you want a slogan to keep in mind to help give you a fix on what I’m going to be arguing, it’s this: climate change is not a moral issue, it’s something much more important.

What we can agree on to start with, I hope, is that if climate change was a moral issue, it would be a matter of justice. Think about this in relation to yourself. Each of us, I guess, as right-thinking Western folks, would accept that we have some kind of responsibility to reduce our individual carbon emissions – each of us ought to be looking for ways to alter his or her lifestyle in more carbon-neutral directions. But that can’t be because your own personal carbon emissions do harm, to anything or anyone. Here’s some good news, which may come as a bit of a surprise – you don’t have a carbon footprint! Actually, not even Mr Bezos playing with his toy spaceship has a carbon footprint. The whole carbon-footprint discourse is a corporate con-trick, a blame-game to shift the focus from systems to individuals. A footprint is made when your foot presses down on something, and your own carbon emissions, however large they are, don’t press down – don’t themselves impinge – on anything or anyone specific. Atmospheric carbon dioxide just doesn’t work like that. High-carbon lifestyles only warm up the planet because billions of people worldwide are indulging in them, egged on by late capitalism to do so; your particular contribution, and even that of Mr Bezos, are on that scale so vanishingly small, and so independently inefficacious, that they themselves can be said to make no difference. If you, or (perish the thought) Mr Bezos became a naked hermit tomorrow, the planet wouldn’t notice.

Now if you push that thought, it becomes an interesting question whether any unit less than roughly the whole world has a carbon footprint. Does the United States, for instance? It contributes a significant portion of the global emissions total, some 26% last time I looked, but clearly no specific damage which global warming does can be attributed to just those emissions – again, that’s not how it works. The absence or drastic reduction of those emissions, however, would certainly make some identifiable difference to the speed of the globally-driven warming process or to the severity of its cumulative effects, so here is real albeit very generalised harm to which you as a citizen are contributing your mite, and we could say that you have a citizen’s obligation to take your fair share of the hit which would be involved in national emissions reduction. But by now, with the concept of fair shares, we are already talking about an obligation of justice.

If your carbon contribution matters morally, that is, if you morally ought to be reducing it, that can’t be because it is harmfully large, that is large enough to do any trackable damage, but could only be because it is unfairly, that is unjustly, large. It could be so for the kind of reason just glanced at, as against your fair share of a reduction in national emissions directed at making future damage less intense. Or it could be too large as compared directly with, say, your individual fair share of the world’s remaining notional carbon budget for keeping global warming within 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels. Or, which comes to the same thing, it could be too large compared with what each present human being can fairly emit from now on if there is to be a habitable world for future generations. On any of these ways of thinking about it, your obligation to cut back would either be or be included in an obligation of justice towards those future people, who are going to suffer grievously if warming continues on its present trend. But it is then just this kind of understanding of what is at stake that I want to challenge.

One thing to be clear about, and which is too readily overlooked, is that we can have obligations – that is, we can find ourselves bound to certain courses of action – without the constraints in question being obligations of justice, or indeed of morality more generally. A parent’s obligations towards a new-born infant, for instance, are of this kind. It would seem very odd to say that what is owed to this little person by way of care and love, or that what is wrong with neglecting or maltreating them, has anything at all to do with justice. It also feels strange even to say that you have a moral obligation to love your kids: surely what binds you here is a much deeper bond? – one, as I say, not moral but more important. I’ll pick this thought up again later.

But of course, one also can have obligations of justice towards a child – as for example to hear what your small son has to say in his defence before stopping his allowance to pay for the broken window. So what has changed from when he was an infant? – clearly, that he has not just developed the capacities of a window-breaker, but has now joined you as a member of a community of justification, as someone who can offer and be offered reasons– “You shouldn’t make me pay because it was an accident”; “Yes I should, because you should have been acting more carefully”. And thereby he has become someone to whom you have an obligation of justice, not just to hear his account but to treat him only in ways which can be justified by appeal to reason – “You would want other people to act carefully around your stuff”. Various fancy forms of this idea get labelled contractualism in moral philosophy, but the principle is a quite straightforward and intuitive one: we are on the terrain specifically of justice when action has to be based on everyone having the chance of a fair hearing, where that in turn means: a hearing where they can advance reasons for their actions which they could reasonably expect others to accept as good ones.

But if an obligation of justice means one based on the possibility of a fair– that is, an impartial – hearing for reasons, then we can’t have such obligations towards future generations. They cannot participate with us in any community of justification, and ultimately just for the obvious reason that they aren’t yet around to do so.

