IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group III: Mitigation of Climate Change

2.6.3 Alternative approaches to social justice

Widening our understanding of equity does not provide us with a rule for ranking different outcomes, except to say that, other things being equal, a less inequitable outcome is preferable to a more inequitable one. But how should one measure outcomes in terms of equity and what do we do when other things are not equal?

The traditional economic approach to resource allocation has been based on utilitarianism, in which a policy is considered to be desirable if no other policy or action is feasible that yields a higher aggregate utility for society. This requires three underlying assumptions:

(a) All choices are judged in terms of their consequences, and not in terms of the actions they entail.

(b) These choices are valued in terms of the utility they generate to individuals and no attention is paid to the implications of the choices for aspects such as rights, duties etc.

(c) The individual utilities are added up to give the sum of utility for society as a whole.

In this way the social welfare evaluation relies on the assumption that there is a net social surplus if the winners can compensate the losers and still be better off themselves. It should be recognized here that philosophers dispute that efficiency is a form of equity.

This approach has been the backbone of welfare economics, including the use of cost-benefit analysis (CBA) as a tool for selecting between options. Under CBA all benefits are added up, as are the costs, and the net benefit – the difference between the benefits and costs – is calculated. The option with the highest net benefit is considered the most desirable.[22] If utilities were proportional to money benefits and ‘disutilities’ were proportional to money costs, this method would amount to choosing to maximize utilities. Since most economists accept that this proportionality does not hold, they extend the CBA by either (a) asking the decision-maker to take account of the distributional implications of the option as a separate factor, in addition to the calculated net benefit; or (b) weighting costs or benefits by a factor that reflects the relationship between utility and the income of the person receiving that cost or benefit. For details of these methods in the context of climate change, see Markandya and Halsnaes (2002b).[23]

An alternative approach to allocating resources, which is derived from an ethical perspective and has existed for at least as long as the utilitarian approach described above (which has its modern origins in the late 18th century by Jeremy Bentham), is based on the view that social actions are to be judged by whether or not they conform to a ‘social contract’ that defines the rights and duties of individuals in society. The view was inspired by the work of Kant and Hegel and finds its greater articulation in the writing of Rousseau and the French 19th century philosophers.[24] In this position, for example, a society may predetermine that an individual has the right to be protected from serious negative health damage as a result of social actions. Hence no action, even if it increased utility, could be tolerated if it violated the rights and duties of individuals.

Modern philosophers who have developed the ‘rights’ view include Rawls, who argued that it is not utilities that matter but the distribution of ‘primary goods, which include, in addition to income, “rights, liberties and opportunities and… the social basis of self respect”’ (Rawls, 1971). Rawls argued further that social justice demanded that society be judged in terms of the level of well-being of its worst-off member. At the other end of the political spectrum, Nozick and the modern libertarians contend that personal liberties and property rights have (with very few exceptions) absolute precedence over objectives such as the reduction of poverty and deprivation (Nozick, 1974).

More recently, however, some ethical philosophers have found fault with both the ‘modified’ utilitarian view and the rights-based approach, on a number of grounds. Sen, for example, has argued that options should be judged not only in terms of their consequences, but also in terms of procedures. He advocates a focus on the capabilities of individuals to choose a life that one has reason to value. A person’s capability refers to the alternative combinations of ‘functionings’, where functionings can be more popularly described as ‘lifestyles’ (Sen, 1999, pp. 74-75). What matters are not only the realized functionings, but also the capability set of alternatives, differently from a utilitarian-based approach that focuses only on the outcomes. In particular, the freedom to make the choices and engage in social and market transactions is worth something in its own right.

Sen criticizes the ‘rights-based’ equity approaches for not taking into consideration the fact that individuals are different and the actual consequences of giving them specific rights will vary between individuals, so rights should be seen in the context of capabilities. Both apply, because individuals have different preferences and thereby value primary inputs, for example, differently, and because their capability to use different rights also differ. Along these lines, Sen further argues that his capability-based approach can facilitate easier inter-personal comparisons than utilitarianism, since it does not suggest aggregating all individuals, but rather presenting information both on the capability sets available to individuals and their actual achievements.

What implications does this debate have in the context of climate change? One is that rights and capabilities need to be viewed in an international context. An example of an approach based on global equity would be to entitle every individual alive at a given date an equal per capita share in the intrinsic capacity of the earth to absorb GHGs. Countries whose total emissions exceeded this aggregate value would then compensate those below the value. In accordance with a utilitarian approach this compensation would be based on an estimate of the aggregate economic welfare lost by countries due to climate change, seen in relation to their own emissions. In contrast, the capability-based approach would argue for reduced capabilities associated with climate change.

As suggested above, societies do not (in practice) follow a strict utilitarian view of social justice and they do indeed recognize that citizens have certain basic rights in terms of housing, medical care etc. Equally, they do not subscribe to a clear ‘rights’ view of social justice either. Social choices are then a compromise between a utilitarian solution that focuses on consequences and one that recognizes basic rights in a more fundamental way. Much of the political and philosophical debate is about which rights are valid in this context – a debate that shows little sign of resolution. For climate change there are many options that need to be evaluated, in terms of their consequences for the lives of individuals who will be impacted by them. It is perfectly reasonable for the policymakers to exclude those that would result in major social disruptions, or large number of deaths, without recourse to a CBA. Equally, choices that avoid such negative consequences can be regarded as essential, even if the case for them cannot be made on CBA grounds. Details of where such rules should apply and where choices can be left to the more conventional CBA have yet to be worked out, and this remains an urgent part of the agenda for climate change studies.

As an alternative to social-justice-based equity methods, eco-centric approaches assign intrinsic value to nature as such (Botzler and Armstrong, 1998). This value can be specified in terms of diversity, avoided damages, harmony, stability, and beauty, and these values should be respected by human beings in their interaction with nature. In relation to climate change policies the issue here becomes one of specifying the value of nature such that it can be addressed as specific constraints that are to be respected beyond what is reflected in estimates of costs and benefits and other social impacts.

  1. ^  This is considerably simplified; ignoring the time dimension and market imperfections in valuing costs and benefits but the principle remains valid.
  2. ^  The ability of CBA to combine equity and utility through these means has been challenged by philosophers who argue that there could be serious ethical problems with combining the two when benefits and costs are as hugely disaggregated, as is the case with climate change. See Brown, 2002.
  3. ^  For a discussion of this debate in an economic context, see Phelps, 1973.