Hard vs. Soft Theories of Climate Justice
In this paper, I draw a distinction between two kinds of climate justice: hard and soft theories (cf. Elster 1992, pp. 189ff). The discussion concerns the fair distribution of the costs and benefits of dealing with climate change. A hard theory is a supposedly justified general moral theory, such as utilitarianism, which is applied to (some part of) the normative dimension of climate change (let the chips fall where they may). A soft theory, on the other hand, is sensitive to judgments about the particular case, and so contextual and (probably) domain-specific, e.g. the polluter pays principle.
Similar distinctions have been discussed in the past, by e.g. Ed Page (2008) and Simon Caney (2012). But here, I will give it a more focused treatment. I will make use of a
general methodology for normative theorising (following List and Valentini 2016) to develop the discussion of the choices that must be made in accounting for the normative dimension of climate change. I will define a ‘normative theory’ as a set of ‘ought’ statements (in the form ‘you ought to Φ’) or permissibility verdicts (‘action a is permissible in context c’), which can be derived from some underlying set of normative principles. Different theories have different roles, e.g. to describe, explain, or predict. A normative theory should prescribe the actions that ought/ought not be taken in a specified context. Roughly speaking, a theory of climate justice should thus prescribe the actions ought/ ought not be taken in the context of climate change. With this, one can better represent the difference between these two kinds of climate justice: it primarily concerns the role of intuitions about particular cases in the justificatory process (but also cuts across the function and scope of the theory in question).
The paper has two aims: to clarify the methodological ground for theorising about climate justice and to discuss some of the implications thereof. I present two cautionary notes about hard theories of climate justice: (1) if reasonable moral pluralism prevails (a plausible assumption in the climate context), then separating questions of application from those of justification (as suggested by hard theories) is problematic; furthermore (2) the repudiation of judgments about particular cases in the process of justification (as suggested by hard theories) may lead to neglect of contextual features that matter to a fair response to climate change.
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Elster, J. Local Justice. How Institutions Allocate Scarce Goods and Necessary Burdens (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1992).
List, C. and L. Valentini. ‘The Methodology of Political Theory’. The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical
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Page, E. ‘Distributing the Burdens of Climate Change’. Environmental Politics 17 4 (2008): 556-575