Chicago Journal of International Law


This Article argues for three ways in which historical emissions should count for the fair distribution of the benefits and burdens of responding to climate change among currently living people. First, historical emissions should count as a matter of ideal distributive justice if and insofar as their consequences can be considered beneficial to currently living and future people. Second, it is difficult to justify compensatory measures for damages caused by historical emissions for three main reasons: the non-identity problem, past people's limited knowledge of the long-term consequences of the emissions they caused, and the problem of attributing responsibility for past people's actions to currently living people. Rather than regarding climate damages primarily as a reason for compensation for wrongdoing, we should view them primarily as a justification for redistribution due to undeserved benefits and harms. Third, historical emissions play an important role informing the expectation of people in the developed countries to be able to cause emissions at the current level. If we were in a position to implement a fair, effective and legitimately imposed global climate regime we should not unnecessarily frustrate that expectation.