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Connecting climate justice, human rights and burden-sharing: a philosophical perspective


Laura García-Portela is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Philosophy and Doctoral Program in Climate Change at the University of Graz, Austria. Her research interests cover moral and political philosophy, with a focus on climate justice issues. She is currently writing her dissertation on a normative foundation for climate policies of Loss and Damage. Her work has appeared in collective works on green democracy, intergenerational justice and global studies, as well as in international and interdisciplinary peer-reviewed journals, such as Ethics, Policy and the Environment, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics and Teorema.

Global heating is leading to increased temperatures, rising sealevels, and more frequent extreme weather events. These planetary changes threaten the livelihood of people across the world and raise many human rights and climate justice concerns. This article connects human rights with climate justice from the perspective of philosophy.

Firstly, I define dangerous climate change invoking the notion of human rights. Secondly, I argue that climate justice concerns the protection against human rights impacts caused by climate change through mitigation and adaptation measures, as well as the compensation for the impact. Thirdly, I argue that climate justice also requires a fair burden-sharing scheme and propose three alternative principles of justice.


There is agreement within the scientific community that the aim of climate policies should be to avoid dangerous climate change. But what counts as dangerous climate change? The answer to this cannot be found in science. Instead we need to turn to ethics to consider what kinds of values we hold, what we want to protect and the weight we attach to competing interests.

The notion of dangerous climate change is inherently linked to the concept of human rights. That is, climate change becomes dangerous once it threatens or infringes people’s ability to enjoy their human rights (1). Therefore, if our aim is to avoid dangerous climate change we need to keep human rights to the fore.

What are human rights, and what do they mean in the context of climate change? Human rights are moral thresholds (2). They are fundamental interests to ensure a minimally good life, or, in other words, a life with dignity. Human rights can therefore be needs (3), or in terms of ensuring the development of capabilities to achieve human flourishing (4). Nussbaum’s list of capabilities includes bodily health, affiliation, and control over one’s environment, both politically and materially. How we define the minimum level for each of these fundamental interests has consequences for our definition of dangerous climate change and the scope of our climate change-related duties.


A human rights approach to climate justice involves duties of mitigation, adaptation and compensation. First, our generation has duties to avoid dangerous levels of climate change for the next generation through employing strategies of mitigation. Mitigation involves reducing emissions and removing emissions from the atmosphere (e.g. through reforestation or some forms of geoengineering) in order to keep the global temperate at a safe level.

Second, climate justice also requires adaptation measures to prevent human rights infringements to both current and future generations. Adaptation duties involve adjusting natural and social environments to protect against adverse effects of climate change. For example, if mitigation efforts have not been sufficient to avoid sea-level rise, adaptation duties would require building seawalls to protect those populations living in low-lying areas.

Third, if neither mitigation nor adaptation efforts have been sufficient to prevent or respond to climate change, climate justice requires compensation for those groups whose human rights have been impacted. Taking the example above, if an area cannot be protected from flooding, its population might need to migrate somewhere else. That might require not just assisting them to relocate, but also compensating them for the impact on their human rights.


These duties of mitigation, adaptation and compensation involve certain burdens. The third climate justice task is determining how to distribute those burdens (including individuals, states and companies). In order to be fair, this distribution should be according to principles of justice. The so-called ‘burden-sharing debate’ discusses various climate justice principles, each of which invokes different ethical considerations.

The Polluter Pays Principle affirms that each agent should bear burdens proportional to their emissions record. The more an agent has emitted, the more they should contribute to mitigating, adapting to, or compensating for, climate change related harm. However, there are some objections to this Principle. Some argue that many of the emissions associated with climate change were produced without fault, and, thus, those who caused them should not be considered responsible (5). For instance, before the publication of the First IPCC Report in 1990, there was no general scientific agreement about the adverse effects of climate change. Therefore, the relevant agents are blameless for those emissions. Moreover, transiting to a low-carbon society could not have been achieved as soon as we became aware of the adverse effects of climate change, due to dependencies and lock-in mechanisms created by the reliance on fossil fuels infrastructure. Thus, the 1990 cut-off date could be extended even further, rendering the Polluter Pays Principle almost inapplicable. These objections have been contested by some who have challenged the underlying idea of (moral) responsibility in the climate justice debate (6).

