The ManySowers
Injustices of Climate Change
Book Review Essay
The Many Injustices of Climate Change
Jeannie Sowers
Roberts, J. Timmons, and Bradley C. Parks. 2007. A Climate of Injustice: Global Inequality,
North-South Politics, and Climate Policy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Adger, W. Neil, Jouni Paavola, Saleemul Huq, and M. J. Mace, eds. 2006. Fairness in Adaptation to Climate Change. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Page, Edward A. 2006. Climate Change, Justice and Future Generations. Northampton, MA:
Edward Elgar.
These volumes constitute part of an emerging literature addressing thorny problems of fairness and justice associated with human-induced climate change.
Going beyond simplistic characterizations of responsibility and suffering, the
authors employ a variety of methods and approaches to explore issues of climate injustice, with a particular focus on developing countries and future generations. In doing so, they provide a rich array of arguments, evidence, and policy
recommendations for those interested in achieving a more equitable and more
effective climate change regime.
All three works argue that greater attention to issues of fairness and justice
is necessary to move beyond stalemates in international negotiations and improve national-level policy-making. Roberts and Parks’ A Climate of Injustice is a
bold bid to situate climate injustice in enduring and emerging inequalities in
the international political economy. They elaborate and test a set of causal
mechanisms associated with globally unequal development that render developing countries vulnerable to climate impacts, limit options for less carbonintensive development paths, and constrain possibilities for North-South cooperation. The volume edited by Adger et al. presents a range of perspectives, both
normative and positive, on how to incorporate procedural and distributive justice into adaptation policies. Page’s Climate Change, Justice, and Future Generations, is a work of analytic philosophy, showing how theories of distributive justice can provide compelling ethical rationales for present generations to take
seriously the adverse impacts of climate change on future generations.
Each of these works tackles broad inequalities associated with humanGlobal Environmental Politics 7:4, November 2007
© 2007 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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induced climate change: unequal distribution of impacts, unequal responsibility for climate change, and unequal costs for mitigation and adaptation (what
Roberts and Parks refer to as the “triple inequality,” p. 7). In doing so, these
works identify antecedent and accompanying forms of injustice that have received less attention in the climate change literature, such as unequal participation in the international economy (Roberts and Parks) and procedural inequities in national planning for adaptation (Adger et al., eds.).
Most of the chapters in Fairness in Adaptation to Climate Change cluster
around the theme that socio-economic and political factors, rather than biophysical processes, shape vulnerability to climate change and capacities for adaptation. The contribution by Barnett, for instance, shows that violent conºict
destroys and damages the resources and institutions needed to buffer populations from biophysical changes. Barnett highlights how displaced populations,
reduced food production, destroyed infrastructure, disrupted internal and external markets, and other features of post-conºict societies already render populations vulnerable to natural occurrences of droughts, ºoods, and other climaterelated events. Climate adaptation strategies and funds, he argues, should incorporate the immediate needs of post-conºict societies, as these measures can
help regenerate some of the social, ecological, and human capital needed to
cope with climate change impacts.
The chapter by Schneider and Lane in Fairness in Adaptation to Climate
Change introduces ªve “numeraires,” or metrics, in order to move beyond conventional cost-beneªt analyses to more adequately capture the effects of climate
change on social and ecological systems. Rather than relying solely on economic
impacts (expressed as $ costs per tonne of C), Schneider and Lane present four
additional metrics—accounting for human lives lost (persons per tonne of C),
biodiversity loss (species per tonne of C), welfare impact (income redistribution
per tonne of C) and quality of life (loss of heritage sites, forced migration, disturbed cultural amenities, etc per tonne of C)—that more explicitly highlight
the inequitable distributions and impacts of climate change (p. 30–32). The
chapter by Leichenko and O’Brien goes further in this respect, launching a
thoughtful critique of how the IPCC Assessment Reports and other climate
change assessments portray adverse impacts on humans as “natural, inevitable,
and evolutionary (NIE) outcomes of environmental processes . . . a view in
which climate sensitivity and biophysical vulnerability determine who is a winner and who is a loser” (p. 104). Their proposed alternative is to move away
from simple binary classiªcations of winners and losers derived from their location in sensitive biophysical systems, such as coastal areas or arid lands, to include the political, economic, and social determinants of vulnerability and adaptation capacity. Many of these vulnerabilities have been amply documented
in the literatures on social vulnerability, political ecology, and political economy, but have yet to be integrated into climate assessments.