Now it is possible to put this point in too crude a form, when it looks implausible. “We’ll emit as much planet-trashing carbon as we like because we can leave you lot, who aren’t here to protest, to pick up the tab” is very evidently an unjust rule of action because everyone can see that no-one, past, present or future, could ever reasonably be expected to accept it as a basis for action. In general, “I’ll do what the hell I like because you can’t stop me” is not going to be accepted, nor indeed advanced in any forum of justification, because it isn’t meant to be a justification, it’s a bare assertion of power and contempt for others. But what about: “We’ll maintain our present high-carbon lifestyles, with all the associated benefits which future people will of course inherit, but at the same time we’ll rely on carbon-capture technologies being rolled out at scale in time to prevent this from wrecking the planet further down the line”? Could we reasonably expect future people to accept that as a basis for our present actions? This is a much more finely balanced judgement, but here’s the point: only we, that is, present people, get to make that judgement, and we’re obviously interested parties. A genuine community of justification, concerned to achieve genuine impartiality in assessing reasonings, has to allow for at least the fallback possibility that in such contested cases, everyone likely to be affected can have the chance of an actual say in what’s going to be counted as a good reason. And that possibility just isn’t available in the case of supposed ‘justice’ towards future people, who have while they are still future no actual say in anything.

It's important to be clear that this has nothing to do with the so-called Non-Identity Problem recognised by the philosopher Derek Parfit – the idea that not just what life-conditions future people will have but which individual people they will be depends on our policy actions in the present, so they couldn’t object to those actions on grounds of injustice or anything else without objecting as it were to their own existence. My point is that whoever future people turn out to be, they can’t be genuine participants with present people in any community of justification for resolving contested issues – and all the real-world issues around carbon emissions policy are going to be fiercely contested.

An identically-structured objection, of course, applies in the case of supposed obligations to non-human items like individual animals, species, natural features or ecosystems. The arguments in each case duplicate that above, and I won’t rehearse them here.

So to bring this back to the personal level, “I’m emitting more carbon annually than would give future people a fair chance of a decent life if everyone like me went on living like this” – that is, the sort of judgement which might yield the feeling that one had a personal obligation of justice to cut back – is actually a conclusion depending on a whole raft of assumptions about what mitigation technologies and what major shifts to renewables and what forms of adaptation are feasible or going to become feasible, and also about what sort of lifestyles future people are going to want or find acceptable; but only people who are considering in the here and now whether they should accept such an obligation are in a position to recognise, discuss, accept or challenge those crucial assumptions. That means that any such obligation could only ever be accepted, whether by an individual or a national community, as a pseudo-obligation.  A pseudo-obligation is one for which how constrained you are by it turns on how much constraint you are prepared to impose on yourself – as for instance if I agree that I owe you money, but am able to deny you any say at all in the terms or period or currency of repayment, a situation in which the notion of owing can be seen to be doing no real conceptual work. In this light it should be found completely unsurprising that whenever such pseudo-obligations around emissions reduction, those endorsed in the Paris Agreement for instance, threaten to become inconveniently pressing, they are reinterpreted or recalibrated so as to give us a slightly longer lease on doing what we like – which has been the essential history of national and international climate policy for decades.

(And don’t say, as some otherwise respectable writers in this field actually have: ah, but we can appoint Guardians or Representatives or similar, to speak on behalf of future people or threatened species, so that they can after all have a real voice in these judgements and decisions. Yes, we – that is, present people – can indeed appoint such officials, and we must also decide when they get to speak, within what kind of institutional arrangements they must work, and just how much attention we are going to bind ourselves to pay them. Such a portentous charade does not avoid the difficulties which I have been outlining over genuine impartiality around contested issues of justice, it only makes them more glaring.)

Contestability, though under a different aspect, is also what gets in the way of other models on which climate responsibility might be claimed to be an obligation of justice – models which try to make it into an intragenerational rather than an intergenerational matter. So, consider for instance the idea that your present level of carbon emissions is unjust because you are enjoying it as the beneficiary of a civilisation with historic responsibility, through the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent development of a global fossil-fuel economy, for sea-level rises now threatening the livelihoods of people in low-lying Pacific Island states and elsewhere, places with historically a very low carbon contribution. You owe these people, it is supposed – people who are not future, non-existent and still only potential, but present, vocal and vigorously pursuing their claims – a duty to move, along with everyone else in the West, to a much more slimmed-down lifestyle, so that the civilisation which has warmed the globe can now make over to them, and to others threatened with climate-driven damage, a huge fund for mitigation and adaptation – a fund which needs to be thought of not as aid or charity but as a form of reparations such as would be due after an unjust war.

