Climate finance has emerged as a central part of the negotiations under the UNFCCC. At COP 15 in Copenhagen, developed countries made a commitment to mobilise 100 billion USD per year by 2020 to address the adaptation and mitigation needs of developing countries. While many scholars and policy-analysts are crafting an efficient and practical system to handle the resources (i.e. the Green Climate Fund), there is a need to address the larger ethical issues that loom in the background of adaptation finance. How can the resources for adaptation be distributed in a fair way?
In all matters of distribution, it is essential to have a system that guides the distrubtion of the item in question, typically material resources. Discussions under the UNFCCC on adaptation usually single out the notion of vulnerability — resources are to be distributed in a way that is guided by the vulnerability of various agents to climate change. If adaptation consists in taking active steps that reduce the most vulnerable, how should adaptation resources be allocated? Several regulative principles are possible. One suggestion is Equality:
Equality: Adaptation resources should be allocated so as to approximate that all are equally vulnerable to climate change.
Equality is attractive in that it aligns with the view that persons are of equal moral worth. Yet the principle seems unfeasible. Given how unequally vulnerability to climate change is distributed, it simply does not seem possible to achieve anything even approximating equal vulnerability. Furthermore, since Equality is a comparative principle as it concerns how agents fare relative to each other, the principle could permit an adaptation politics of ‘levelling down’ (e.g. making rich countries more vulnerable without improving the position of the least developed countries). We want a principle that points out both; that the interests of the most vulnerable take priority and that adaptation politics should improve their position. Some climate theorists have therefore defended a principle called Leximin:
Leximin: Adaptation resources should be allocated to each tier of vulnerability to improve their situation.
The problem with Leximin is that it will be incredibly hard to satisfy. Getting the most vulnerable out of this state might require us to spend enormous amounts of resources. Since the funds for adaptation are scarce, if we try to satisfy the Leximin principle we might allocate resources in an inefficient way and get little ‘bang for the buck’. The wastefulness of Leximin stems from its under-appreciation of what we might call the ‘utilitarian’ component of morality – that people’s lives improve overall. Consider therefore Utilitarianism:
Utilitarianism: Adaptation resources should be allocated so as to make the (expected) consequences as beneficial as possible overall.
Note that, as it is phrased above, Utilitarianism makes no reference to vulnerability. This is because utilitarianism is interested in maximising (expected) utility, and vulnerability is no more than indirectly relevant to that end. Thus, action-guiding utilitarianism enjoins us to allocate adaptation resources in accordance with standard cost-benefit analysis, with an eye to making the overall balance as beneficial as possible. The worry with this view is that it seems too insensitive to differences in vulnerability. It is possible, for example, that we get the best overall utility by spending most adaptation resources on the United States. Yet such a situation would clearly be unjust, partly because the United States is responsible for roughly one third of the historic carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion, but also because it is relatively speaking not a vulnerable country.
Prioritarianism fits the bill
The above suggests that what we want is a principle that is sensitive to (absolute) levels of vulnerability yet contains a ‘utilitarian component’. The principle that fits the bill is Prioritarianism:
Prioritarianism: Adaptation resources should be allocated so as to make the (expected) consequences as beneficial as possible, but as the moral value of a gain increases, the worse off its recipient will be.
The core of Prioritarianism is the idea that the importance of benefitting people increases with thier vulnerability. Prioritarian adaptation allocation would thus hold that, the more vulnerable a person, community or nation is, the more improvements in adaptive capacity (and hence reductions in vulnerability) matter.