Many people argue that rich countries like the United States should bear a greater burden for climate change mitigation than poor countries, because rich countries have emitted more greenhouse gases. This stance is based on the principle of corrective justice, according to which one who wrongfully does harm must compensate the victim. This principle explains why we fine litterers and force factories that pollute excessively to pay damages to people harmed by the pollution.
However, the application of this principle to climate change quickly runs into problems, while leaving other moral questions — of wealth sharing, redistribution and responsibility — unanswered.
Many of the people who have engaged in activities that emitted greenhouse gases are our distant ancestors; they are no longer around to pay. And most of the victims of climate change are not yet born. If the United States pays “climate reparations” to India, for example, the money will be paid in large part by people who are not directly responsible for global warming to people who have not yet been hurt by global warming. The real victims will be future Indians — people living many decades or centuries hence.
The common response is that Americans have benefited from industrialization in the distant past, so they ought to inherit the moral liabilities of our ancestors along with the benefits they gave us. However, while Americans have benefited from industrialization, so have Indians. The technology of industrialization has spread far and wide, benefiting people all around the world. If we are responsible for the effects of our ancestors’ behavior on future populations, we need to subtract the benefits from the costs. Very likely, unless climate change turns catastrophic, the benefits of steam engines, computers and vaccines will exceed the climate-related costs, meaning that rich countries will owe poor countries nothing at all.