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Global Climate Justice

Proposals, Arguments and Justification

Olivier Godard

In this thoughtful and original book, social scientist Olivier Godard considers the ways in which arguments of justice cling to international efforts to address global climate change. Proposals made by governments, experts and NGOs as well as concepts and arguments born of moral and political philosophy are introduced and critically examined. Godard contributes to this important debate by showing why global climate justice is still controversial, despite it being a key issue of our times.
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Chapter 6: Historical responsibility for climate change

Proposals, Arguments and Justification

Olivier Godard

Extract

The exclusive historical responsibility (before 1990) of the developed countries in the creation of the climate threat is a leitmotiv shared by many in the South, and by some philosophers. It gives rise to the demand for repayment of this climate debt. Is this claim justified? The moral conditions for challenging a person’s liability are considered first. Then, a key parable proposed by Henry Shue is shown not to be a satisfactory and appropriate metaphor for the issue of climate change. It exemplifies the generic failure of a rhetorical approach involving intuition based on false analogies or approximate data. The factors of possible exemption from historical responsibility are then examined: ignorance of past generations; the lack of control of past generations on past behaviours. The counter-argument of the ‘beneficiary pays’ principle is shown to be unconvincing as the current populations of the developed countries are not the beneficiaries of the climatic damages that would possibly be suffered by emerging and developing countries. An intrinsic weakness of the thesis of historical responsibility is to be caught up in a retrospective illusion. This illusion operates when the results of a historical process are attributed deterministically to early actions in the same terms as the most recent ones, whereas other historical outcomes were possible and the end-result did not yet have any reality. This misrepresentation of history is blind to the fact that emissions that began to cause climatic disturbances are only those that have occurred since 1988 when the atmospheric concentration of gas exceeded the threshold of 350 ppm. The ideology of a climate debt to be repaid for emissions before 1990 is interpreted as a case of confusion between two notions of debts, one archaic and the other modern.

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