Now this all sounds persuasive enough if one says it quickly, but the prospect of operationalising it opens up a vast can of worms. On whom exactly does this duty of justice fall, and why? On governments, as currently representative of the countries which have done the damage? – but they didn’t authorise its launching, even if they authorise its continuance, and moreover they only have funds to transfer by extracting them, directly or indirectly, from you and me. On corporations, which go on making obscene profits out of the consumerism which drives the warming? – but they only do so because you and I and millions like us (including some inhabitants of threatened areas) fall for their marketing and buy, or aspire to buy, their products. Or on you and me, as individual Western consumers and taxpayers? But can you really, in justice, be held accountable for the actions of your forebears in pursuing the industrialisation and initiating the fossil-fuel dependence which in their times, before global warming was even a gleam in Svante Arrhenius’s eye, were universally acclaimed as progressive and benevolent developments?

Of course, none of this is to deny that rich countries may have obligations of benevolence or simple decency towards places and populations threatened with climate-driven disaster, and individual citizens may have corresponding obligations to play their part in ensuring that their governments act decently. This is obviously not a negligible requirement. But equally – and this is really the key point – it is not the kind of requirement that we should surely be looking for here. Intuitively, our climate-related obligations should reach much deeper than a duty of particular mitigation, funded adaptation or cooperative firefighting when disasters actually arrive.

What if we try to make climate an issue of intergenerational justice, but as between presently-existing generations? Certainly the school strikers have a potent rhetorical point when they accuse those currently in positions of power and influence, typically middle-aged-going-on-elderly guys like me, of not doing anything like enough to ensure that the planet won’t have descended into climate-driven chaos by the 60s and 70s of this century when they in their turn will be middle-aged. The young are, of course, generally quite right in pointing out how their elders are rubbish – but in the climate case, at any rate, things are not quite so clear-cut. After all, many of us oldies have got ourselves entangled in emissions-heavy lifestyles in large part to provide for, bring up and launch the young, who actually themselves (when you watch them walking around everywhere with their eyes glued to their smartphones) don’t seem universally and characteristically liberated from climate-destructive consumerism. The young in the advanced West and North, to put it bluntly, are not as putative victims of supposed climate injustice sufficiently distinct from the supposed perpetrators. And the whole problem with obligations of justice, as both this and my previous examples emphasise, is that to get any real purchase on action they have to be owed by some clearly-defined agent or constituency of agents, who are behaving or in danger of behaving unjustly, to some other equally clearly-defined group who risk being done out of something to which they are entitled, and who have a corresponding claim to a hearing on how this is to be avoided. That template just doesn’t fit the climate case.

So if your own climate responsibility – your responsibility to cut your carbon emissions and shape your lifestyle accordingly – isn’t a matter of justice arising in any of these ways, what is it a matter of? For that we do wrong by complicity in a way of living which is laying waste to life on Earth should, for all I have said so far, remain starkly evident to each one of us. But if this isn’t any kind of moral wrong, if it is (to recall) something more important, if you don’t harm anyone or anything specific by your emissions and nor do you owe or share in owing to any identifiable person or group a genuine duty of justice to mend (or just to improve) your ways, what sort of obligation do you have, to what do you owe it, and what sort of wrong is involved in neglecting it?

The point here is that the justice template is not just an awkward mismatch or only a loose analogy in the climate context – it radically doesn’t fit. Obligations of justice, or more generally of morality, are the only kind which our civilisation now seems to understand – because they can be grasped as basically matters of contractual or quasi-contractual relation between autonomous individuals or groups of such individuals. But surely, as I was suggesting a paragraph or two back, our real climate responsibility should be much simpler, more straightforward, less debatable and much more exacting than any duties of justice could possibly be. And it should surely, too, be a responsibility inhering in us not as members of this or that constituency or generation as against other such groupings, but just as human beings, considered in the context of the living world of which we are a product and a part. It should be something much more like the gut obligation which we have to a helpless infant – an obligation not to an autonomous individual, which the infant hardly is yet, but as it were to life itself. And I want to suggest that your real climate responsibility is indeed a responsibility to life, and more specifically to the creativity at the heart of life. You should reject complicity in humanity’s current wrecking of the biosphere because at bottom you do not belong to yourself but to the deep creative force which your individual being expresses along with everything else living, and without acknowledgement of which nothing that you do really makes sense, so that you cannot properly live a human life. Moreover, I think that we all really know this in our hearts, but it is a difficult kind of knowledge to recognise explicitly and to confront; that is why we try to fudge it with ad hoc templates like that of justice which, because we also tacitly know that they don’t really apply, serve when push comes to shove the unadmitted purpose of letting us off a very uncomfortable hook.

