Beneficiaries of Unjust Harm Pay Because they Must, Because it is Fair, Because it is Just

If it is not the party that caused the harm or the creation of an unfair disadvantage, then there are but few alternatives to choose from. Either there will be an equal or unequal distribution of responsibility shared by all parties responsible or not. Parties who are not responsible, usually those who have been harmed or suffered an unfair disadvantage, will bear the burden of responsibility. The responsibility will be transferred to future generations. Or there will be nothing done to rectify the harms or the creation of the unfair disadvantage. When the harm and the unfair disadvantage in question is anthropogenic climate change and the impacts of it, the last option is merely rejected because it violates or is in direct contradiction of too many other, norms, values, principles, and rights. There is further reason to doubt that either the second option is not entirely justifiable unless it was selected through a fair negotiation procedure and complete consent was achieved. Given the current international political and economic situation these conditions seem entirely unachievable. The third option encounters the same complications with some further caveats, namely, that future generations are not responsible for the harm and cannot give consent thus, actively selecting to burden them is unjust. Which leaves the option that the party who caused the unjust situation to occur is responsible for rectifying that situation. However, anthropogenic climate change is an intergenerational problem with latent and cumulative impacts, so it seems that neither is it the case that there is one specific party who is responsible, nor is it the case that the current generation is entirely responsible. This presents a dilemma for assigning responsibilities and burdens for rectifying the harms and unfair disadvantages that have resulted from the activities that have caused anthropogenic climate change. Much of the burden actually rightfully belongs to past generations who cannot fulfil their obligations. Thus, it falls to those who are the beneficiaries of the advantages gained from the harms and unfair advantages that were caused by previous generations, given that those harms and benefits still persist, if they are to be rectified.

However, the Beneficiary Pays Principle (BPP) is not without complications or objections. Simon Caney in Cosmopolitan Justice, Responsibility, and Global Climate Change (2010), argued that the BPP is usually argued for and defended upon egalitarian principles and whether from a “collectivist perspective” or an “individualist perspective” it fails to provide the necessary justification for the application of the principle.[1] For these purposes a collective is understood to be a group or entity such as a nation or state that exists intergenerationally, and an individual is an entity—typically a person—that does not. Caney’s basic argument is that all things being equal in the present between two states save that one utilized industrialization to develop and the other did not, that it would fail egalitarian principles to place burdens on the one and not the other, even for the harms that resulted from past industrialization practices.[2] Conversely, two persons alive today whose ancestors had unequal opportunities would not justify the leveling down of the opportunities of the one individual and the leveling up of the other, if the choices of the ancestors were chosen freely.[3] The issue with the first scenario is that the ideal situation Caney describes in the example is nothing close to reality, since no state especially when ‘developed states’ are compared and contrasted to ‘less developed states.’ The issue with the second scenario is that it almost entirely ignores the very real social factors that compel choices or constrict opportunities. In short, the examples that Caney uses over-simplify the situation. Nonetheless, the concerns that Caney raises do have moral importance for the BPP and need to be considered when making decisions about who is responsible in the present for what happened in the past.

Edward Page the author of Give it Up for Climate Change: A Defense of the Beneficiary Pays Principle (2012) argues that not only is holding the current generation’s collectives responsible for the actions of past, but also presents a reasonable and practical redistribution program.[4] Ultimately Page argues in favor of a “Climate Beneficiary Dividend,” that would apply to the thirty-one wealthiest states, whose wealth was also earned from industrialization, but which would not be remotely close to what is actually owed to rectify the harms to the climate that are being felt by those who are impoverished.[5] Page proposes that the dividend be set at 1% of total wealth of each state for one century, and further suggests that if the list of those most responsible is restricted to the top ten, then the dividend will achieve a net yield of approximately “$5.5 trillion” annually.[6] Page believes that collectives have a duty to rectify harms that exceed this proposed dividend, but proposes what is argued to be a modest compromise because it is thought that it will be more agreeable than attempting to compel the full duty.

