Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

The climate justice debate has a baseline problem

Humanity faces a number of daunting challenges in the 21st century. Climate change and socioeconomic injustice figure prominently on this list. When it comes to tackling these challenges, two possible strategies divide policy makers.

On the one hand, there are those who point out that addressing either of these problems on their own is a mammoth task, and that taking them on simultaneously is simply utopian. This view sometimes comes with a dose of optimism about technological solutions to climate change. On the other hand, an increasing number of voices argue that climate action can’t be separated from social justice. In particular, advocates of the latter position highlight the “triple inequality of climate change”: The global rich tend to pollute disproportionately and thus bear a heightened responsibility for climate change, the global poor are more vulnerable to its effects, and poor countries have fewer resources available for mitigation and adaptation. In political philosophy, we find a parallel divide between “isolationists” and “integrationists” respectively.

My point here will be to suggest that the case for integrationism is even stronger that even most of its ardent supporters acknowledge. To see why, consider the first of the inequalities mentioned in the previous paragraph. Studies suggest that, across countries, the top decile of polluters are responsible for about 50% of emissions, while the bottom 50% of polluters are only responsible for about 10% of emissions. Wealth strongly correlates with carbon-intensive activities – think everything from private jets and yachts, via mansion-size homes, to multiple trips by airplane per year or multiple cars in a single household.

Against this background, it is interesting to note that one of the main policy instruments in the fight against climate change, at least in its current form, ignores this correlation: Carbon taxes tend to be flat, that is, the same for everyone. Given the relatively price-inelastic demand of the rich – they don’t care too much about spending a few Euros or Dollars more – flat carbon taxes are fairly ineffective at achieving their goal of lowering emissions. They work better for people on low-incomes with price-elastic demand who, even if they get financial compensation through rebate schemes, might rightly complain that they bear a lot of the mitigation burden under this arrangement.

This is an important insight, with an obvious solution. A progressive carbon tax, as proposed for instance by Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty in the same study already mentioned, would promise to be much more effective at getting everyone to change their consumption behaviour. A rich person does perhaps not care when the price per ton of carbondioxide equivalent (tCO2e) is at $100/ton. But suppose your carbon tax rises to a multiple of that when your emissions pass certain thresholds. For example, if you had to pay $1,000 or even $10,000 once you emit more than 10tCO2e/year or 20tCO2e/year – the individual carbon budget compatible with meeting the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius is 1.5tCO2e/year – then even a rich person might think twice about that transatlantic trip for the weekend or about buying that yacht.

Yet, wouldn’t the rich now have a legitimate complaint that, compared to a flat carbon tax, where people on low incomes bear an unfairly high share of the mitigation burden, a progressive carbon tax would run into the opposite problem and impose an unfair burden on the rich? This is where the issue of the appropriate baseline comes in that provides an additional argument for integrationism.

As has been convincingly argued by Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel in their seminal work on tax justice, it would be a mistake to assess the justice of tax burdens relative to the actual income distribution. The reason is that the latter might itself be unjust. This has important implications for our context here and for the interplay between climate justice and economic justice. As most theories of justice, including libertarians, would accept, today’s income and wealth disparities reflect not merely inequality but also, at least to some extent, injustice. Hence, some of the wealth of the main polluters, while legally theirs, is not morally theirs. Adding insult to injury, they then use this wealth in carbon-intensive ways, harming us all in the process, a putting the most vulnerable people on the planet at the highest risk. So no, the rich would not have a legitimate complaint against a progressive carbon tax. On the contrary, this argument suggests that everyone else has a legitimate complaint against the absence of a progressive carbon tax.

These considerations provide us with an additional reason for an integrationist approach to climate justice and socioeconomic justice, but they do come with one big caveat. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they highlight the fact that those unjustly privileged by current climate policy are more or less the same group of people already unjustly privileged in the distribution of income and wealth. While this strengthens the case for addressing the two problems simultaneously, it also brings into full view the feasibility constraints on finding a way to get this group to give up some of their privileges.

2024 Grand National: Horses, Harm, and Shared Responsibility

Horses have a purpose in life, just like us all. Unfortunately, when people go to work, sometimes bad things happen.

(AP McCoy, former jockey, quoted in The Telegraph)

On Saturday the 13th of April 2024, one of the world’s most famous horse races, the Grand National, is scheduled to take place. The race first took place at Aintree Racecourse in 1839, where it continues to be hosted, and this will be its 176th annual running. The race is very popular in the UK with 70,000 people in attendance last year, and ten million watching on TV. Beyond the UK, its appeal is wide-reaching with an estimated 600 million people watching across the globe. And it’s not just horseracing enthusiasts who get involved. People who usually have no interest in horseracing will watch the event, and workplace or family sweepstakes are common. In sum, the Grand National is an institution that is loved by many and enjoys significant national and global support.

