Climatic Shifts and the Right to Environmental Conditions
The most obvious kind of rights infringement which could be caused by climate change involves damage done directly to individuals and property by environmental phenomena. Easiest to think about are the shifts in “normal” environmental conditions which are projected to occur in response to human influences on the climate system. One example of such a shift is the expected rise in sea level which will occur as higher global temperatures melt a portion of the ice which naturally covers part of the Earth’s land area, and cause thermal expansion in the world’s oceans. As sea levels rise, some coastline property will become submerged or otherwise damaged by encroaching water lines, and in other places, salty ocean water will mix with the water table beneath individuals’ property, potentially killing vegetation and destroying the conditions for certain agricultural practices. So far as these sorts of impacts are the direct consequences of anthropogenic climate change, it seems that we would intuitively want to say that those who contributed to climate change will have infringed on the rights of those who are harmed.
Similarly, as regional climates shift towards new equilibrium states as the result of anthropogenic forcings, it is likely that some of the natural processes on which people depend will be interfered with. For example, most organisms can only survive within a certain range of environmental conditions. Inadequate or excessive rainfall, increased average temperature, and other climatic factors could prove detrimental to the capacity of certain organisms to flourish in areas which have historically supported them well. Many individuals, notably farmers and fishermen, may be adversely affected by the effects of shifts in their regional climates for the organisms on which they rely. So far as these individuals have a right not to be interfered with in pursuing their livelihoods and wellbeing with the aid of resources which are naturally available to them, it would seem to constitute an infringement of their rights to push their climate systems out of their previous states, bringing about environmental conditions which are injurious to their interests and livelihoods.
It may be objected that the preceding discussion assumes that individuals have a right to certain environmental conditions, where no such right exists. I believe, however, that such an argument would fail to take into account our earlier discussion of rights. Conceivably, an objector would point to the inherent instability and variability in the climate system, and argue that clearly we are not entitled to complain about such changes. But as we noted before, to have the right to something means only that we are entitled to certain things from other moral agents.
For example, no rights violation would occur if a naturally occurring shift in your regional climate were to produce temperatures too high for you to continue to grow wheat on your land. But if your neighbor installed an enormous heater on the edge of his property and blew warm air onto your property, killing your wheat crop, we might find good reason to object. And it seems that the reason that we would object would be that you have the right to certain environmental conditions, of which you were being deprived by your neighbor’s actions. I think that this objection does reflect something which we have an entitlement against being deprived of in the absence of morally significant reasons, and so far as climate change does inspire this objection, it constitutes an infringement of rights of this kind.
Altered Climate Systems and Diverted Damage
Not all of the effects of climate change will occur as shifts in normal conditions. For example, a world impacted by climate change will likely see an increase in the frequency, duration, and severity of extreme climate events like floods, droughts, and heat waves. It seems that just as we have the right to have our property damaged by the direct actions of others, we should have a right against damage resulting from the amplification of an existing destructive force. Accordingly, by making the climate system more dangerous, the contributors to climate change would be infringing others’ rights to the extent that more damage resulted than would have in the absence of interference.
However, this intuition is muddied by the fact that in an altered climate system, we will almost certainly see an entirely different set of climate events than would have occurred if no interference had taken place. That is, it is not the case that we will see all of the floods, droughts, and heat waves that would have occurred naturally, except that many of them will last longer, and cause more damage, and there will be some new ones. Rather, the floods, droughts, and heat waves which normally would have occurred will never eventuate, and they will be replaced with an entirely new set of floods, droughts, and heat waves.
Going even further, even those extreme phenomena which are not made more dangerous (in a statistical sense) by climate change will likely occur in different patterns in an altered climate system. For example, while some scientists believe that a warmer climate will produce a greater number of more intense hurricanes, others believe that there will be no such change. However, even if these skeptics are correct, and hurricanes do not generally become more dangerous as a result of climate change, it is almost certain that there will be different hurricanes in an altered climate system.
Because they will be different events, affecting different areas at different times, the new set of extreme climate phenomena will impact different people in different ways. This raises an important difficulty in discussing these impacts from the perspective of justice and rights. Intuitively, it seems that we should take into account the fact that the climate system is naturally destructive, and individuals should only be held responsible for the additional damage that they cause. But in an important sense, every extreme weather event, and so every instance of damage, will be the result of the interference with the climate system. We can only talk about the “additional” damage caused by interference with the climate by aggregating the total damage done in the altered climate system and comparing it to the total damage which would have been done in the absence of interference.
But given the fact that the damage in question will be distributed differently, impacting some people more than it would have and others less, it is unclear whether such an aggregation would be justified. As many have pointed out in objecting to Utilitarianism and cost-benefit analysis, benefits to some individuals do not “cancel out” costs to other individuals. After all, the parties made worse off must still bear the entire burden of their new circumstances; they do not experience any counterbalancing good from the beneficial consequences which obtain for others. And intuitively, it seems reasonable to think that we have a right not to have damage inflicted on us, regardless of whether others are made better off as a result. Accordingly, we might say that those who interfere with the climate system violate others’ rights to the extent that they bring about consequences which are more damaging to those individuals.
Rights and Risk
One might object, however, that there are many ways of interfering with the climate system which ostensibly cause some redistribution of climatic events, producing winners and losers, but which we do not generally think of as involving rights infringements. Given the chaotic nature of the climate system, one might point out, very small interferences can have important consequences elsewhere; as the saying goes, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil might cause a tornado in Texas. But surely we do not need a morally significant reason to fly a kite, or to go base jumping, or to operate a windmill, because of the tiny disturbances which will be imposed on the climate system. And if this is so, then what should we make of the idea that we have the right not to have climatic damage diverted at us? As we have said, to have a right to something means that others may not deprive you of it in the absence of morally significant reasons. If no reasons are necessary to justify interfering with the climate system in a way which could alter the distribution of extreme climate events, then this seems to suggest that we do not have a right against climatic damage being diverted at us.
If this is true, then are no rights infringed as a result of the diversion and amplification of the destructive force of the climate system? We have good reason for thinking that the diversion of climatic damage does not infringe rights. It will be noted that we might still identify a problem with the fact that by causing climate change, we cause a greater overall amount of damage. By contrast, the eventual consequences of flying a kite on the climate system could just as easily be positive as negative; a tornado might be caused, but just as easily, a tornado might be prevented. Taken together, all of the tiny interferences on the climate system which result from our everyday activities likely do not cause a greater or lesser overall amount of damage, especially on a long time scale. But what kind of right could an individual possess which would be contingent on the overall amount of damage done by the climate?
Perhaps the answer can be found in the concept of risk. By increasing the total amount of damage which will be inflicted by the climate system, contributors to climate change increase individuals’ risk of damage due to extreme climate events. And if we add together the increase in the expected value of the climatic damage done to all individuals over a given period, we will see that the total will equal the amount by which the climate system was made “more dangerous” by the interference in question. If we recognize a right not to be put at greater risk of climatic damage by the actions of others, then we arrive at a conclusion which matches our initial intuitions perfectly: Rights are violated to the extent to which the climate system was made “more damaging” by the contributors to climate change.
The debate over whether or not we can have rights based on risk is complex, and I will avoid addressing it here. But it will be sufficient for our purposes to point out that by dealing with the problem of altered climate systems in terms of risk, we arrive at just the kind of answer that we expected to find from the beginning. Of course, intuitions are often wrong, and we certainly have not proven here that we have a right against exposure to risk. But we might say that the fact that such a right matches our intuitions counts as evidence that it is closer to being right than to being completely wrong.