Rogers and Parks echo this theme, as the political economy of climate vulnerability is central to their understanding of North-South non-cooperation re-
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The Many Injustices of Climate Change
garding climate change. Their central concern is how structural inequalities between developed and developing countries limit international cooperation by
promoting divergent worldviews, generalized mistrust, and limited reciprocity.
One of the strengths of the book is that it connects discussions of climate inequality to much more long-standing theoretical traditions in the social sciences that seek to explain different development trajectories within globally unequal structures of power. To capture different dimensions of climate inequality,
they construct cross-national indices of climate vulnerability, carbon emissions,
environmental treaty ratiªcation, and environmental assistance. Drawing on insights from world systems theory and rational choice institutionalism, they
elaborate a set of sequential, causal propositions about state behavior, which
they test using ordinary least-squares regression and path analysis, supplemented by a handful of case studies. This methodology is ambitious, yet the
book is refreshingly readable. The cross-fertilization of theoretical approaches
provides ample illustration of their core contention: that “the ongoing development crisis is at the very heart of the climate policy impasse” (p. 229).
While much of the book is geared towards the graduate level and above,
the chapters on climate vulnerability can be used for undergraduates, as these
vividly capture climate risk and help students grapple with the social and political causes of vulnerability. The authors compiled a dataset of 4000 extreme
weather events between 1980 and 2002. Their analysis shows that poor, rural
people in poor countries repeatedly suffer death, homelessness, and displacement from climate-related disasters, on orders of magnitude ranging from 10 to
100 times that of wealthier countries. The authors’ more interesting theoretical
contribution, however, lies in their causal model. They posit that the colonial
legacy of insertion into the international economy negatively inºuences the
quality of governance and the structure of the economy to increase climate risk.
As a proxy for this colonial legacy, they use the narrowness of a country’s export
base. Their analysis suggests that climate risk is only partially explained by
the most commonly cited causes of vulnerability to climate-related disasters,
poverty (GDP per capita) and geography (measured as proportion of population in coastal areas.) Instead, other structural features associated with late
development—levels of income inequality, weak property rights and signiªcant
rural populations—were stronger and more consistent than GDP per capita or
coastal populations in predicting death and displacement from climate-related
disasters. These factors are in turn strongly correlated with dependence on a narrow export base.
Using a similar method, Parks and Rogers analyze the question of responsibility—that is, who is fueling carbon emissions and why. In doing so, they
move the discussion beyond the stalemate over whether and when industrializing countries should embrace emission controls. Using the four most common
ways of “measuring” responsibility for carbon emissions—total CO2 emissions,
carbon intensity per unit of GDP, CO2 emissions per capita, and cumulative
emissions per capita (1950–1999)—they ask what factors drive carbon emis-
Jeannie Sowers
sions. Their ªndings conªrm some common assumptions about climate responsibility and turn up new forms of climate inequality. Not surprisingly, GDP
per capita and size of the economy were the strongest predictors for emissions
under all four models of responsibility, followed by larger and more urbanized
populations. Countries with high shares of total exports in manufacturing were
also higher emitters of carbon. More intriguing, however, is their discussion of
trade intensity and its implications for theories of “unequal ecological exchange” and “ecological debt.” The authors found that wealthier nations that
traded more emitted less carbon, while poorer countries that traded more, emitted more carbon. The implication is that wealthier countries are sending carbon-intensive activities offshore, and importing carbon intensive products. The
authors muster additional evidence for this claim by reporting the results of initial empirical studies that use material ºows accounting to show that imports to
the European Union are materials-intensive while exports are considerably less
so (and worth far more in monetary terms).
