Walter E. Schaller

Philosophy Department

Texas Tech University

             Climate change raises another important question: Who should pay the costs of prevention, mitigation, and adaptation? One compelling answer is the Beneficiary Pays Principle (BPP). Members of the industrialized world have been the dominant beneficiaries of the industrialization policies in the 19th and 20th century and it is only right that they pay most of the cost of mitigation, prevention, and adaptation.    

            The Non-Identity Problem undermines this argument. If, as seems plausible, the identity of persons is determined by their genes (and genetic identity is fixed at conception), then the people who would have been born in the absence of industrialization are different from the people who actually were born. Different people would have been conceived. They would not be identical to the people who were in fact conceived. I (for example) can argue that I would not exist but for the Industrial Revolution. It would not have required many changes in American society (and in immigration patterns in the 19th century) to make it extraordinarily unlikely that my four grandparents ever met, and then my parents would not have been born, and I would not now exist. It is therefore false that I have benefitted from industrialization. Since I would not have existed in the absence of industrialization, I have not benefitted from industrialization.

            Simon Caney writes: “We cannot say to people, ‘You ought to bear the burdens of climate change because without industrialization you would be much worse off than you currently are.’ We cannot because without industrialization the ‘you’ to which the previous sentence refers would not exist. Industrialization has not brought advantages to these people that they would otherwise be without. And since it has not we cannot say to them, ‘You should pay for these because your standard of living is higher than it would have been.’ For this reason the [Beneficiary Pays Principle] is unable to show why members of industrialized countries should pay for the costs of the industrialization that was undertaken by previous generations” (“Cosmopolitan Justice, Responsibility, and Global Climate Change,” Leiden Journal of International Law 18 (2005), p. 758).

            Since I would not have been born if any (serious) effort had been made generations ago to curb GHG emissions, it is not true that I have benefited from GHG emissions prior to my birth. I have benefited only if I am better off than I would have been if alternative policies had been followed in the 19th century. But if alternative policies had been followed, I would not now exist .And if I have not benefitted, then why should I pay? (In the same way, most members of the Baby Boomer generation would not exist but for World War II because their parents would have led very different lives and different children would have been born.)

 Can we explain how people who have not benefited from the policies (over the past 200 years) that have caused global warming (since, but for those policies, they would not now exist) may nevertheless justifiably be required to pay the costs of prevention, mitigation, and adaptation?

 Is it possible to sidestep the Non-Identity Problem by formulating a doctrine of collective responsibility such that Americans (and affluent people in general) can be responsible for the costs of fighting climate change because they are members of a group that has either benefited from those policies or that was causally responsible for those policies decades before any current members were born? Can we hold the government of the United States responsible for a large proportion of the costs even though most individual taxpayers are not individually responsible?


Your reflective comments are invited on some or all of the following. As part of your analysis include information as appropriate on the stakeholders and how they are impacted both positively and negatively.

  1. What knowledge and skills are needed to implement sophisticated, appropriate and workable solutions to the complex global problems facing the world today?
  2. What interdisciplinary perspectives would help identify innovative and non-obvious solutions?
  3. What insights can you articulate, based your culture and other cultures with which you are familiar, to help understand your worldview and enable greater civic engagement?
  4. What is your position on the right thing(s) to do?
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