Many others have turned to other morally relevant considerations for the distribution of burdens. They believe that more important than how much an agent has emitted is whether and to what degree they have benefited from emissions generating activities (7). This leads to the Beneficiary Pays Principle, which holds that each agent should bear the burdens associated with the benefits they obtained from climate change inducing activities. However, calculating how much an agent has benefited from climate change is a difficult task, mainly because both direct and indirect benefits must be considered.

Others stick to a purely forward-looking principle known as the Ability to Pay Principle (8). This principle affirms that each agent should bear burdens according to their capacity to pay. Determining capacity to pay can be assessed according to different distributive principles. However, the Ability to Pay Principle has the disadvantage of being disconnected from the historical dimension of climate change and, arguably, its application would not provide the necessary incentives to abandon fossil fuels as the main energy and development sources.

It is probable that developing the right incentive structure to avoid future climate change, as well as applying justice to the historical roots of climate change requires giving weight to historically focused principles such as Polluter Pays or Beneficiary Pays. However, despite their philosophical intricacy, all these principles are likely to converge into an agreement that highly industrialized countries of the Global North should bear most of the burdens of climate justice, whether because they have caused the problem, because they have benefited the most, or because they have the highest capacity to deal with the problem (9).


Calls for climate justice are increasing across the world and especially among those who will suffer the worst consequences of climate change. I have argued that climate justice is intrinsically connected with the protection against and compensation for human rights impacts. Climate justice action requires mitigating, adapting to and compensating for the effects of climate change on people’s ability to enjoy their human rights. Moreover, it requires a fair distribution of efforts to combat climate change. Here, I have presented three alternatives for a fair distribution of burdens and called attention to the fact that they all point to the same duty-bearers: people in the Global North.

1. Claire Heyward, ‘Situating and Abandoning Geoengineering: A Typology of Five Responses to Dangerous Climate Change’ (2013) 46(1) PS: Political Science & Politics

2. Simon Caney, ‘Climate change, human rights and moral thresholds’ in Stephen Humphreys (ed), Human Rights and Climate Change (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

3. Len Doyal and Ian Gough, A Theory of Human Need (Guilford, 1991); Lukas Meyer and Thomas Pölzer, ‘Basic Needs and Sufficiency: The Foundations of Intergenerational Justice (forthcoming), Oxford Handbook of Intergenerational Ethics.

4. Martha C Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Harvard University Press, 2007).

5. Simon Caney, ‘Environmental degradation, reparations, and the moral significance of history’ (2006) 37(3) Journal of Social Philosophy 464; Lukas Meyer and Dominic Roser, ‘Climate justice and historical emissions’ (2010) 13(1) Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 229.

6. Alexa Zellentin, ‘Compensation for Historical Emissions and Excusable Ignorance: Compensation for Historical Emissions and Excusable Ignorance’ (2015) 32(3) Journal of Applied Philosophy 258; Daniel Butt, ‘Excusable ignorance, hypothetical wrongdoing, and historical emissions: does it matter who knew what when?’ in Lukas Meyer and Pranay Sanklecha, (eds) Climate Change and Historical Emissions (Cambridge University Press, 2017); Laura García-Portela, ‘Moral Responsibility for Loss and Damage: A response to the excusable ignorance objection’ (2020) 39(1) Teorema 7.

7. Christian Baatz, ‘Responsibility for the Past? Some Thoughts on Compensating Those Vulnerable to Climate Change in Developing Countries,’ (2013) 16(1) Ethics, Policy & Environment 94. Lukas Meyer, ‘Why Historical Emissions Should Count,’ (2013) 13 Chicago Journal of International Law 597.

8. Darrel Moellendorf, The Moral Challenge of Dangerous Climate Change: Values, Poverty, and Policy (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

9. Henry Shue, ‘Historical Responsibility, Harm Prohibition, and Preservataion Requirement: Core Practical Convergence on Climate Change,’ (2015) 2(1) Moral Philosophy and Politics.