The 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference highlighted the continuing challenge of reconciling developed and developing countries’ divergent perceptions about what a fair global climate agreement could look like. A major task for the field of climate ethics is to present a vision of fairness in climate policy that not only has ethical integrity but is practically feasible. However, to date the field has largely not engaged substantively with perceptions of fairness held by participants and stakeholders in climate negotiations. Some theorists have voiced legitimate concerns that relying unduly on stakeholder perceptions may result in theories of fairness whose horizons are limited by political compromise. I will argue that if we are concerned about theory-building as a means of advancing fairness in climate policy, we must take seriously (if not uncritically accept) existing perceptions of fairness. Empirical analysis of those perceptions may play an important role in clarifying the values at stake for different parties and identifying politically feasible steps towards a more thoroughly fair climate regime.
I will illustrate the value of this approach with reference to two principles for determining countries’ liability to contribute to international climate finance. First, I argue that divergent views about the role of historical responsibility (ranging between liability for all historical emissions and only prospective liability) could be reconciled in a principled way by limiting liability to emissions that foreseeably and avoidably contribute to climate change. Second, while the current listing of ‘developed’ (Annex I) and ‘developing’ (non-Annex 1) countries does not distinguish categories of liability in a way that is sufficiently meaningful in ethical terms, theorists need to take seriously the concerns of developing countries about abandoning such a distinction altogether. A fair and politically feasible division could be reached through incremental steps towards more nuanced and objectively based differentiation of capability and responsibility.
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