Why Procedural Justice Matters for Climate Engineering

Broadly speaking, we may distinguish two types of justice: substantive and procedural. Both are relevant for climate policy. Substantive justice concerns how states of affairs ought to be ordered, including how the burdens and benefits of some policy should be distributed among various parties. Procedural justice concerns how decisions ought to be made, including whose voices should be heard in decision-making. This type of justice presumably requires that parties with a substantial stake have an opportunity to contribute to relevant decisions.

It is fairly obvious that substantive justice matters for climate engineering policies. This is true of both solar radiation management and greenhouse gas removal varieties, because either could affect the distribution of burdens and benefits among persons. Because of this, we could evaluate whether some such policy is likely to secure the distribution required by substantive justice (whatever that might be). The result of this evaluation might give us ethical reasons to oppose or support the policy in question.

It is perhaps less obvious that procedural justice matters for climate engineering. Why should we care about how decisions are made, provided that the outcomes of such decisions are line with substantive justice? In my recent book, The Ethics of Climate Engineering: Solar Radiation Management and Non-Ideal Justice (Routledge), I offer the following three reasons why procedural justice is important for decision-making about climate engineering.

• There is an ethical obligation to comply with procedural justice, rooted in the obligation to respect other persons.
• Deferring to procedural justice offers a useful way to navigate ethical and scientific uncertainty.
• Under conditions of ethical and scientific uncertainty, interested parties have a special right to contribute to decision-making that is likely to impact them substantially.

First, and most conventionally, I argue that it is ethically impermissible to ignore the demands of procedural justice. To do so would exhibit disrespect for those persons who are inappropriately excluded from decision-making. Importantly, this would be impermissible even if the resulting policy benefited parties who were unjustly excluded. We might think of that as a kind of paternalism.

The second reason is pragmatic. There is a great deal of scientific uncertainty surrounding the likely impacts of potential climate engineering policies. Continued research might reduce this uncertainty but is unlikely to eliminate it. Likewise, there is a great deal of ethical uncertainty regarding what climate policies we ought to adopt. Climate change raises a host of controversial ethical issues, including the question of what substantive justice requires. It is therefore not clear that common-sense moral thinking is up to the task of determining what climate policies are appropriate. Deferring to procedurally just decision-making processes can be useful for navigating such scientific and ethical uncertainty. As I argue in the book, “This is because, plausibly, a procedurally just framework will allow for decision-making that is iterative, responsive to changing conditions, and open to various points of view. This last feature, in particular, may provide a helpful check on controversial proposals” (page 76).

The third reason to favor procedural justice resembles elements of the previous two, but it is nonetheless distinct from both. The claim is that, in cases of substantial uncertainty, interested parties have a right to contribute to decisions likely to impact them in substantial ways. This is different from the first reason, because the right in question only arises due to substantial uncertainty, whereas the obligation to respect persons is always in play. I use the analogy of a patient whose doctor offers two courses of treatment, both of them risky and uncertain to work. Just as the patient should be permitted to decide how to proceed, so should interested parties be permitted to contribute to decisions on whether to deploy climate engineering.

I have said nothing here about what procedural justice specifically requires. Rather, I have sought to give reasons for why we should care about it in the first place. For those interested, the book itself provides a more detailed account of these reasons.

Toby Svoboda is an assistant professor in the department of philosophy at Fairfield University. His research focuses on environmental ethics, Kant, and climate change. He is the author of The Ethics of Climate Engineering: Solar Radiation Management and Non-Ideal Justice (Routledge).



The Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment does not necessarily endorse the ideas contained in this or any other guest post. Our aim is to provide a space for the expression of a range of perspectives on climate engineering.

  • MikeMacCracken

    While I agree with the points made, what bothers me is that the argument isn’t even more extensively made with respect to the emissions that are causing the problem, and changes in emissions that occur, both increases and decreases. One could argue that such types of justice are being considered through the institutions that we have, given that we are having to consider geoengineering to deal with the increasing global harm and risks would suggest that just having the structures for such consideration is not nearly enough. I would thus think that a key issue would be not whether such provisions should exist, but show to make the whole system for addressing the growing impacts of climate change much more effective.