Blogs > Guest Blog > September 2013 > A Fair Deal

A Fair Deal

Americans tend to talk a lot about morality and justice. But most Americans still fail to realize that their country’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol, and their subsequent business-as-usual approach to greenhouse gas emissions, is americans tend to talk a lot about morality and justice. But most Americans still fail to realize that their country’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol, and their subsequent business-as-usual approach to greenhouse gas emissions, is a moral failing of the most serious kind. It is already having harmful consequences for others, and the greatest inequity is that it is the rich who are using most of the energy that leads to the emissions that cause climate change, while it is the poor who will bear most of the costs.

If we apply the “You broke it, you fix it” principle, then the developed nations have to take responsibility for our “broken” atmosphere, which can no longer absorb more greenhouse gases without the world’s climate changing. According to United Nations figures, in 2002, per capita emissions of greenhouse gases in the United States were 16 times higher than in India, 60 times higher than in Bangladesh, and more than 200 times higher than in Ethiopia, Mali or Chad. Other developed nations with emissions close to those of the United States include Australia, Canada and Luxembourg. Russia, Germany, Britain, Italy, France and Spain all have levels between a half and a quarter that of the United States.

To see the inequity, I merely have to glance up at the air conditioner that is keeping my office bearable. While I’ve done more than the mayor of New York requested, setting it at 82°F (27°C), I’m still part of a feedback loop. I deal with the heat by using more energy, which leads to burning more fossil fuel, putting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and heating up the planet more.

Heat kills. A heat wave in France in 2003 caused an estimated thirty-five thousand deaths, and a hot spell similar to the one Britain had in July 2009 caused more than two thousand, according to official estimates. Although no particular heat wave can be directly attributed to global warming, it will make such events more frequent.

Even in rich countries, it usually isn’t the rich who die in natural disasters. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, those who died were the poor in low-lying areas who lacked cars to escape. If this is true in a country like the United States with a reasonably efficient infrastructure and the resources to help its citizens in times of crisis, it is even more evident when disasters strike developing countries, because their governments lack the resources needed, and because when it comes to foreign assistance, rich nations still do not count all human lives equally.

But there is a solution that is both fair and practical:

Establish the total amount of greenhouse gases that we can allow to be emitted without causing the Earth’s average temperature to rise more than 2°C (3.6°F), the point beyond which climate change could become extremely dangerous.

Divide that total by the world’s population, thus calculating what each person’s share of the total is.

Allocate to each country a greenhouse gas emissions quota equal to the country’s population, multiplied by the per person share.

Finally, allow countries that need a higher quota to buy it from those that emit less than their quota.

The fairness of giving every person on Earth an equal share of the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb our greenhouse gas emissions is difficult to deny. Why should anyone have a greater entitlement than others to use the Earth’s atmosphere?

But in addition to being fair, this scheme also has practical benefits. It would give developing nations a strong incentive to accept mandatory quotas, because if they can keep their per capita emissions low, they will have excess emissions rights to sell to the industrialized nations. The rich countries will benefit, too, because they will be able to choose their preferred mix of reducing emissions and buying up emissions rights from developing nations.


Abridged text excerpted with permission from Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, Kathleen Dean Moore & Michael P. Nelson (2010),

Peter Singer is an Australian philosopher who specializes in applied ethics. He is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and laureate professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne.


Posted: 9/17/2013 10:57:06 AM by Mary Kestner | with 0 comments

Blog post currently doesn't have any comments.
Leave comment Subscribe

Enter security code:
 Security code

Social Media