How Are Human Activities Responsible for Climate Change and Climate Justice

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Climate Change and the Impact of Human Activities
  • Defining Justice in Relation to Climate Change
  • Greenhouse Gas: How Is Human Society Responsible
  • The Fair Shares and Equal Claims Proposition
  • Distribution of Human Responsibility Behind Climate Change
  • Conclusion


Justice is one of the most social, ethical and moral principles humans deal with every day. One issue of justice that we see today is the question of who is responsible for fixing the problems caused by climate change and how are human activities responsible for climate change. The responsibility of solving climate change and its problems needs to be placed in the right hands to avoid the risk of treating people unfairly (Moss, 2009, p.51). The justest approach to climate change is the one that strives to protect those with their human rights at risk, whilst ensuring a fair distribution of responsibility. Regardless of whether an individual is poor or wealthy, we all live in a world where producing pollution is inevitable. Whether that be something as small as throwing away rubbish or bigger like driving a car. In the end, we all live on the same Earth, and therefore, I believe we should all contribute in whatever way we can to fix the problems caused by climate change. Thus, in this critical essay, I will define justice through John Rawls’s principle of justice and discuss the historical benefit account and the fair shares and equal claims account as I believe a hybrid of both claims defines climate justice.

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Climate Change and the Impact of Human Activities

It is widely acknowledged that Earth is undergoing significant changes to its climate because of human activity (Caney,2010, p.1). From the burning of fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) for energy production to deforestation, we humans play a major role in the emission of high levels of greenhouse gases (GHG). Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere absorb and re-radiates the heat energy that we receive from the sun’s energy to keep our planet warm enough to live in. However, it becomes a problem when the concentration of greenhouse gases begin to increase as it contributes to the increase in global temperature (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2006, p.8). The changes in Earth’s climate brings severe threats to not only the Earth but to our fundamental human rights including our right life, right to health and the right to subsistence (Caney, 2009, p. 125). Thus, the question of who should bear the burden of climate change is an important question of justice.

Defining Justice in Relation to Climate Change

Defining justice is a complex issue and further deciding what action or decision is just is as difficult because everyone has their own beliefs and standards. However, we all can agree that justice is a set of principles that assign basic rights and duties needed for the proper distribution of the benefits and burdens of society (Rawls, 1971, p.5). Philosopher John Rawls defines justice as fairness and proposed two basic principles. The first principle states that each person is entitled to an equal right to basic liberties compatible with similar liberty to everyone else. In application with climate change problems, there are three ways in which the burdens of climate change could be divided up: Historical responsibility account, Historical benefit account and Fair shares and equal claims (Moss, 2009). Rawls’s definition of justice as fairness coincides with beliefs in the theory of ‘fair shares’ as it argues that if you can pay the costs of fixing climate change problems, you should pay it.

Greenhouse Gas: How Is Human Society Responsible

Regardless of our social ability and distribution of wealth, we all live in a world where the production of greenhouse gas emissions is inevitable. Whether we live in a developing country or a wealthy developed country, we all produce greenhouse gas through burning fossil fuels to produce energy for cooking, driving and more. Thus, although social wealth and circumstances may vary, every individual benefit from greenhouse gas emissions to a certain extent. If everyone benefits from the emission, it is fair to say that those who benefit from it should be the ones to pay for it. The historical benefit account proposes that if a state/individual benefits from activities that emit GHGs, they should hold the burdens associated with responding to climate change to the extent that they have benefited (Page, 2012, p.306). This account relies on the link between one generation and the next as those living in the present day and in developed countries have benefited significantly from the past industrialisation and its emission of GHG in that they have a higher standard of living (Moss, 2009, p. 56). The historical benefit account avoids the problem of ignorance as it states that even if you were ignorant to the fact that you were producing GHG and its consequences, if you enjoyed the benefits of your actions, then you are still required to take charge of the harm.

Although the benefit account does seem to be a just approach to climate change solutions, it has several problems. One problem is the obligation problem in which centres around the lack of consent to the obligation when receiving the benefit (Hamilton, 2019, p.14). The individual or the state receiving the benefit from the emission of GHG in the past would not have had an option in refusing to receive the benefit so, in a just cause, they would have no choice to accept the obligation of paying for the problems of climate change. Another problem that can be faced by the historical benefit account is the issue of what the extent of the obligation is (Moss, 2009, p. 57). It fails to answer the question of how much of the burden the states/individuals that have benefited from GHG emissions, should be responsible for.

The Fair Shares and Equal Claims Proposition

However, the problems that we encounter through this account, can be solved through the fair shares and equal claims proposition. The fair shares and equal claims, also known as the ‘ability to pay’ approach to climate change successfully meets the first principle of Rawls’ theory of justice: each person has an equal right to basic liberty. Rawls argues that these liberties can only be restricted for the sake of liberty and not for gains in welfare (ibid.). Climate change and its outcome threatens our basic liberty, as it has an “immediate implication for the full enjoyment of human rights including… the right to life, the right to take part in cultural life… the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to food, and the right to the high…standard of physical and mental health” especially to those in poverty (Caney, 2010, p.164). This means that justice requires a partnership with those who can afford to pay for climate change and those most affected by climate change in order to reach climate justice. The ‘ability to pay’ approach to climate change allows us to do so as it states that the costs of climate change should be met by the wealthy in proportion to their wealth. Further, justice demands a fair balance between burden and benefits. Thus, whoever can afford to hold the burden of the costs of climate change should do so.

Distribution of Human Responsibility Behind Climate Change

The fair shares account avoids what Moss calls a weak-link problem, the difficulties of using historical responsibilities to guide the distribution of the costs of climate change, a problem encountered by the historical benefit account. Nevertheless, this claim has also been controversial as it requires the advantaged to take responsibility for other people’s GHG emissions. The objection assumes that it is wrong that some bear a burden for a problem that they have not caused. This assumption, however, is implausible as we all live in a world where producing GHG is inevitable and climate change is a problem that we will all have to face one day. Simon Caney argues that there are three options in distributing the burden, where the advantaged should pay (option 1), the poor should pay (option 2) or nothing should be done (option 3). All these options disadvantage someone in the end, and ultimately all of us living on Earth in the long run.

Therefore, the most efficient way to solve problems of climate change would be, rather than tossing around the blame, those who can afford to pay, take the financial burden, whilst those less well-off contribute through small acts such as recycling or taking time off their day to contribute in research towards a solution. Asking the burdened to burden themselves more what they have already would undermine their basic human rights, whilst requesting the advantaged to take part in a duty that will benefit not only them but everyone in the future is not. Thus, the argument proposing that it is unfair to put the burden on the advantaged is infeasible. The fair shares and equal claim is the most convincing principle for climate justice. However, in saying this, I believe that while we exempt the less-advantaged from carrying the financial burden of climate change, we should not exclude them from non-financial contributions to solving climate change. Instead of paying to solve climate change, justice would allow them to contribute by doing small acts such as recycling or having mandatory volunteering at institutions that research ways to decrease our emission of greenhouse gases.


Justice is providing equal shares of burdens to everyone responsible for a problem, such as that of climate change. We all contribute to the emission of greenhouse gases and ultimately, we are one major cause of the climate change we face. Thus, this paper agrees with the claim that justice requires whoever can afford to fix complications of climate change should do so, regardless of who caused them in the first place. Additionally, I also believe that the disadvantaged should be exempt from any action as we all contribute to and benefit from the emission of greenhouse gases.  

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