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Georgetown Law Journal


Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions would cost some nations much more than others and benefit some nations far less than others. Significant reductions would likely impose especially large costs on the United States, and recent projections suggest that the United States is not among the nations most at risk from climate change. In these circumstances, what does justice require the United States to do? Many people believe that the United States is required to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions beyond the point that is justified by its own self-interest, simply because the United States is wealthy, and because the nations most at risk from climate change are poor This argument from distributive justice is complemented by an argument from corrective justice: The existing "stock" of greenhouse gas emissions owes a great deal to the past actions of the United States, and many people think that the United States should do a great deal to reduce a problem for which it is disproportionately responsible. But there are serious difficulties with both of these arguments. On reasonable assumptions, redistribution from the United States to poor people in poor nations would be highly desirable, but expenditures on greenhouse gas reductions are a crude means of producing that redistribution: It would be much better to give cash payments directly to people who are now poor The argument from corrective justice runs into the standard problems that arise when collectivities, such as nations, are treated as moral agents: Many people who have not acted wrongfully end up being forced to provide a remedy to many people who have not been victimized Without reaching specific conclusions about the proper response of any particular nation, and while emphasizing that welfarist arguments strongly support some kind of international agreement to protect against climate change, we contend that standard arguments from distributive and corrective justice fail to provide strong justifications for imposing special obligations for greenhouse gas reductions on the United States. This claim has general implications for thinking about both distributive justice and corrective justice arguments in the context of international law and international agreements.

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