Who should pay for the cost of responding to climate change? The Polluter Pays Principle

By Joshua Wells

Who should pay to mitigate climate change? This answer to this question may seem obvious. Surely it is the high emitting developed nations of the world. There are many reasons why the highest emitting developed countries should pay. We’re going to explore one prominent reason, the polluter pays principle.

The polluter pays principle is simply the idea that those agents who pollute should pay to address climate change. This idea appeals to common sense morality, the intuition we hold that if you break something, you have a responsibility to fix it. A set of agents are responsible for the problem of climate change. Therefore that set of agents has a duty to bear the burden of addressing climate change. This makes sense, right?

Yes, well at least it does at first glance, but if we look more closely at the above understanding of the polluter pays principle, we can see difficulties emerge. Greenhouse gas emissions rapidly grow when the industrial revolution starts. Suppose this is the appropriate point to say that humanity starts contributing to climate change. In that case, we face the problem that many of the polluters are now dead. We simply cannot capture all significant polluters because these polluting activities occurring decades and centuries ago.

Ah ok, but we can respond to this surely? The above objection considers individual agents to be the appropriate unit of concern. But we could adopt a different unit of agency, such as the state level of agency. If we think of the bill being paid by a state such as the UK, then it doesn’t matter that individual agents in the UK have emitted and died, because the UK itself exists in a recognisable form for centuries. Despite this not being true of all states, I am going to put further questions of state agency to one-side.

Does that mean we have we pinned the tail on the polluters? Not yet, states can observe that many of those emissions were innocent. Innocent in the sense that they had no idea of their harmful impact. Innocent in the sense that it would be unreasonable for most of this time to expect states to have knowledge of the effects of their emissions. And this innocence matters. When holding an agent responsible for an action, if they have no idea and cannot be reasonably expected to know the result of their action, we see this action differently.

Ok, but! States are not innocent anymore and haven’t been innocent for a long time. It is not plausible for states to claim to be unaware of the impacts form there emissions since 1990. If we consider post-1990 emissions, then the polluters pay principle has a much easier time of holding states responsible for the bill of addressing climate change. But this alone is unsatisfactory, for we do not have a clear understanding of why states are paying for the harm of their pre-1990 emissions. Remember the reasons why we are thinking about this principle is that we want to make sense of why certain states should pay to address climate change? It looks like the polluters pays principle won’t do this… unless we are happy to hold an agent responsible for innocent actions.

This is just a light sketch of the Polluter Pays principle and concerns with it. And there are further question to explore, perhaps it does make sense to hold agents responsible for innocent actions, as long as we do slip from responsibility to punishment. Henry Shue, in this context, argues that holding an innocent agent responsible is permissible, the mistake would be to think that their responsibility invites retribution.

In next week’s post, we will consider the beneficiary pays principle as an alternative account of who should pay for responses to climate change.

There is an extensive literature on the polluter pays principle, if you wish to know more about it I suggest Global Environment and International Inequality by Henry Shue as a good starting point.

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