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The Principles Of Equity

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Many have classified our current geological epoch as the Anthropocene, an era in which humans now act as the primary creators of geological change (Allen et al., 2018). This concept is captured in human-induced climate change; since the invention of agriculture and rapidly following the industrial revolution, we have altered our planet, and the consequences are presenting themselves more clearly now than ever. Therefore, the greatest humanitarian and existential threat to our societies has brought about ethical issues when it comes to mitigating and adapting to environmental hazards. As such, climate change asks us how we should distribute the costs of mitigating these threats and asks how we might allocate costs from responding to the negative consequences that arise. Using Henry Shue’s chapter on global environment and international equity, I will explore how his three principles of equity provide a framework for understanding who should pay the costs of mitigating climate change. I begin with a discussion on why the inequality of development is unfair in the first place and therefore ought to be reduced. Next, I discuss the greater contribution, greater ability to pay, and guaranteed minimum principles. I conclude by revisiting the premise that wealthy and developed nations should bear most of the costs associated with climate change, for they have contributed the most to this global threat to our existence.

Equity, Fairness, and Development

Issues of equity or fairness only come to fruition if there is something in question that must be divided among different groups (Shue 2014, p. 185). In this case, the issue of environmental benefits and burdens and the costs associated with dealing with them in the face of climate change are contested, and a distributive justice framework can be utilized in order to understand why wealthy nations should adopt the costs of climate change mitigation.

The destruction of the ozone layer and initiation of global warming from industrialization are two effects of climate change we are currently seeing (Shue 2014, p. 183). The processes of industrialization have mainly fueled this environmental damage; further, these development processes have benefitted the Global North, while robbing the Global South of their natural resources and economic development. This was achieved through luring developing nations into unilateral trade agreements with the Global North for their environmental goods under a neoliberal guise of ‘development as necessary’ for progress.

Yet, both those who have benefitted from these trade agreements and those who have not are feeling the stresses of climate change today. According to the greater contribution to the problem principle, which takes a life-cycle view of environmental damage and would require rich nations to internalize their past costs of pollution, the Global North should bear unequal burdens in order to right the inequalities they have directly created. Differing from the polluter pays concept, in which polluting countries must account or internalize their costs for future pollution, Shue’s first equity principle aligns with commonsense fairness, and would require those to be held responsible for the majority of emissions contributing to industrialization and current climate change-inducing atmospheric CO2 levels.

Moreover, poor countries have had to pay for the benefits received from developed countries (Shue 2014, p. 184). Whether this came in the form of international aid or the spread of new technology, Shue provides that the ever-growing mountain of debt accrued by poor countries is attributable to the perceived benefits they were promised by developed countries (ibid). As stated earlier, environmental destruction is borne by all. Rich nations have enjoyed a surplus of benefits to burdens from the processes of development and have not incurred most of the environmental damage in their home countries, partly because extraction of resources and manufacturing is oft outsourced to the Global South and/or developing nations. Therefore, rich nations should carry the burdens of dealing with climate change in the future due to the damage they have done in the past and continue to do in the present.

Greater Contribution to the Problem

It is commonly understood that it is not fair to punish someone for a consequence that could not be avoided (Shue 2014, p. 185). However, it is acceptable to hold one responsible for consequences or effects that were unforeseeable. This follows a similar line of thinking to conceptualizing intent versus impact; although developed countries may not have intended to wreck the global climate, they certainly have had the largest share in impacting and contributing to increases in CO2 levels for a longer time which affect the entire planet today. Thus, these countries should be help responsible for the damages they have created, regardless of their intent or their ability to predict the effects of their actions.

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This issue of responsibility is closely linked to a common objection made by those who claim they shouldn’t be held responsible (or punished) for damage they didn’t commit themselves. This is an acceptable objection, yet in the case of contributions to climate change, it is rendered irrelevant. A few rich generations of industrial societies are undoubtedly still related and close enough to current generations, having contributed to our current economic and political structures. As Shue poignantly writes, “benefits and costs, and rights and responsibilities, carry across generations” (Shue 2014, p. 186). Here we see evidence of the principle of intergenerational equity in Shue’s argument, a concept that has been adopted and supported by many environmental NGOs and international agreements, such as in the Sustainable Development Goals, approved by the UN in 2015 (UN Sustainable Development Agenda, 2019).

