Suppose, instead, that I go into the shop, have an argument with the shopkeeper and smash the bottle of tequila to spite him. Again, it’s easy to see that I’ve done something wrong and conclusions about what to do about it can follow on quickly. But imagine now that I’ve received some bad news, I’m down on my luck, penniless, and steal the same bottle. There’s a wrong in here too, but maybe you’re willing to forgive me or perhaps let me off with a warning. It’s a little more complicated, but you know what questions to ask and how to start thinking about what to do.

Now try this one. Suppose that a million people wake up to warm houses this winter. They have toast, coffee and hot showers. Suitably fortified, they drive to work each morning and get on with their lives, maybe jetting off to a fine beach every now and then for well-deserved weekend breaks. The energy that supports all this comes from the burning of fossil fuels. This results in the thickening of a band of greenhouse gases around the planet, which heats things up and the sea level rises. One hundred years after the toast and the coffee, a coastal village in China is inundated, drinking water is contaminated, crops fail, and several hundred people starve to death. How do you even begin to think about right and wrong in this case? There’s harm, but whose fault is it? There is no one standing there, red-handed, with a bottle of tequila tucked under an arm. But you can make a little headway by reflecting on justice. (And you can make even more progress by reading A Perfect Moral Storm: climate change, intergenerational ethics and the problem of corruption by Stephen Gardiner (2006) in Environmental Values 15 pp.397–413.)

Thinking carefully about justice isn’t all that easy, but some examples can get you going. You might think of punishment as just when it fits the crime – if a genuinely guilty person has to pay a fine or give up a share of freedom in proportion to the harm done by doing wrong. The distribution of goods, say the amount of water which bubbles up from a common well each day, might be called just if it goes to everyone equally. If we discover that someone has been sneaking an extra share, say to top up a hot tub, compensatory or corrective justice might demand that he or she give up a share of water in the future, maybe taking less for a time until the balance is redressed.

Giving it justice

In all of these cases, conceptions of justice can seem to have something in common, and usually that something has to do with how goods, resources, burdens or benefits are divided up. As a first pass at it, think of justice as consisting of sharing something out equally, whether that something is a burden or a benefit, unless there are good grounds for departing from this default approach. Those good grounds are probably going to have to be morally relevant, perhaps an agreement or the intervention of a moral principle or two. Perhaps you’re willing to hand over part of your share of the water to someone who agrees to do a bit of your work for you. Perhaps we all see the sense in giving a bit more water to someone who needs it more than us, just in the interest of alleviating suffering. There’s probably nothing just about taking more than your share by force or refusing to reduce your share when you see that others need water too.

It turns out that the question of justice arises quickly when you think a little about climate change. I don’t have in mind the just or fair distribution of fossil fuels, but the just use of the carbon-absorbing properties of the planet in general – the Earth’s carbon sinks. To put it in a simple-minded but clear way, those carbon sinks are a valuable and limited resource. As Henry Shue puts it, "a huge store of ethical considerations that are irrelevant to unlimited supplies 'lock in' when there turns out to be scarcity".1 It matters who uses the planet’s sinks and how much those sinks are used, because one person’s use, in effect, deprives someone else of a share. And the shares matter. Given the way our societies are set up – eating, drinking and keeping warm or cool, in short, the bare bones of living a life – all depend on emitting greenhouse gases. And we know we can’t go on emitting greenhouse gases willy-nilly.

Fair developments

Thinking of climate change in terms of justice can get you going. You can think about historical or cumulative emissions and come to the conclusion that the rich or developed nations have used more than their share of the sinks. Justice might demand that they now use less, probably much less. You can go further, if you like, and think of the planet’s carbon sinks as similar to the common well mentioned earlier. Just as you might think that more water should go to those who most need it, perhaps the developing world should get more than a proportional share of what’s going. Thinking about corrective justice might lead you to the conclusion that someone taking an extra share in the past ought to go without for a while, to redress the balance. You might think that large cuts are in order for the developed world. Maybe the burden can be partly translated into paying for clean development or covering the adaptation costs of those who most need it.

This is only one way into thinking about the ethics of climate change. It’s a lot more complicated than this, and no doubt the cartoonish thoughts above are not enough.

The point is not that they are right, exactly, but that something like this kind of start can’t hurt. As Dale Jamieson of New York University, US, suggests, part of our trouble with thinking about climate change has to do with the fact that our values grew up in a much smaller human world, a world of plenty, a world with stolen bottles of tequila to worry about. Things are more complicated now, but it might be possible to find our way using the values we already have.

Thinking a little about justice, wells, tequila and the like is some distance away from the usual debates, but you might find that it clears your head a little, making it easier to see through the complexities attending reflection on climate change and on to what probably matters most. Meaningful action on climate change depends a lot on ethics – on our values and on the recognition that justice requires that we make some sacrifices for other people.

That thought, for what it’s worth, does not surface much in the debates about alternatives to Kyoto, the economic realities of action on climate change, or the excuses some governments advance for missing a target or watering down environmental legislation. But the thought is out there. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) chair Raj Pachauri recently put it well by saying: "I think what we really need is a new ethic by which every human being realizes the importance of the challenge we're facing and starts to take action, through changes in lifestyle, in attitude and behaviour." Maybe I have doubts about some governments taking justice seriously, but probably I have a little faith in the rest of us, particularly if we manage to see the role of ethical considerations in our thoughts about climate change.

1 Henry Shue, After You: May Action by the Rich be Contingent Upon Action by the Poor?, Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 1 353.