With the next Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP) coming up in Paris in late 2015, it is probably a good time to examine the philosophical foundations underpinning discussions on the –largely economic– mechanisms likely to modify the behaviour of the main greenhouse-gas emitters. That is, at any rate, the aim of this article by Frédéric-Paul Piguet on the notion of “climate justice”, which questions the pertinence of emissions rights and permits, and examines how the limits of the biosphere should be respected, on the basis of the principle of not doing harm to others.
After reminding us of the principles of distributive justice as this applies in the environmental field, Piguet demonstrates the inability of that theory to confront the biosphere for what it is: namely, the fundamental precondition for humanity’s common good, which must be respected in a way that transcends the generations, its equilibrium taking precedence over all other considerations, including the economic. Applying this conception, the limits of the biosphere must not be evaluated in terms of a “sociologized” judgment, as is the case at the moment, but an “ecologized” one, “recognizing the part of the biosphere that isn’t available for humanity’s use and mustn’t be touched.” Hence the impossibility of distributing emissions rights for the levels that infringe on this untouchable part, and the inadequacy of theories of distributive justice in this regard. Stressing the fact that the capacities of the biosphere cannot be treated as extendable “spoils” to be shared out, he sees the prohibition on doing harm as the principle that can set the biosphere in its rightful place as the fundamental precondition for the common good. Consequently, high levels of emissions can only be granted a “transitory tolerance” that underscores their lack of legitimacy.