Unequal trade, in terms of embedded carbon, is sobering in a globalized
world. As Rogers and Parks note, the economic and environmental proªles of
many developing countries are characterized by leading sectors that are resource- and carbon-intensive either directly, as in oil and timber exports, or indirectly, as in export manufactures. Diversifying these economies into less carbon-intensive pathways is limited in part by domestic factors, particularly the
political clout wielded by what the authors term “export elites” or “polluting
elites,” and by weak postcolonial state institutions. Both of these are left somewhat underanalyzed. The authors are more interested and more persuasive in
presenting international systemic obstacles to diversiªcation, arguing that the
current global trading regime and the policies of industrialized states erect
signiªcant hurdles for developing states hoping to create more robust and resilient economies. Examples include industrialized countries’ staunch support for
agricultural subsidies and the imposition of restrictive international intellectual
property regimes such as TRIPS.
Rogers and Park use their ªndings on trade and carbon intensity to argue
that industrialized countries are by and large not “dematerializing” their economies. While domestic production has become more efªcient over time, consumptive lifestyles in industrialized countries continue to rely on material and
carbon-intensive imports. In light of these arguments, proposals to use carbon
intensity per unit of GDP as a metric are not only unjust, as many developing
countries with large populations claim, but are simply misleading, as measurements of carbon intensity of domestic production does not account for the carbon values embedded in trade ºows.
Rogers and Parks conclude that historical and contemporary structural inequalities in the international economic system contribute to climate vulnerability and constrain national development pathways, as developing countries
often claim. These very real sources of international inequality shape the worldviews and beliefs of developing country participants when it comes to interna-
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The Many Injustices of Climate Change
tional climate negotiations. If wealthy countries wish to enhance possibilities
for cooperation on climate change, the authors argue, industrialized countries
will have to take seriously the cruel inequalities of the international division of
labor. They should make credible efforts to make the international economy
more fair and more accessible to least developed and developing countries:
More important than the adoption of a “hybrid justice” proposal [for allocating carbon shares], therefore, is that policymakers redouble their efforts
to allay the fears and suspicions of developing countries; rebuild conditions
of generalized trust; forge long-term, constructive partnerships with developing countries across multiple issue areas; and create greater “policy space”
for governments to pursue their own development strategies (p. 152).
While Rogers and Parks analyze climate inequality in terms of the different
structural positions of nation-states within the international economy, Page’s
book focuses on examining the ethical obligations to reduce injustices associated with climate change for persons across time. Page asks whether theories of
distributive justice can sustain the emerging “intergenerational responsibility”
argument of the IPCC reports, that contemporary generations should take action to mitigate climate change for the sake of future generations. Establishing
logical bases for intuitive commitments to intergenerational justice is important, he believes, to answer the arguments put forward by skeptics and to generate popular support and legitimacy for climate regimes in the long run.
The style and structure of the book can be somewhat challenging to nonphilosophers, as Page is interested in refuting the arguments posed by skeptics
of intergenerational responsibility claims. The consequence, as he notes, is that
“the bulk of the defense provided for the existence of intergenerational duties,
and their application to climate change, is indirect” (p. 11). Those seeking a
novel or straightforward statement of ethical obligations to future generations
with regard to climate change may be disappointed. But the merit of his approach is to suggest which theories of distributive justice ªt the ethical challenges posed by climate change, and to outline some of the modiªcations that
these theories would need to consistently and defensibly support policy interventions on behalf of future generations. He further suggests the possibility of a
pluralist approach to the ethics of climate justice, which would allow for the use
of different distributive principles across diverse contexts and domains.