The “Climate Beneficiary Dividend” that Page proposes is grounded upon the justificatory grounds of a principle of wrongful enrichment (WE), which states that “those states wrongfully enriched by activities that cause climate change should pay” for climate change.[7] Page argues that WE principle is grounded upon duty asserted by Butt, of whom Page quotes and expands upon by saying; “every moral agent is bound by a ‘duty not to benefit from the suffering of others’ and where such benefits cannot be avoided a duty arises ‘to disgorge the benefits on gains as a result of injustice follows from one’s duty not so to benefit.”[8] This duty seems like a focused outgrowth of John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle, which states “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”[9] To be certain, the Harm Principle was only meant to apply internally to one civil society and it does not specify what should be done should harm occur, but what it proposes is that undue harm is morally wrong, whether by an individual or a collective. The duty and the principle are also similar to principle proposed by Henry Shue:

“When a party has in the past taken an unfair advantage of others by imposing costs upon them without their consent, those who have been unilaterally put at a disadvantage are entitled to demand that in the future the offending party shoulder burdens that are unequal at least to the extent of the unfair advantage previously taken, in order to restore equality.”[10]

This reveals that Page’s proposal is neither, novel, nor without support. There is a certain intuitive and moral importance to the fact that past harms have translated into current suffering that these principles and others like them are contending with. Furthermore, one of the key elements of Page’s revision to the BPP is that the benefits and disadvantages must be “persisting effects of past or present wrongdoing.”[11] This supposes and rightly so, that the agents are collectives, i.e., they exist intergenerationally. The question that remains is whether these theories of harm, benefits, and persistence are enough to overcome the objections to the BPP, and whether in fact if they need to.

Caney bring up the point of “excusable ignorance” as a defense against the BPP, which has a certain moral appeal to it as it relates to conceptions of ex post facto determinations of blame and responsibility.[12] The concept of excusable ignorance suggests that an agent must have sufficient knowledge of the consequences of their actions and actually be able to elect to select an alternative. It further posits that if an agent could not reasonably be expected to have foreseen the harmful outcomes of their actions, that they cannot justifiably be held responsible and accountable for those actions. However, not even ex post facto determinations of blame and responsibility are without exception because there is a counter-balance that in some situations holds in all cases, that being the concept of strict liability. Strict liability holds that regardless of an agent’s knowledge or intent, that the agent is still responsible for the results of their actions. An example of this is ignorant trespassing, wherein a person is still responsible for the violation of another agent’s rights, but not that they are morally blameworthy for the trespass because they did not intend harm. However, they are still obliged to rectify the trespass by leaving the other agent’s domain and may be compelled to do such. This line of reasoning was in fact a major component of Page’s description of “unjust enrichment” which proposes that; “states should bear climate response burdens in line with climate change-linked benefits they have accumulated even if no wrongdoing can be identified in their production or intergenerational transfer.”[13] Thus, this principle, which Page argues is a revision of the BPP, is grounded upon the rationality of strict liability which links “automatic benefits” to specific unjust actions suggesting that merely by the fact of their existence that payments are due. Caney would argue that if it is not right to punish the beneficiaries, then it is not right to burden them with payments.

Neither Page nor Shue can merely overcome the objections and concerns raised by Caney by appealing to egalitarian principles or the principles they have proposed, but it is not clear that they need to. For one, there is no reasonable question that the planet has been impacted by anthropogenic climate change that has been one of the direct results of industrialization.[14] Secondly, there is also little debate about who in the past is responsible for the impacts that are resulting from the process of industrialization. Thirdly, there is also relatively little reasonable and rational debate about who today is being harmed by anthropogenic climate change or who will be harmed in the future. The debate is focused on who today is to be burdened with the responsibility and the cost for mitigating and adapting to harms that were caused or started in the past.

As stated above attempting to transfer these cost to future generations is unjust and furthermore does not address the urgency of the issues we as a civilization are now confronting. Stephen Gardiner, the author of The Perfect Moral Storm, argues that future generations are already being burdened with the effects of anthropogenic climate change due to the lagging and back loading effects of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.[15] Gardiner argues that there is motivation to want to distribute the burdens to future generations because the effects are not being experienced by all right now. However, the desire and, what is both fair and just is not commensurable. Doing nothing to mitigate or adapt to past harms is untenable and unacceptable. Burdening impoverished states, i.e., collectives, with the responsibility and the costs of things that they most certainly had no part in is both unfair and unjust. Shue would argue that imposing costs on the impoverished that would result in their being forced below a minimal threshold of being able to provide for their own survival is unfair, unjust and unacceptable.[16] Caney would agree with this.

