by Eric A. Posner and David Weisbach. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2010. 240pp. Cloth: $27.95. ISBN: 9780691137759. eBook: $27.95. ISBN: 9781400834402.

Reviewed by David Dehnel, Department of Political Science, Augustana College. Email: daviddehnel[at]


Because the atmosphere is a global commons, effective action to address the problem of human induced climate change will require unprecedented forms of international cooperation. Eric Posner and David Weisbach have a written a book that they hope will clear away some of the conceptual obstacles to international cooperation and point toward a just but realistically attainable treaty to address the issue. While they may fall short of achieving these goals, the book is a provocative and informative exploration of the ethical dimensions of the debate. The main interest of the book to scholars of law and politics will be as an application of ethical principles to the dominant issue of international economic policy. In a clear and thoughtful analysis, the authors apply jurisprudential concepts such as corrective justice, Rawlsian fairness, and utilitarianism to the issue of global climate change.

The title of the book, and most of its original thought, centers on ethical issues. The authors assume that a treaty to address global climate change is both economically and ethically justified and further grant that redistribution of wealth from rich to poor is a moral good. The thrust of the argument, however, is to rebut or at least problematize most moral claims about climate change and what to do about it. A core assumption of the analysis is that to have a realistic chance at adoption a treaty must comply with the principle of “International Paretianism,” that is, all participating states must believe themselves to be better off as a result of the treaty. This principle, a staple of realist international relations, contradicts the ethical claims most prominent in the climate debate: wealthy nations ought to pay most of the costs of abatement because they have the wherewithal to do so and because they have historically been the leading polluters. Posner and Weisbach argue that these ethical claims are not as compelling as they seem. Therefore, international negotiators should set to work on a treaty that spreads the costs such that there are no obvious winners and losers.

In the first part of the book (chapters 1-3), the authors refer to the vast literature on climate change to support their main assumptions. They assert that on a global scale, the future costs due to climate change justify taking action in the present, and that poor nations are most vulnerable to the impact of climate change. Nonetheless, they point out that the costs and benefits of climate change abatement are complex. For example, rising temperatures will likely lead to more widespread suffering from malaria. Because malaria is (currently) a disease that mainly affects poor people, it is not clear whether the most beneficial policy would be unabated economic [*629]development or sacrificing some development in order to reduce climate change, and therefore, malaria (p.29). Throughout the book the authors assume that economic development over the coming century will significantly reduce poverty, though they grant that climate change could negate a proportion of those gains.

Posner and Weisbach reject the Kyoto Protocol, deeming it a symbolic action. They suggest that the United States was justified in not ratifying the protocol for the same reasons given by the Bush Administration: the U.S. would bear a large share of the costs of meeting the Kyoto targets and the accord places no limits on the emissions of developing nations. The authors make a valid point that self-interest often lies behind moral indignation in the discussion of climate change, but at times they carry their defense of the United States rather far. For example, they dismiss Germany’s strong performance relative to Kyoto targets on the grounds that they benefit statistically from having absorbed the weak east German economy. They also set aside British emissions reductions because they stem from a conversion to natural gas that, the authors assert, would have happened anyway. This logic is unlikely to persuade anyone outside of the United States to ignore our poor performance since the Kyoto targets were adopted.

In chapters 4-7 Posner and Weisbach thoroughly discuss, and mainly deflate, the leading ethical arguments connected to global climate change. Throughout the discussion they survey various approaches to social justice, including “welfarist” (utilitarian) and “deontological (rights-oriented) theories. They concede that the maximization of human welfare justifies substantial transfers of wealth from rich people to poor people, but they argue extensively that considerations of distributive justice need not be tied to a climate treaty and that to do so would likely make a treaty impossible. Maldistribution of wealth is hardly new, and there is no reason to assume that wealthy nations are about to abandon their long standing reluctance to spend a lot on foreign aid. Typically, wealthy nations are not as vulnerable to the costs of climate change, so a treaty that assigns most of the costs of abatement to them would violate International Paretianism. This realistic assessment of the interests of wealthy nations is undeniable, but Posner and Weisbach go beyond the pressure of self interest to make the controversial claim that the ethical obligations of wealthy nations really are not as great as they seem.

Posner and Weisbach discuss the complexities of global wealth redistribution in considerable detail. One of their points is that negotiations for a treaty oriented to distributive justice would be burdened by conflicting views on “who deserves aid and who should pay for it” (p.86). These disagreements reflect substantial problems in addressing global wealth inequalities. Due to corruption and mismanagement, aid to poor nations does not necessarily benefit poor people. The most cost effective investments in climate change abatement are not necessarily in the poorest nations. The benefits of climate change abatement will be realized in the future, but what about the poor of today?

