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What is feasible?

Climate change raises questions of global distributive justice and I am interested in what kinds of actions might be considered as fair responses.  Recently, I have observed that some accounts of climate justice have been dismissed for being “infeasible”.  I have started to wonder what this means.   In ordinary language, “feasible” might mean “possible” or “likely”, even “easy” or “inexpensive”  – with infeasible meaning the opposite.   What kind of criticism is it to say that an account of climate justice, for example, the distribution of equal per capita shares of greenhouse gas emissions is “infeasible”?  It might be presented as an empirical claim: that such a proposal will not be acted upon, or, at least, is unlikely to be acted upon.  This does not mean that the account is lacking on normative grounds.  People are not always that good at being good.     

There might also be some problems with presenting it as a straightforward empirical claim.  There is quite a lot of dispute in international politics about possibilities for global co-operation, not just with respect to climate change.  Realists deny genuine co-operation is possible because states will always act in their own self-interest.  Whilst it is foolish to deny that self-interest is often an over-riding motivation, the realist paradigm has its rivals and its lack of success in making predictions has been noted. 

At the very least, in the absence of agreement among experts in the field, perhaps those making empirical claims should be more circumspect, at least acknowledging the contested nature of their claims.  This is made more important if we consider that there is at least some evidence that people act in a way that they believe is expected of them.  Exposure to the view (priming) that people are rational and self-interested can prompt an individual to act in a more self-interested manner.[1]            

 There is another aspect to consider.  Perhaps the claim that a proposal will not be acted upon rests on a prior normative claim that those who stand to lose out from it are being treated unfairly.  We could say that people in the industrialised global North have formed their life plans around the use of fossil fuels.  To redistribute emissions rights violates these legitimate expectations.  Hence they will not agree to it because there is good reason to see the proposal as unreasonable.  To take an example from the classics, Plato’s utopia, with its abolishment of the family for the ruling class is might criticised for being contrary to human nature – that human beings just cannot live that way.  Or it might be criticised for making unreasonable demands, by appeal to the good that family life brings.  (I would be very happy to hear from those interested in moral psychology on this.)

 So, what sense of feasible is being invoked by critics of redistributive accounts of climate justice?  And is there a chance that the dictum “ought implies can” encourages the disguising of normative claims into empirical statements?  Put another way, who decides what is feasible?       

[1] See for example  For a study relating the use of legal language of contract and self interest, see  A finding that people exposed to luxury goods reason in a more self-interested fashion is available at

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2 Comment on this post

  1. Barry, in many ways *we* (rich northern academics) are the ruling class.

    Feasibility might be linked to imaginability. If it requires a significant effort or suspension of disbelief to imagine a solution, then it is likely judged as infeasible. But this might of course reflect more on the cognitive abilities and experience of the person than the solution itself. If you cannot point at any examples of something, people have a harder time imagining something similar. Conversely, if versions of the idea are circulating in our discourse, then it becomes more imaginable.

    This is why (as Hayek pointed out) why the set of ideas regarded as possible by the intellectuals can have so much impact on real policy: the dominant ideas about what is imaginable and feasible among the idea-mongers become dominant ideas among policymakers. Often with very little truth-tracking.

  2. "Climate justice" seems to me to conflate two completely separate issues: I see a huge difference between (1) polluter pays arguments that attach to harms demonstrably linked to patterns of anthropogenic climate change and (2) socialisation of resources via things like "per capita emissions rights."

    (1) It seems to me that the first is a bit of a no-brainer – if harm is being done by emissions, then polluters (in the ratios in which they pollute, ceteris paribus) ought to compensate victims. I think that notion of "justice" would be pretty hard to evade*, couched as it is as a negative duty not to harm. Negative rights (or however you want to describe that family of requirements) regarding pollution are widely shared. In fact they're pretty ubiquitous, like houseflies and Starbucks. But…

    (2) Is a much stronger claim, and it weirds me out that so many of the International Climate Brigade(s) hang their hats on it. There are no "equal per capita rights" to any other goods such as houses, diamond rings, loaves of bread, pints of lager or sausage rolls. Nor are there equal rights to such noxious pollutants as sulphur dioxide, CFCs or pork scratchings. There are aspirations towards equal access to services such as education, health care, etc, but note that governments usually fight shy of calling these "rights", focussing on "access" and these are services rather than goods. So why are emissions of greenhouse gases so special?

    Now I know the negative/positive rights distinction has been challenged quite a bit, but irrespective of your position on that issue, it seems to me that (1) is way easier to defend than (2). But most the stuff I hear, both from activists and from academics, focuses on (2). This might be for different reasons: activists might prefer (2) since it can be a useful trojan horse for a radical political agenda** while academics might think (1) uninteresting on account of its obviousness, whereas (2) is something you could fight over. I hardly every hear climate change broken down like this, even though the distinction between adaptation (the obvious site for (1)) and mitigation (relevant to (2)) is very common.

    If we actually had an institution that could act as a single global agent*** on climate change, and if emissions rights were actually the thing we were regulating****, then I would argue the right thing would be to use (1) to settle the adaptation account, and to create an auction for permits to emit CO2 (permits totalling 1TtC, obviously). You could reserve maybe 0-20% of the permits for the vey poor, so as to ensure everyone can participate, if you want to. I think that sort of broad archiecture would amount to justice because no one is getting a free ride, and no one is getting windfall gains, except folks who would otherwise be completely excluded.

    *I've tried pretty hard, because I'd like to evade it if I can. Creative thinking welcome.
    **The most honest and ethically adept of the climate activists acknowledge that the real game here is giving international socialism a second wind. Depressingly.
    ***Which we don't. Which is generally a very good thing.
    ****But in any case, as Simon Caney and others have noted, emissions aren't actually valuable – access to energy is. No one is harmed by not emitting GHG; they're harmed in the event they can't get access to energy. In the turgid drain of climate change theorising, fetishising the right to pollute is one of many weird eddies in the flow.

    PS – I'm not sure what Anders' post is referring to – but I certainly don't feel like "the ruling class". That may be a mantle of which European intellectuals are fond, but I utterly fail to relate to it. Where I come from, we didn't have a ruling class.

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