A Normative Ethical Framework in Climate Change by Marco Grasso — A Summary

Marco Grasso, “A Normative Ethical Framework in Climate Change,” Climate Change 81, no. 3–4 (2007): 223–246.

Before beginning, make yourself comfortable with the following concepts. Conceptual terminology will be used in the belief that the reader is already familiar with them.

1. Introduction

Climate change has serious adverse consequences for the planet. Being economically backward, technologically deficient and nature dependent, poor countries will especially bear the brunt of the negative effects of climate change for which the rich countries are largely responsible. This makes the crisis of climate change an ethical issue and a matter of justice.

While all countries profess their commitment to a collective action against climate change, the absence of an enforcer above them means that agreements can only be voluntary and will have to be self-enforcing. To achieve reliable self-enforcement, a climate change agreement will have to be “informed by principles of justice, shaped by criteria of equity, and perceived to be fair in both its process and outcomes”.

The achievement of such an agreement is difficult because at the policy level, justice and equity take a backseat to the priorities and interests of countries. Herein lies the need of a “normative ethical framework” to address the “common but differentiated responsibilities” associated with climate change.

“In the light of these considerations, the aim of this article is to ethically justify and describe a normative pluralistic framework for international distributive justice, and to define the consequent equity criteria possibly determining global initiatives against climate change.”

2. Notions and domains of justice in climate change

Justice is a staple concept in political philosophy.

“[The intention of the paper] is to describe the dominant dimensions of international distributive justice, and the consequent criteria of equity with respect to the specificity of global climate change, in order to identify a comprehensive normative framework for international climate-related actions.”

In the developed North, climate change is simply an environmental issue. But in the underdeveloped South, climate change is a matter of human survival. As such, the North’s stress on mitigation is incomplete and should be supplemented by the South’s insistence on and need for adaptation.

Environmental distributive justice pertains to the distribution of “environmental benefits, costs, risks and harms among human beings”. For climate change, the units to be distributed are the costs and benefits of mitigating carbon emissions as well as compensation for residual damages and the costs and benefits of adapting to prevent the harmful effects of climate change.[1]

Climate is a global public good that impacts all countries in ways and to degrees that are not determined by their specific emissions. Thus, there is a need to link mitigation and adaptation strategies into a pluralistic ethical framework that takes into account issues of justice and equity.

The former strategy, for example, ought to consider the moral unavoidability of certain basic energy needs and therefore be flexible in allocating endowments, whereas there should be a certain stringency in identifying the rules for subsequent allocations. The latter requires a solid basis for the allocation of adaptation resources, which again calls for flexibility as far as the financing of adaptation activities is concerned.

The issue of procedural justice also needs to be considered even though it shall remain outside the scope of the framework being constructed in this paper.

“International climate justice can be framed in the following domains …:
– just initial allocation of endowments,
– just exchange of endowments,
– just allocation of the costs of adapting to climate impacts,
– just allocation of the benefits (i.e., resources) for adapting to climate impacts,
– distribution of wealth and power allowing a just international negotiating process.”

3. Justice and equity in mitigation


“The issue of justice in mitigation can be seen as a problem of defining a just initial allocation of endowments and equitable consequent exchange patterns.”

3.1 Initial allocation of endowments: Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness

The allocation of endowments concerns the initial allocation of rights to emit greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere. A just initial allocation of endowments (hereafter JIAE) can be usefully set within an ethical framework based on Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness (hereafter RTJF).

The availability of “energy services” is a primary good. This availability is influenced by “undeserved inequalities” like different climatic conditions, or a greater capacity to absorb GHG emissions. The uneven distribution of such characteristics forestalls the attainment of genuine equality of opportunity as far as energy services are concerned.

If a JIAE is to be established based on RTJF, a criterion of equity based on equal per capita distribution of endowments which also reduces undeserved inequalities is necessary. This is the criterion of “differentiated equality” which “[i]n a GHG emission rights scheme, [requires that] endowments should … be allocated among the parties according to a formula whose reference is equal per capita distribution and which includes the standard of living corrected for the most evident circumstances that influence the demand for energy services,[2] and therefore the consequent GHG emissions, of each country.”

Such an allocation would entail a scarcity of endowments in developed countries and a surplus in developing ones. This skewed allocation will result in financial flows from the former to the latter as the former inevitably use up the quota of the latter. Such transfers are to recognized as compensation to the South for the overuse of the atmosphere’s absorptive capacity by the North.

3.2 Exchange of endowments: Utilitarian theory of justices

The unequal distribution of endowments will lead to their exchange i.e., the trading of GHG emission rights. This is important because as the marginal costs of emissions abatement differ among countries, redistribution will need to equalise the unequal marginal costs.

