Professor Heather Widdows

Professor Heather Widdows is the Director of Centre for the Study of Global Ethics

In my post on Monday I argued that the threats to health, environment and security, cannot be addressed locally, but have to be addressed globally. My claim was that these threats were all interconnected and could not be addressed in isolation. This does not mean – of course – that people, groups, organisations, states and the international community should not adopt specific projects, policies and practices to tackle particular issues, but that there should be awareness of how these link into the wider solutions.

But, as I discussed on Monday finding such solutions is the problem. For instance, as noted in climate change there is broad scientific consensus (as shown in last week’s intergovernmental panel on climate change report. Scientific scepticism of a radical kind is extreme – it is not a balanced view. This is not to say there is no debate about the extent of what is happening or how it is to be addressed – but there is little doubt in the mainstream scientific community that climate change is happening and that it is man-made. The controversy in ethics then is not about whether climate change is happening – but rather what should we do to address it. There five solutions which are commonly suggested:

  • Equal burdens: That all should share the burden of climate change equally. This is the approach roughly of the Kyoto protocol and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which takes a historical baseline of 1990 and then requires differential reductions in accordance with this. Some ethicists reject this as it falls more heavily on underdeveloped countries.
  • Equal shares: That all are assigned ‘per capita’ quotas. The advantage of this over the equal burden model is that it does allow some space for growth for the poorest – who are yet to use their whole quota of emissions – while requiring large reductions for the richest.
  • Polluter pays: That those who created climate change are responsible for addressing its ill effects. It is a backward-looking model and a view which ethically is intuitively strong. It seems fair and puts financial responsibly in the same place as moral responsibility. Again part of this principle is built into the Kyoto model in that a 1990 baseline is set.  But, although this appears fair there some problems. First (and true to some extent all responses to climate change) there is the problem of uncertainty. Estimating the ill effects of climate change is notoriously difficult and therefore estimating causes even more uncertain. Second, is it fair that polluters are responsible for the ill effects before it was known that such actions contributed to climate change (say around the 1990s when scientific consensus began to emerge)?
  • Beneficiary pays: That those who have benefited from development pay. This escapes the problem of uncertainty. It doesn’t matter if you caused climate change what matters is whether you benefited or not.
  • Ability to pay: That those who can pay should – irrespective. Quite simply the challenge is so great and the need of solving it so pressing – anyone (and perhaps everyone) who can pay should. This is pragmatic response. Rather than attempt to track difficult networks of causal injustices we just focus on what we can do now and as quickly as possible.

The problem though is not which of these to choose – any of them would be better than the current inaction and (as noted) at least two of them are evident in Kyoto and the international attempts to address the issue to date. So the problem is perhaps not ‘who pays?’ but ‘why does no-one pay?’. How can we get people, institutions and governments to act? How do we get collective action? How can any of these be put into practice? How do you get individual people and individual countries to conform?

My answer is that we need to move to a different understanding of what is valuable and of what we protect. At the moment theories of justice tend to protect individual rights and choice, and these are allowed to ‘trump’ all other concerns. By trumping I just mean that these are valued more than anything else. This is a principle of ethics or justice which applies almost across the board – if you choose something, if you consent to it, then it is deemed to be ethical. There are some instances where this is clearly right – and where no-one else is affected by your decision. But when it comes to climate change, or to protecting antibiotic efficacy (see Monday’s blog – 30 September), to allow individuals to choose not to engage in shared and collective action is devastating. Primary public goods of a sustainable environment and health are simply destroyed. In global theories of justice these goods need respecting too – and ethics and governance structures must be able to do this. To make this happen individual choice cannot always trump. Such a theory would revolutionise global justice and ethics thinking, but is, I think essential, if the current global challenges are to be met. As mentioned on Monday the costs of not protecting such global public goods are almost unthinkable: devastating to others now and overwhelmingly destructive to future generations. The prospect of returning to a pre-antibiotic era, or surviving global warming, is just too horrible to contemplate.

If you would like to read this argument in full please see my recent paper ‘Revising Global Theories of Justice to Include Public Goods’ co-authored with one of my Phd Students in Global Ethics, Peter West-Oram.


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