Just War Theory and Climate Change

Note: This is a paper I delivered (in abbreviated form) at the Society for Social Studies of Science conference in Denver on November 12. I post it today in honor of the convening of the international conference on climate change, convening tomorrow in Paris.

Good afternoon. Let me start by making clear that this paper is a work in progress. It is also a thought experiment. My purpose is to demonstrate that the classic principles of just war theory may well justify — possibly sooner rather than later — the use of some form of aggressive action to combat climate change.

As most people who pay any attention to these matters know, world leaders will convene in Paris later this month for the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The fact that this is the 21st such session tells you something. The “Conference of the Parties,’ is the “supreme decision-making body” of UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change. It has met annually for 20 years; Paris will be year 21. I doubt if you’d find many climate scientists who would tell you those meetings have produced results that significantly reduce the damage greenhouse gases have inflicted and continue to inflict on the environment. It’s true there appears to be an increased sense of urgency and resolve regarding the threat of climate change, and the build-up to the Paris convocation suggests that this time will be different. We’ll see. A realistic appraisal of what we’re up against leaves room for doubt.

In my book, Not So Fast: Thinking Twice About Technology, forthcoming from University of Georgia Press, I write about a condition I call “de facto technological autonomy.” It refers to the totality of our commitments to a technological way of life. To effectively reverse the damage we’ve inflicted on the planet would require, in the developed countries especially, a fundamental re-ordering of that way of life. It’s hard to imagine how that would happen rapidly enough to avoid the ecological “tipping point” that scientists tell us we’re rapidly approaching, when we move from climate change to climate collapse.

Climate change has already been linked to various episodes of social and economic disruption. A recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, for example, argues that drought provoked the initial unrest that led to the catastrophic civil war in Syria.[1] When access to food, shelter and security are compromised, people and nations can be counted on to fight for what they need. As the effects of global warming continue to multiply the resulting social disruptions can be expected to multiply as well. As the Obama Administration put it earlier this year, “Climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources like food and water.”[2]

It’s conceivable, therefore, that at some point in the not-too-distant future, coercive measures would become feasible as a means of eliminating the sources of greenhouse gases poisoning the atmosphere. That is the hypothetical jumping off point for this paper.

One other thing I should make clear at the outset is that traditional just war theory does not contemplate the sorts of conditions presented to the international community by global warming. Traditional just war theory examines conflicts between nation states, whereas climate change is a truly global phenomenon, effecting an unprecedented breadth of nations and peoples. Traditional just war theory focuses almost exclusively on what we traditionally think of as war — that is, military actions in which physical weapons are wielded in an intentional effort to take over the territory and destroy the property and the lives of enemy forces. Climate change is different. The damage it causes is real, but it is a side effect of other activities, rather than an intentional act. Climate change crosses borders not with tanks and troops, but by poisoning the atmosphere, and it kills not with bombs and bullets but by undermining the natural processes necessary to sustain life. It is also true that the primary instigators of climate change are not nation states, per se, but the businesses that manufacture and sell products responsible for producing greenhouse gases and the consumers who use those products. Most if not all us in this room, then, are implicated in the crime of global warming, which points to another reason why global warming doesn’t fit neatly into the traditional parameters of just war theory. It’s not easy to define who the enemy is, or where the line should be drawn between combatants and non-combatants. Despite these differences, I think the sorts of practices that contribute most egregiously to global warming — now that we recognize the threats they pose — can be considered a form of aggression, and thus I think the principles of just war theory can usefully address them.

Traditional just war theory lists six requirements for the justified initiation of aggressive action. All six must be met. They are:

  • Just cause
  • Competent authority
  • Right Intention
  • Proportionality
  • Last resort
  • Probability of success

I am going to focus my remarks today on the requirements of just cause and competent authority. I will stipulate for the present discussion the requirement of right intention. By “right intention,” just war theory means that an attack is launched for a justifiable purpose and not as an excuse to achieve some other, non-justifiable purpose, such as gaining territorial or economic advantage. The intention I contemplate here is aimed solely at reducing the threat of global warming. I will also stipulate that such actions will be undertaken only when conditions are extreme enough to satisfy the requirement of last resort. As mentioned, the inability of nations to significantly address climate change suggests that it may well be only a matter of time before conditions severe enough to fulfill the requirement of last resort are upon us, if they’re not already.

