Home > Uncategorized > Reflection Essay II – Climate Change Justice: Allocate blame or a clean slate?

Reflection Essay II – Climate Change Justice: Allocate blame or a clean slate?

Stephen Gardiner’s chapter over Climate Justice touches on the relevance of justice to climate issues and it discusses why climate policy raises questions about ethics. In class Dr. Palmer shared a presentation that helped to evaluate Gardiner’s arguments. One of the major ones that we covered and debated heavily was about distributive climate justice and whether or not we should alleviate responsibility to those prior to 1990 when they were ignorant about climate change’s link to GHG emissions.

There were many distributive arguments over who is to blame for the emissions. We know that climate change is producing harm and there is inequitable distribution of both the contributions of GHG emissions and the harms associated with climate change. We were shown two maps: one that depicted the nation states who have emitted the most GHGs in the past and one that showed smaller scale vulnerable areas to climate change. This picture was designed to geographically allocate blame to the affluent nation states for their contribution to the climate change problem, but in reality it is unjust to argue this because the second map depicted a finer scale issue that showed effects to specific areas. Furthermore, it is unjust to blame whole nation states on one scale and show vulnerabilities on another. Should we then allow ignorance of the past to have a clean slate when it comes to historical emissions? Or should leading industrial nations be liable even though they were ignorant? Or should we move past allocating blame and hold developed nations responsible for their future actions towards cleaning up the mess we have in front of us?

My opinion over this distributive climate justice issue is in line with Gardiner’s. We should not debate the past and look backwards at blame. We should instead stop the harm and compensate/help those who cannot help themselves. For instance, we talked about China’s argument that they want the right to develop the way the US did and to emit GHGs to the level that we have because it is unfair to them to not be able to use the common resources. However, as the leading nation, the US has a responsibility to tell other nations that climate change is real and that developing like we did is no longer a solution. The leading industrial nations should then help developing countries to become more sustainable and responsible towards emissions in order to reduce the effects of climate change.

The following argument was one for compensatory justice that builds on the previous distributive justice argument. The atmosphere for a while served as a sink that could absorb the emissions which have an effect on climate change. Now, the atmospheric sink is essentially full because the affluent nations have emitted too many GHGs. The debate is now that developing nations do not have access to this common resource because the developed nations have spent it. The solution is to now have fair distribution of better solutions from the global leaders so that the developing nations can develop and the atmosphere can have time to recover. Gardiner’s driving point was that there are “skewed vulnerabilities” that need to be compensated for because groups exist that have not contributed to the problem yet they receive an unfair distribution of the burdens and are the least capable of paying for an adaptation (Gardiner, pg 313).

Overall, the climate change justice argument is extremely complex and having a justice framework that doesn’t focus on distributive and instead focuses on future and compensatory justice is one that can help us correct past mistakes. I think if we had more time to examine this issue in terms of other forms of justice like procedural, recognition, and capabilities, we would see that the problem is way more complex.


Gardiner, S. M. (2011). Chapter 21: Climate Justice. In The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society (pp. 309-322). Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press.

Palmer, C. (2013, April 16). Climate Change and Justice. Lecture presented at Environmental Justice in Texas A&M University, College Station.

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