After setting aside distributive justice, the authors also reject a “corrective [*630] justice” approach that would assign the costs of a climate treaty to those who are deemed responsible for the problem. It is true, for example, that nations in Africa have contributed little to the stock of greenhouse gases but are particularly vulnerable to negative effects from climate change (p.101). Posner and Weisbach point out, however, that a climate treaty will be worked out among nations, not individuals. The identification of victims and responsible parties, central to corrective justice, does not work well at the national level. The United States has been emitting greenhouse gases for some time, but the current generation is only responsible for a fraction of the total. To what extent should individuals be held responsible for the actions of their government (or governments for the actions of corporations, one might add)? The impact of greenhouse gases is a recent discovery, and still hotly debated in popular media despite the scientific consensus. At what point do people who live energy-intensive lifestyles become culpable for knowingly harming others? Furthermore, the victims of climate change live in the future, and their identities and locations can only be guessed at. In some circumstances it will be very difficult to establish causation, an important element in corrective justice.

Having rejected corrective justice, Posner and Weisbach next tackle the proposal to establish a cap and trade system based on a per capita allocation of emissions permits. In a cap and trade scheme, a limited amount of permits to produce greenhouse emissions are distributed and nations that feel the need to burn more carbon (or cut down their forests) can buy permits from nations that have permits they don’t use. Some sort of cap and trade scheme may make good sense from a policy perspective, but Posner and Weisbach emphatically reject the idea that the permits should be initially distributed to nations in proportion to their population. (A per capita distribution would be based on the ethical principle that every individual has an equal right to use, or dump in, the global commons.) Here, the authors augment (and belabor) their case against the relevance of concerns for distributive justice, making some strained ethical and policy arguments. It seems to me that the obvious bottom line is that wealthy nations will never concede to the radical redistribution of wealth that a per capita scheme would imply. A per capita distribution of permits would violate the principle of International Paretianism because big per capita polluters like the U.S. would have to buy a lot of permits, incurring costs that far exceed the national benefits of a climate treaty.

The book contains an interesting and thorough discussion of intergenerational justice. Posner and Weisbach adopt the radically egalitarian principle of intergenerational neutrality (the welfare of future generations counts for no less than our own), but balance it by adopting a moderate version of the economic principle of discounting the future. Following conventional economic logic, they grant that it makes no sense to invest in climate change abatement if investments in economic development would produce future gains that are greater than the costs of climate change. Market oriented conservatives have long used interest rate based discounting calculations to render meaningless the costs of climate change that will be felt more than 50 years into the future. [*631] Posner and Weisbach soften this result by adopting a lower discount rate on the grounds that market interest rates account for private but not social return on investments and because of uncertainty over the extent of potential environmental damage. They do concede that because individuals in the future are likely to be richer than us, a transfer from today’s poor to tomorrow’s not so poor is justified only if the environmental benefits are substantial.

Overall, one of the interesting things about the book is the extent to which it draws ideas from a wide range of ideological perspectives. The principle of International Paretianism tracks with a neo-conservative perspective on international relations, and the author’s endorsement of the discounting of future costs and benefits follows, in modified form, market economics. Posner and Weisbach reject many of the leading ethical claims advanced by those who contend that wealthy nations should take vigorous action to halt global climate change. On the other hand, they take the scientific warnings about climate change seriously, are willing to acknowledge the ethical value of the environment, and grant that we have substantial moral obligations to future generations. The result is that the authors conclude that a climate treaty is justified, albeit one that requires poor nations to share the costs.

I was impressed by the quality of the analysis of moral issues and the clarity of the presentation of complex arguments. One question I am left with is the identity of the audience for the book. The authors say that their goal is to clear away obstacles in the path to an attainable climate treaty by debunking spurious moral arguments that, if pressed, would require some nations (mainly wealthy ones) to bear costs that far exceed the benefits they are likely to gain. It is not clear to me that these arguments are likely to be convincing to negotiators for poor nations. The problem of climate change is unusual because it presents a situation in which the wealthy nations need the cooperation of poor nations (especially those on a path to rapid development). It is hardly surprising that the poor nations are pressing their demands for redistribution in this context. It may be that the developing nations will have to abandon these demands in order to reach a deal based on mutual self interest. I doubt that the arguments in this book will help persuade them to do so. The book is more likely to help Americans feel better about our standard of living and what we have done to obtain it. That may not be a good thing for its implications outside of the realm of international treaty making.

© Copyright 2011 by the author, David Dehnel.