Response to Simon Caney on feasibility and climate change justice

climate change justiceSimon Caney argues, in a welcome departure from the usual claims in this area of philosophy, that negotiating a climate treaty is not just a matter of distributing burdens fairly, but also requires a climate treaty that countries are actually willing to enter–“feasible,” to use the word that David Weisbach and I use in our book Climate Change Justice.

But he rejects our argument that the only feasible treaty is one that makes every state better off by its own lights relative to the world in which no treaty exists, and that if advocates, ethicists, and (more to the point) government officials insist that a treaty be fair (in the sense of forcing historical wrongdoers to pay, redistributing to the poor, or dividing burdens equally), there will never be such a treaty.

He says that if a government refuses to enter a fair but burdensome treaty because it knows that voters will punish it for complying, then that just means that voters have a duty not to punish the government, and instead to compel the government to act according to the philosopher’s sense of morality. But because voters don’t recognize such a duty, we are back where we started. His underlying assumption seems to be that voters will cause governments to act morally; ours is that voters will (at best) acquiesce in a treaty that avoids harms that are greater than the costs of compliance. So while, unlike many philosophers, he recognizes a feasibility constraint, he waters it down beyond recognition.

The EU’s recent backpedaling on climate rules shows once again that feasibility, not ethics, should be a necessary condition for proposals for distributing the burdens of a climate treaty.