This leaves one alternative that has two components, those who caused the harm are the ones who are responsible to rectify the harm. The two components are current polluters and past polluters. There is little to no debate that current polluters are morally obligated to pay for the harms they incur, this is the Polluter Pays Principle (PPP). However, as has been shown, there is much more debate about the past polluters and what should be done to rectify the harm that has resulted from it. One alternative as Caney argued for in the “Hybrid Account,” would be to draw a line, say “1990” beyond which there is no morally compelling justification to burden anyone with the responsibility for addressing the effects resulting from past emissions.[17] Page might however, be willing to negotiate on this point since, “half of all the CO2 hitherto released into the atmosphere (600 billion tonnes) was emitted between 1980 and 2008,” and it would go a long way toward mitigating the effects.[18] However, that is not what Page argues for, instead, Page argues for a “Climate Beneficiary Dividend,” that is but one percent of the total wealth of the states who are the collectives, i.e., the agents identified as being the progenitors of the harmful effects of anthropogenic climate change. Both the harms and benefits are still persisting, and Shue’s argument about fairness reveals that the entire institutional structural difference between ‘developed states’ and ‘less developed states’ dramatically impacts person’s entire quality of life.[19] To be fair, these unjust inequalities must be addressed and mitigated or rectified and this one percent would in part be used to achieve that end.

When confronted with the alternative of doing nothing to mitigate or adapt to the effects of anthropogenic climate change, which entails not burdening the current generation for past collectives’ emissions, neither Page, Shue, nor Caney think this is appropriate. Caney argued that the “most advantaged have a duty either to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions in proportion to the resulting from (i) [previous generations], (ii) [excusable ignorance], and (iii) [polluters who cannot be made to pay] (mitigation) or to address the ill effects of climate change resulting from (i), (ii), and (iii) (adaptation).”[20] The difference between both Shue and Page, is the reasoning behind burdening the most advantaged; Caney is heavily relying on the Ability to Pay Principle (APP), while Shue and Page are applying the APP, they are also acknowledging the historical accountability of collectives. By acknowledging the historical accountability of collectives they are attributing responsibility for how and why the most advantaged came to be in the privileged position they occupy, and since, as Page asserts, most of this wealth was gained through unjust enrichments that have “persisting effects of past or present wrongdoing,” it is morally relevant to do so.

Thus, since, all the other alternatives are either unfair or unjust, and since, doing nothing is not an option, all that is left is to burden those who benefit from “unjust enrichments” with the costs of rectifying the effects of anthropogenic climate change. Those who benefit from unjust harms pay because they must, because that is what is most fair to this generation and all future generations, and because it is what is most just given the historical accountability and responsibility of collectives. The objections raised by Caney need not be overcome entirely to come to this conclusion.

[1] Simon Caney, “Cosmopolitan Justice, Responsibility, and Global Climate Change,” in Climate Ethics: Essential Readings, ed. Stephen M. Gardiner, Simon Caney, Dale Jamieson, and Henry Shue (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 122-145.

[2] Caney, 133.

[3] Caney, 133.

[4] Edward Page Page, “Give it Up for Climate Change: A Defense of the Beneficiary Pays Principle,” International Theory, Vol. 4 No.2 (2012): pp. 300-330. ISSN 1752-9719

[5] Page, 16.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 6.

[8] Ibid, 7.

[9] John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty,” in The Philosophy of Human Rights (St. Paul: Paragon House, 2001) p. 144.

[10] Henry Shue, “Global Environment and International Inequality” in Climate Ethics: Essential Readings, ed. Stephen M. Gardiner, Simon Caney, Dale Jamieson, and Henry Shue (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 103.

[11] Page, 7.

[12] Caney, 130-131.

[13] Page, 9.

[14] Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Work Group II (2014)

[15] Stephen Gardiner, “The Perfect Moral Storm,” in Climate Ethics: Essential Readings, ed. Stephen M. Gardiner, Simon Caney, Dale Jamieson, and Henry Shue (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 90-91.

[16] Shue, 105-107.

[17] Caney, 136.

[18] Page, 13.

[19] Shue, 105.

[20] Caney, 136.


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