Page usefully disaggregates and contrasts theories of distributive justice in
terms of their scope, currency, and shape with regard to the problem of intergenerational responsibility. Scope corresponds to who is included in beneªts
and obligations, currency refers to what is being allocated, and shape (or
proªle) to how much one receives under a given distributive scheme. Page ªrst
takes up the question of the currency of climate justice (or “equality of what?”
as many theorists term it). He critiques theories based on achieving equality of
resources or welfare functions, and argues instead for pursuing notions based
on achieving “midfare” or “equal access to advantage” (p. 75). This theory is a
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modiªcation of the inºuential work by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum
that envisions equity as fostering basic capabilities. As Page notes, capability
theories offer strong ethical support for advocates of both present and future
generations, as the goal is “to preserve an environment that enables future persons to retain the same substantive freedoms to be healthy, well fed, and well
clothed that their ancestors possessed” (p. 70). Page endorses revisions to this
theory that seek a middle ground between the attainment of capabilities and
more traditional notions of welfare.
The subsequent chapter takes up the proªle of justice. Page considers theories that seek equality as their end state (seeking to make everyone equal), priority (addressing the worst off regardless of their comparative status vis-à-vis others), and sufªciency (enabling as many people as possible to have enough to
pursue their aims and aspirations). He suggests that the principle of sufªciency
provides the most robust ground upon which to derive claims of climate justice
for future generations. He notes that this principle is reºected in the common
formulation of sustainable development as that which meets the needs of the
present generation without comprising the ability of future generations to meet
their needs.
The scope of climate justice is addressed in the remainder of the book.
Page addresses two potential objections to claims of intergenerational responsibility: that future generations cannot reciprocate the sacriªces of current generations (the “reciprocity problem”) and that claims about future climate harm rest
on ideas about harm to speciªc communities and individuals and are thus
“identity-dependent.” His solutions to these questions are multi-faceted and
complex. Yet these treatments overlook one of the fundamental questions regarding the scope of distributive justice with regard to climate change: like
many theorists, Page gives standing only to persons, both future and present.
For many environmentalists, this scope of justice will seem unnecessarily limited, as harms to ecosystems and other life forms are accounted for only indirectly. While Page discusses “ecocentric” and “biocentric” theories in the context
of the problem of identity-dependence, one might ask whether the IPCC reports
and popular debate alike have begun to incorporate some aspects of these ethical frameworks, in so far as they invoke species extinction, irreversible ecosystem changes, and the destruction of landscapes as speciªc forms of injustice.
While Page focuses on theories of distributive justice, the editors of Fairness in Adaptation to Climate Change emphasize the importance of procedural
justice. Several chapters, such as those by Huq and Khan, Paavola, and Thomas
and Twyman, explicitly consider applications of procedural justice, in contexts
ranging from the creation of national climate action plans to the implementation of speciªc adaptation projects. Notions of what constitutes fairness are left
ºexible in this edited volume. While this decision contributes to some redundancy and inconsistency across the chapters, it also encourages innovative proposals and the inclusion of interesting case studies. The chapter by LinneroothBayer and Vari, for instance, compares the lessons learned by local stakeholders
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The Many Injustices of Climate Change
in designing a national insurance program in Hungary with the more elitedriven process that created the Turkish Catastrophe Insurance Pool. This pool
provides affordable, mandatory earthquake insurance, ªnanced by national
cross-subsidies and reinsured by World Bank loans. Another innovative piece is
the chapter by Baer, which lays out normative and practical justiªcations to
adopt strict liability principles for greenhouse gas emissions, as an extension of
the polluter pays notion.
Taken together, these three volumes analyze a variety of injustices, some
stark and some subtle, that characterize inequalities in climate change impacts,
responsibility, and adaptation. The authors’ rigorous treatment of these complex subjects constitutes a welcome contribution to the rapidly growing literature on climate change.

Book Review Essay The Many Injustices of Climate Change Jeannie Sowers •