Before Collapse: A Political Theory of Climate Catastrophe

Mittiga, Ross, Government - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Klosko, George, Department of Politics, University of Virginia

"Before Collapse: A Political Theory of Climate Catastrophe" examines the politically disruptive potential of climate change and the policies, principles, and values bearing on efforts to address it. This begins with challenging the common view that distributive justice should take priority over considerations of efficacy in coordinating a global response to climate change. I argue that, because climate change threatens the very conditions that make justice and political stability possible, stringent precautionary action is warranted even if it comes at the cost of fairness or equity, typically understood. An important problem raised by this proposal is how to specify the limits of precaution: how much should we sacrifice today to prevent a given loss 50 or 100 years from now? Policy-makers often answer this in the language of discount rates, which express the present value of future welfare. Pace most economists (who support a positive rate, which places a higher relative value on present welfare) and most ethicists (who support a zero rate, which treats present and future welfare as equally valuable), I argue for a low negative rate. This provides insurance against climate catastrophe by making risk-enhancing activities (like emitting greenhouse gases) expensive. Yet, a negative rate imposes significant costs on current generations. Given serious inequalities within and among states, how should these costs be distributed? I argue for a novel adaptation of the polluter-pays principle, which allocates burdens in proportion to each state’s annual consumption-based emissions. This places larger burdens on wealthier states by holding them accountable for what I call “colonial emissions.” The resultant distribution of costs is both more effective at reducing emissions and fairer than alternatives. I conclude the project by examining an increasingly salient alternative to conventional responses to climate change: geo-engineering, i.e., the deliberate, large-scale manipulation of the earth’s climate system. Drawing on Buddhist and Aristotelian theory, I argue that even if geo-engineering could prevent (or indefinitely postpone) climate catastrophe, it should remain a last resort, as it threatens to sustain environmentally destructive appetites that invariably result in injustice and unfreedom.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
climate change, political theory, intergenerational justice, global justice, discounting, geo-engineering, climate ethics, environmental justice
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