What do I mean by responsibility to the creativity of life? This is not something arcane or remote from ordinary experience. Consider whatever it is that provides you with a core of real purposiveness in your life. I am assuming that for any likely readers this will not be the substitute purposiveness of keeping your car shiny or your garden gnomes more numerous than the Joneses’, but the kind of thing which can be relied on when questions about the meaning and point of life arise. This could be devotion to an intellectual or practical project, aspiration to achievement in some professional or sporting activity, or love for some particular person or attachment to some group – any of the various kinds of real commitment which can actually get you out of bed in the morning. Now, you will find that you can’t think of that purpose, whatever it may be, as something accidental, something which just happens to shape your life because of where and when you were born, the nature of your upbringing, what different folks who have figured in your story have given you or done to you, or whatever. To think of your life-purpose like that would be to drain it of the organising and directing force which makes it purposive; nothing which was centrally important to you only as a matter of good or bad luck could retain its central importance once that provenance was recognised – how could it matter that much that it is what it is, if it only accidentally isn’t something different? But nor, on the other hand, could your purpose be something which you have deliberately chosen, a significance erected essentially by your will. For what you have willed to adopt or pursue is only as securely set before you as your next act of will, and that can’t provide your life with purpose and direction any more than can accident – such core purposes have to guide your relevant choices, not depend on them. Life-purpose, to do that hard work of getting you out of bed in the grey, chilly morning, has to be something about which at bottom you have no choice. But not, again, because someone authoritative, whether God or the President or your mum or whoever, has allowed you no choice about it – that would be enslavement, not purposiveness, unless of course you yourself freely chose to adopt their prescription, which would just bring us back to the need for having no choice. Your life-purpose, all this demonstrates, has to be something unchosen which you creatively realise out of your own life-impetus – and that means, it has to be something life-responsible.

It has to be that, because the point about creation, as anyone knows who has ever really made anything, from a sentence to a symphony, is that it is deeply answerable – responsible – to something within you which isn’t finally the accidental individual you, but works through you. Think about just trying to say something important. You have a prompting, an unclear sense of where you need to go with this, and that vague prompting attracts to itself an atmosphere of expression and maybe some provisional words, but the words won’t be right, and the ways in which they aren’t right recast and sharpen what the prompting actually was, and then suddenly in answer to that clarified intuition the right words are there, they have been given you. They have arisen as what you want to mean from something which is within you but is not the deliberately willing self which you would be invoking if you said “I chose these and these words”, although in a deeper sense you did. What we have here is not a causal sequence in which a state of mind (an intention, an inkling or whatever) calls up as output a choice of expression. Rather “it is an intertemporal process of regeneration of a unique kind, in which what is forthcoming and so still future shapes itself out, that is to say, conditions its own becoming. What you say both follows from your thought and is your thought. This pattern of unchosen emergence is true of all serious making whether in craft or art or intellectual endeavour or committed relationship, and also crucially in the shaping-out of your central purposes. And it displays the characteristic dynamic of all life, which is to actualise potentiality in inventing itself forward. So what is at work within and through you, claiming your practical allegiance in all these forms of activity, is the creative force of the life which is yours but doesn’t belong to you, the active principle of energy and spontaneity within you, that which flows in you as it does through the living world at large and which works itself out through your life-history on the clue of your particular contingent individuality. Each of us knows intimately, or at least is in a position so to know, this living force at the core of his or her being. And with that knowledge comes inescapably the recognition that you absolutely must not betray or cheat on that force, as it exists both within you and transcending you, or else your life unravels.

