HKS Authors

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Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy
Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights, Global Affairs and Philosophy


A common and intuitively plausible approach to thinking about the distributional questions that arise about global climate change is that the atmosphere is a “global sink” whose use is subject to regulation in terms of an equal-per-capita principle: Each person should have the same entitlement to pollute. This view, however, is plausible only if one thinks the earth as a whole belongs in some sense to humanity as such. This essay develops that standpoint of collective ownership of the earth and applies it to the aforementioned distributional questions. In light of that standpoint some of the ethical dimensions of global climate change take on a particular shape. It turns out, however, that the philosophically most plausible understanding of collective ownership of the earth does not support an equal-per-capita principle, nor does it support certain versions of a principle of accountability for past emissions. Instead, we end up with a combination of “polluter pays” and “ability to pay” principles to the regulation of access to the absorptive capacity of the atmosphere into whose precise formulation certain aspects of historical accountability will, however, also enter.


Risse, Mathias. "Who Should Shoulder the Burden? Global Climate Change and Common Ownership of the Earth." HKS Faculty Research Working Paper series RWP08-075, December 2008.