The standard account of the climate change problem seems to be that developed countries got to where they are by recklessly exploiting resources, including the ability of the atmosphere to absorb greenhouse gases. These developed countries, therefore, need to take responsibility for solving the problem, the account goes. As Peter Singer puts it, "in terms a child could understand, as far as the atmosphere is concerned, the developed nations broke it. "
Is this account right? Answering that question breaks down into two parts: First, does the data support the conclusion that rich countries created the climate change problem? Second, even if the data does support that claim, does that mean that developed countries should bear more of the burden going forward?
Professor David Weisbach attempts to answer both parts in his paper "Responsibility for Climate Change, By the Numbers," presented at this week's Works in Progress (WiP) talk. The paper draws to some extent on recent work by Professors Cass Sunstein and Eric Posner in this area, and is connected to a forthcoming book project by all three professors.
Essentially, Weisbach argues that the conventional story is wrong on both counts - the data don't support a conclusion that rich states have contributed to the climate change problem significantly more than poor ones. Even if they did (Weisbach argues), an ethical theory that supported allocating more of the costs to developed countries today would be highly problematic, departing significantly with understandings of responsibility embodied in tort law.