We live, however, in a civilisation which is inciting us to betray or cheat on life all the time – because it is built on a huge collective system of such betrayal. This civilisation is wholly founded on treating the living world (the biosphere as we scientifically label and objectify it, though what we mean is the almost infinitely multiple, permanently creative flow of life in which we participate), as a set of resources for human benefit – that is, for the benefit of human beings as a gross collectivity of choosing and willing selves. As an integral part of that delusory ambition it strains and shreds and tears at the amazingly intricate, delicately interwoven fabric of planetary life: ripping out wilderness, concreting over diversity, and finally now choking the seas with plastic and destabilising the very atmosphere. It does all this while imagining in its hubris that it can somehow manage and control its interventions and bring them to a halt just on the cusp of collapse, just on the hither side of the point where the squeezed-out benefits would start to be outweighed by the lethally destructive costs. This hubristic disdain for the powers of life it replicates right across the board, in its architecture, its urban planning, its systems of transportation and food provision, in its whole attitude to people and their relations to each other and even to their own embodiment. Readers will recognise this as the civilisation which surrounds and embraces us, presenting itself so suffocatingly as normality, although to any view from the perspective of life-responsibility which we have been sketching, it has long passed into a condition of cultural insanity.

The cruel truth, the truth from which we flinch although it lurks always just over the border of consciousness, is that for anyone who has really recognised how the awareness of life-responsibility makes sense of his or her life, to be caught up in such a civilisation must be utterly intolerable: literally, something which just cannot be borne. Such entrapment condemns one to the state which I call in my book existential immiseration – the sense of one’s vital being as blocked and stifled at its roots. If you doubt this, test it in your own case. Think again of what really and centrally matters in your life, and then ask if it could go on mattering to you in that way if your going on pursuing it were part of a trade-off in which you explicitly acquiesced in the human-driven destruction of the living world (in the medium- to longer-term, and after it had supported your life). I think you will find, if you are honest with yourself about this, that no retention of real significance or purpose is possible under those conditions. But life-meaning and purpose are, on any account, profound human needs: indeed, the neurologist, psychiatrist and death-camp survivor Viktor Frankl argued forcefully that they are the primary human motivation. To be caught up against one’s will in a system which is wilfully and overtly travestying the life force which makes sense of that motivation is to be subject to a wholly insupportable form of oppression. Someone who sees and feels in full, honest awareness what humanity is now doing to life on Earth has no escape into the immediate concerns of private or professional existence. Nor, to repeat once more, is this because of any moral claim on him or her – from future humans, other present humans, other creatures or the biosphere itself – but because such concerns cannot survive that recognition and still stand firm as offering a personal space of meaningful activity. You cannot shrug and turn away to cultivate your own garden, since all your purposes must be intimately maimed in their essential creativity by any such acquiescence. Thus – and very often painfully – does one become a centre of life-responsibility. The only way to keep your life meaningful, after such knowledge, is actively to reject complicity in the ongoing life-damage and then, inescapably, to fight with all your available energy and to the best of your talents against the social and political systems which are causing it.

In other words – and this too is a cruel, or at least an extremely uncomfortable truth – the only way to be properly climate-responsible at the stage we have now reached is to become a revolutionary. That means politically, not just in personal lifestyle terms. The fossil-fuel state and all its trappings will have to go down if we are to have any chance at all of avoiding the climate and ecological catastrophe which would finally and completely trash the living world. How to send that system on its way – revolutionary strategy and tactics – is something which calls for much urgent discussion: some ideas are sketched, though little more than that, in my book. But revolution is an inescapable corollary of climate responsibility, and it will not be one driven by considerations of morality or justice. Historically there have been a good many of those, and they have always ended one way or another in new forms of tyranny – according to the long-established human dynamic captured in Yeats’ savage quatrain:

“Hurrah for revolution, and more cannon-shot!
A beggar upon horseback lashes a beggar on foot.
Hurrah for revolution and cannon come again!
The beggars have changed places, but the lash goes on.”

This revolution, if it happens, will be one driven not by that sort of lethal jockeying for advantage, but by life-responsibility, and that will be something wholly novel in human affairs, since we have never hitherto had to confront the putting of life into world-wide jeopardy as we are now doing, not (as with the thermonuclear stand-off) through the risk of a holocaust which we devoutly hope won’t happen, but through one which humanity is consciously and deliberately, albeit insanely, driving forward. We who recognise our real climate responsibility have no option but to invent the unprecedented kind of transformation which revolt against that terrible prospect will have to be.

Realism and the Climate Crisis
Realism and the Climate Crisis - Hope for Life; Hope must be mixed with realism in our approach to the climate emergency, and in this book philosopher John Foster presents a revolutionary approach to our pressing need for a habitable human future.
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