Community Wealth Building

Beyond the Ivory Tower interview with Martin O’Neill

Not only are there more democratic and egalitarian alternatives theoretically, but also policies being pursued successfully at the city and the regional level, in many places, that do give people a sense of control in the economic sphere. It’s not just wishful and abstract thinking; there is abundant proof of concept. We have to remain hopeful; we have to shine a light on those examples and talk about why they represent elements of a different kind of settlement, a more justifiable and more human political and economic system, that we ought to strive to see realized more widely and more deeply.  

(This interview took place at Alma Café, a beautiful family-owned café in York, England) 

When whatever you do, you get what you least deserve

In this post, David Benatar (U. Cape Town) discusses his article recently published in the Journal of Applied Philosophy on the paradox of desert, exploring the issues that arise from ‘acting rightly’ and the costs it may incur.

(C) David Benatar. Camondo Stairs, Galata, Istanbul, 2022

Imagine that you are a soldier fighting a militia that is embedded within an urban civilian population. You face situations in which, in the fog of war, you are unsure whether the person you confront is a civilian or a combatant, not least because the combatants you are fighting often dress like civilians. You can either shoot and ask questions later, or you can pause, even momentarily, to take stock, and risk being shot.

Depending on the precise circumstances, pausing may be either a moral requirement or merely supererogatory (that is, a case of going beyond the call of duty). Either way, the soldier who pauses is morally superior to the soldier who shoots without hesitation. However, there will be situations in which a soldier is killed precisely because he acted in the morally better way.

What’s really at stake with Open Access research? The Case of Sci-Hub and the “Robin Hood of Science”

A mural dedicated to Sci-Hub at UNAM. Txtdgtl, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This is a guest post by Georgiana Turculet (Universitat Pompeu Fabra).

In his recently published “More Open Access, More Inequality in the Academia”, Alex Volacu aptly criticizes present Open Access (OA) policies for giving rise to structural inequalities among researchers, and increasing revenues only for publishers. His analysis is aimed at contextualizing some recent academic events, that is, the board of the well-known Journal of Political Philosophy resigning due to pressures from publishers to increase the intake of open access publications. However, it would benefit from considering the wider context of recent alternative form of resistance to corporate publishers’ pressures.

Beyond the Ivory Tower Interview with Dana Mills

This is the latest interview in our Beyond the Ivory Tower series, an interview between Dana Mills and Zsuzsanna Chappell about Mills’s activist work in Israel-Palestine. Dana Mills is a writer, dancer, and peace and human rights advocate. She received her DPhil from the University of Oxford in 2014. As an academic, she has held posts, among other institutions, at the University of Oxford, NYU, Northwestern University, American Dance Festival, Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, University of Amsterdam and the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College. Since 2021 she has been working in Israeli-Palestinian civil society on a variety of issues. Mills has written many articles and three books: Dance and Politics: Moving beyond Boundaries (MUP, 2016); a biography of Rosa Luxemburg (Reaktion, 2020) and Dance and Activism: a century of radical dance across the world (Bloomsbury, 2021).

An inverted verification principle for political theory

What do these four countries have in common?

Protecting Territorial Minorities: Defensive Federalism

In this post Marc Sanjaume-Calvet (Universitat Pompeu Fabra), discusses the role of federalism as a way of protecting from the tyranny of the majority, safeguarding both against the ills of centralised power and territorial self-government. The reflections in this post stems from his recently published book, coedited with Professor Ferran Requejo (UPF), Defensive Federalism Protecting Territorial Minorities from the “Tyranny of the Majority” (2023, Routledge).

Image by George Becker from Pexels
Image by George Becker from Pexels

Driving for Values

Smart cities are full of sensors and collect large amounts of data. One reason for doing so is to get real-time information about traffic flows. A next step is to steer the traffic in a way that contributes to the realisation of values such as safety and sustainability. Think of steering cars around schools to improve the safety of children, or of keeping certain areas car-free to improve air quality. Is it legitimate for cities to nudge their citizens to make moral choices when participating in traffic? Would a system that limits a person’s options for the sake of improving quality of life in the city come at the cost of restricting that person’s autonomy? In a transdisciplinary research project, we (i.e., members of the ESDiT programme and the Responsible Sensing Lab) explored how a navigation app that suggests routes based on shared values, would affect users’ experiences of autonomy. We did so by letting people try out speculative prototypes of such an app on a mobile phone and ask them questions about how they experienced different features of the app. During several interviews and a focus group, we gained insights about the conditions under which people find such an app acceptable and about the features that increase or decrease their feeling of autonomy.

Disney’s Frozen: Acceptance, Passing and Covering (Part 2)

In this two-part blog post, Zsuzsanna Chappell examines the issues Disney’s Frozen films raise about the possibilities and problems faced by people who do not conform to our idea of “normal” or “usual”. The story raises hopes for those of us who are “unusual” or living with “difference”, but she argues that in the end we just end up with new forms of discrimination and new demands to fit in with the majority. Part 1 (“Otherness, Masking and Control”) can be found here.

Disney Frozen two film banner. Anna, Elsa, Kristoff, Sven, Olaf, wintery forest background

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