In economic terms, redistribution should aim at achieving a Pareto-efficient social state in the sense that there are no other social states that would make someone better off without simultaneously making someone else worse-off. However, Pareto-efficiency ignores issues of justice.

As such, the Pareto-efficiency principle should be supported by some criterion of distributive justice. The envy-freeness criterion is a way to choose between different Pareto-efficient states and to identify allocations that are at once efficient and equitable.

The Pareto principle entails greater cutbacks of emissions in countries where marginal costs of abatement are lower i.e., in Southern countries. But to make such an arrangement just, the envy-free criterion obligates the Northern countries with lower initial cutbacks to compensate the Southern countries. Only this solution can in principle be both Pareto-efficient and envy-free.

4. Justice and equity in adaptation


“From an operational point of view, also the adaptation sphere of distributive justice can be split into two domains: the funding of adaptation activities and the allocation of resources.”

4.1 Financing of adaptation activities: Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness

Financing of adaptation activities concerns the division among countries of the costs of adaptation programs and projects, and of residual damages compensation.

Historical principles of justice hold that those who caused the problem should be held responsible. The atmosphere is a common resource that whose “atmospheric absorptive services” should be accessible to “all actual and potential human beings”. For this to happen justly, past emissions should be taken into account in order to ensure equality of opportunity. All of these would imply that the North should finance adaptation programmes.

However, there are conditions that affect the consumption of the absorptive capacity of the atmosphere which are beyond the control of emitters.[3] This fact necessitates a robust theory of justice that simultaneously allows for substantial differences in equality. Such a principle is provided by RTJF.

“Grounding the funding of adaptation activities on … RTJF requires an equity criterion which encompasses all the elements and determines the use of atmospheric absorptive capacity. …[This] criterion of ‘differentiated historical responsibility’ … suggests that … the yardstick must be responsibility based on historical accountability. … [T]he difference principle requires consideration of undeserved inequalities that have actually influenced cumulative GHG emissions and contributed to their cumulative amount.”

In policy, such a principle would entail the creation of a global fund for financing adaptation to climate change which would be financed by countries according to the criterion of differentiated historical responsibility.

4.2 Allocating adaptation resources: Sen’s capability approach

Allocating adaptation resources concerns the allocation of the resources available for adaptation strategies. The most appealing benchmark in this regard is the idea of social vulnerability. However, the notion of vulnerability sheds no light on the ability to adapt. Here arises then the need for principles of justice to frame allocation schemes that include considerations on the ability of countries to use adaptation resources effectively.

Amartya Sen’s capability approach (hereafter SCA) is a promising frame within which to situate the issue of “effective adaptive response”. What matters is not simply the availability of resources and services but more importantly the possibility of gaining effective protection against climate impacts using these resources and services. In other words, what matters is that the well-being of individuals, defined as the enlargement of capabilities, be achieved.

SCA is based on the concept of human security.[4] Human security is defined by a set of basic capabilities — “achievable functionings”, in practice. The idea is to ground the participation of all countries in a possible adaptation fund on a ranking based on human security which encompasses the ability to convert resources into valuable “doings” and “beings”.

Human security defined as “the number of years of future life spent outside a state of ‘generalized poverty’” where “[g]eneralised poverty occurs when an individual falls below the threshold of any key domain of well-being” is extremely useful in talking about adaptation to climate impacts as it acknowledges that human security depends closely on poverty, defined as deprivation of basic capabilities (income, health, education, political freedom and democracy).

“[The] point is that the weaker a country is in these domains of well-being, the less are its institutional and social possibilities and capacities to turn adaptation resources into effective adaptation actions. Hence, weaker countries should be given privileged access to the funds.” This access should be directly proportional to the population harmed and inversely proportional to the human security index.


[1] “I include among adaptation strategies also the compensation for damages deriving from residual impacts that cannot be adapted because of cost or impossibility (e.g., extreme and abrupt climatic events). From the theoretical perspective put forward here, they can be seen as ex-post forms of adaptation.” [Footnote from the paper]

[2] “…the climatic conditions (measurable, for instance, by heating and cooling degree days, that is, by the average temperature departure from a human comfort level of 18 °C), the availability of carbon absorbing areas (proxied, for example, by the country’s forested area), and the availability of renewables allowing greater use.”

[3] “…such as climatic conditions, or the availability of sinks and renewables.”

[4] “I abide with the notion of human security put forward by Alkire, who views it as the protection and promotion of a limited number of aspects of human well-being which constitute its ‘vital core’.” [quoted from the paper]