Moreover, I hold the view that we, people living in developed countries, are all implicit as members of an industrialized state in contributing to increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, only a few generations earlier, our ancestors were the direct beneficiaries of industrial development (in the case of Australia and the United States, for instance). As such, I argue that current and future generations will likely continue to benefit from previous industrial activities and should therefore be held responsible for the costs associated with a changing climate.

Greater Ability to Pay Principle

Shue’s second equity principle, greater ability to pay, is inherently a requirement of fairness and supports the concept that the fewer resources one has, the greater the sacrifice they would make in contributing to the solution. The principle states that: “Among a number of parties, all of whom are bound to contribute to some common endeavor, the parties who have the most resources normally should contribute the most to the endeavor” (Shue 2014, p. 186). The component of generality in this principle, i.e. “normally,” addresses the issue of incentives and fairness, in that these contribution could discourage (well-off) people from earning more, taking more risks, or working harder—for the result would be greater contribution at a larger percentage, while others would not have to contribute as much (Shue 2014, p. 188).

Additionally, this principle incorporates the notion that in the present state, countries with greater assets should contribute at a greater rate to the mitigation of environmental damages (Shue 2014, pp. 186-187). Here, it is important to differentiate the greater ability to pay principle to an egalitarian, equal contribution principle. Shue’s principle takes an intergenerational equity perspective and acknowledges that the current state of development and distribution of environmental benefits and burdens is not equal or fair; therefore, why should the mitigation or reconciliation for the future be so? We should not merely wipe out centuries of unjust behavior on behalf of the developed countries and demand equal contribution for the future, for this pays no attention to the circumstances of the countries that would contribute and the intended final outcome, that is: avoidance of climate catastrophe through mitigation in the present (Shue 2014, p. 187).

Guaranteed Minimum

Shue’s third principe of equity concerns the concept of the unfair nature of failing to guarantee all people an adequate minimum, if Earth’s resources can support it and all other aspects of a decent human life could be preserved for all parties (Shue 2014, p. 191). Moreover, it would rule out costs associated with climate change that would leave developing countries unable to ensure a minimum quality of life for their people. The concept of radical inequality, suggested by philosopher Thomas Nagel, underlies this principle and states that our societies are “radically” unequal partly because the total amount of resources available is more than enough for everyone living very well-off to slightly reduce their quality of life, while also uplifting those who are the worst-off to some acceptable minimum level; yet, this redistribution of goods has not yet occurred to aid those most in need (Shue 2014, p. 190). Even if the guaranteed minimum was met, this might preserve the inequalities currently in place, and with global initiatives such as the aforementioned UN Sustainable Development Goals’ number one priorities of reducing hunger and poverty (UN Sustainable Development Agenda, 2019), I would argue that we need to do much more than meet a guaranteed minimum quality of life for those struggling most.

Furthermore, the guaranteed minimum principle is seen in the issue of developed states asking developing states for assistance in dealing with climate change, yet rich states have largely failed to assist poor states (apart from some economic aid with large strings attached in the form of development loads and interest tax) in attaining some decent quality of living, which is certainly unfair (Shue 2014, pp. 191-193). As such, the citizens of poor nations should not have any obligation to developed states to mitigate environmental damages caused by the developed states own industrialization. Ultimately, if the developed states don’t see an obligation to uplift those in poverty, then those in poverty have no obligation to developed states to help in mitigating climate change, when there are more pressing issues, such as feeding themselves and their children (Shue 2014, p. 193).


In conclusion, the three principles of equity discussed here, fundamental fairness and acceptable inequality, the greater ability to pay, and a guaranteed minimum, demonstrate that the actions that are necessary in order to mitigate global environmental issues and the costs associated with these actions must initially be borne by the developed and wealthier, industrialized states (Shue 2014, p. 194).

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