The Right to an
Focusing only on property damage caused by climate change, it may be noted, seems to leave out a large part of the picture of why people are concerned about climate change. In addition to the impacts discussed so far, many would find objection the fact that climate change will deprive members of certain social groups of the opportunity to integrate themselves into the societies in which they were raised, as a result of changes in the physical context in which those societies have been able to flourish. In many situations, entire cultures will be forced to relocate in order to continue to exist, and in some, they could vanish altogether. Surely this is a troubling consequence of climate change. But does it represent an infringement of rights?
In examining this question, we must take care to isolate the deprivation of an opportunity for cultural integration from the other sorts of rights infringements which we have been discussing so far. For example, if you are so deprived because your farm was flooded by ocean water and you were forced to move, then the problem seems to be one of property rights, and we already know what to say about it. To avoid confusion, we will discuss cases where the deprived party’s property is not being damaged in any way, and the only harm being done seems to be the kind of cultural deprivation that we are concerned with here.
Accordingly, we will imagine a hypothetical scenario in which a young Pacific Islander, Akiko, is setting about deciding what she wants for her life. She owns no property, and has not settled in to any profession or living situation. She is simply evaluating her options in order to choose how she will begin her adult life.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests that small island communities will be particularly vulnerable to climate change. In addition to submerging land on the island, sea level rise will likely make storm surges more dangerous and exacerbate erosion and other coastal hazards. On land, water resources will likely be seriously compromised, and the introduction of salty ocean water into the environment will likely make agriculture more difficult. In the ocean itself, changing environmental conditions could fundamentally alter ecosystems, possibly affecting populations of fish and other organisms on which the islanders rely. Further, a number of studies have concluded that the effects of climate change on the tourism industry will produce generally negative outcomes for island economies. All things considered, it might be unfeasible for Akiko to try to start a traditional life for herself on the island. Changing environmental conditions could make it impossible for her to live the kind of life which has characterized her people in the past, and she must act accordingly.
It seems clear that this is something of a sad story. But it might here be noticed that there are plenty of ways which one might deprive a person of the opportunity to live in the manner for which their culture is adapted, which would not involve any violations of their rights. For example, we might imagine a community of small-scale farmers who have fallen on hard times on account of the emergence of a large agribusiness corporation, whose greater efficiency and high output caused market prices for the farmers’ goods to fall below a level which could support their traditional lifestyles. Jebediah, a child growing up in such a community, would seemingly be faced with a set of circumstances similar to Akiko’s. Circumstances would make it impossible for Jebediah to take his place in the culture of his upbringing, much like Akiko was driven away from her heritage by the changing environmental conditions on her island brought about by climate change.
Presumably, we would not think that the agribusiness corporation, in bringing its products to market in higher quantities and better prices, was doing anything wrong, even if it had no significant moral reason to support its actions. In fact, we might applaud it for representing an increase in the wellbeing of its customers, who could use the money they saved on purchasing food products to improve their material conditions in ways that would have been otherwise unavailable to them. So surely its actions would not represent infringements of any rights held by the young members of the farming community, like Jebediah, who would be denied an opportunity to carry on in the traditions of their parents. And so we might think that in the same way, Akiko’s rights are not infringed when she is denied the opportunity to become integrated into the culture of her upbringing by climate change.
One might object that there is a difference between Jebediah’s case and Akiko’s, in that Akiko’s situation is the result of rights-infringing damage to the environment in which her culture existed, whereas Jebediah’s situation is the result of customers exercising their right to withdraw their patronage from producers who do offer noncompetitive products. Jebediah lost his opportunity because it was built upon an assumption of support from others which proved to be false, and neither he nor any of his predecessors had any right to this support. Akiko’s elders, however, did have a right to the things that Akiko would need in order to exercise her opportunity, and Akiko was only denied access to them because a third party actor acted in a way that infringed upon rights.
But as we mentioned at the beginning of this section, we have to be careful to avoid focusing on infringements of the rights of those whose property is damaged by climate change. Those factors have already been accounted for. And remember, we have stipulated that none of the property which is damaged belongs to Akiko. So this avenue of establishing Akiko’s rights seems closed: it seems fairly clear that Akiko has no claim to the property of other people, and her rights are not infringed when we damage that property.
Rights as a Member of a Community
However, one might point out that Akiko’s claim is not centered on the property damage itself, but rather its implications for the island community as a whole. Viewed holistically, Akiko’s community is composed of a system of interdependences which can be “benefited” or “harmed” in a way that cannot be understood simply as the sum of impacts on individual members. From this perspective, we harm the community not only when we harm a given individual, but also when we interfere with an individual’s fulfillment of her function in the community. For example, if a community depends on the agricultural products supplied by a particular farmer, and we damage the farmer’s land so that his productivity is constrained, then we not only harm the farmer, in that his property is damaged, but we also harm the community as a whole, in that the farmer filled an important “niche” as the provider of food for the rest of the community.
From Akiko’s perspective, climate change is not only damaging a great deal of others’ property, but it is also destroying the integrity of the community in which she was raised, and of which she expected and hoped to become a part. As we have described them, the opportunities that Akiko has been deprived of seem to have been dependent on the health of the community. So it might be that in objecting to the loss of her opportunity to be integrated into her culture, what Akiko is really objecting to is the loss of her community’s integrity due to the impairment of members’ functions due to climate change.
But what is so special about the “community” in this example which sets it apart from other instances where an individual’s social functions are impaired in a way that has negative implications for others? Imagine that Russell has been training himself to work as a laborer at a pogo stick factory in his town. But when he arrives at the factory to apply for a job, he discovers that it has been destroyed by terrorists. Unfortunately, Russell’s only hope of supporting himself in his town was to work at the pogo stick factory, and its destruction will force him to leave his community.
In this case, it does not seem that the terrorists infringed on Russell’s rights (though they almost certainly infringed on the factory owners’ rights). But it is nevertheless true that Russell depended on the factory’s ability to fulfill its function as a provider of jobs, and by impairing that function, the terrorists deprived Russell of the opportunity to integrate himself into his community. It seems as though the only difference between Russell’s situation and Akiko’s is that Russell’s situation was brought about by the impairment of the functioning of a single member of the community, whereas Akiko’s was brought about by the impairment of the functioning of multiple members. I see no reason to think that this difference is morally significant. Accordingly, it seems fair to conclude that, while her tale is a sad one (as are Jebediah’s and Russell’s), Akiko’s rights are not infringed as a result of her being deprived of the opportunity to integrate herself into the culture of her upbringing.