So, what are the conditions that fulfill, according to traditional just war theory, the requirement of just cause for aggressive action? The most basic of these is self defense. Probably the best known contemporary just war theorist is Michael Walzer, author of Just and Unjust Wars, who argues that self defense is “our baseline, our model, the fundamental structure for the moral comprehension of war.”[3]

The logic of self defense derives from what is known as “the domestic analogy,” which suggests that nations are entitled to defend themselves from an act of aggression just as an average citizen is entitled to defend herself from an intruder who breaks into her home. When a nation is presented with a situation of “forced choice,” it has the right to aggressively resist the imposed aggression in order to restore the nation or the home to a state of security. Immediate action is justified by situations that Walzer calls “supreme emergency,” in which the threat is both imminent and serious. It’s possible, if a state fails to defend itself promptly in response to an aggressive attack, that it may become too weakened by that attack to be able to respond effectively. This is why self defense is the one act of war that the United Nations Charter specifically says can be undertaken without Security Council approval.[4]

Vitoria de Francisco

One of the earliest just war theorists, Vitoria de Francisco, said, “There is a single and only just cause for commencing a war, namely, a wrong received.” National and international bodies are increasingly acknowledging that disruption of the climate can be considered a wrong received. An influential report by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, for example, stated that the debate over what constitutes a justifiable intervention has shifted “from territorial security, and security through armaments, to security through human development with access to food and employment, and to environmental security.”[5]

Another way of describing the fundamental purpose of a just war is to establish “a better state of peace.” As noted, climate change is already a source of social disruption and will increasingly be one in the future. To remove the causes of climate change therefore will reduce the likelihood of disorder and conflict. To fail to remove them will eventually lead to a state of extreme, if not supreme, emergency — again, if we haven’t reached that point already. Thus aggressive action to address climate change can be construed as a justifiable act aimed at establishing “a better state of peace.”[6]

I pointed out above that, unlike traditional acts of war, the damage inflicted by climate change is not necessarily an intentional act, but a byproduct of non-aggressive activities. However, intention matters less when it comes to self defense than the reality and severity of the threat. As John Locke pointed out, the man who breaks into your house may intend only to rob, not hurt, you, but you can’t assume that’s the case, and therefore you’re entitled to respond to the fullest degree possible while you have the chance. The ethicist Philip Montague adds that among several “non-standard” justifications of self defense are those in which a deadly threat is posed “by someone’s negligence or recklessness.” Another ethicist, David Rodin, argues that the principle of reciprocity likewise sanctions a justifiable response to life-threatening harm. Each of us has an obligation not to kill another person, Rodin says, as long as that person observes the same obligation towards us. When that reciprocal relationship is ruptured by an aggressive act, the aggressor loses the right not to be killed in self defense by his victim.[7]

As I also pointed out above, the harms caused by global warming are not as direct or dramatic as those caused by guns or bombs, but ultimately many people are going to end up just as homeless, and just as dead. Thus all these justifications for a self-defensive response to aggressive threats can be applied to the threat of climate change.

This brings me to the second fundamental justification for the initiation of aggressive action: the preservation of basic human rights. Henry Shue, who with Michael Walzer is probably the best known expert on just war theory, defines a basic human right as a right that must be satisfied before any other right can be enjoyed. As Shue puts it, “No one can fully, if at all, enjoy any right that is supposedly protected by society if he or she lacks the essentials for a reasonably healthy and active life. Deficiencies in the means of subsistence can be just as fatal, incapacitating, or painful as violations of physical security.”[8]

Obviously basic rights would include such necessities as food and shelter, both of which are threatened by global warming. This threat has been recognized from the earliest stages of international efforts to deal with environmental degradation. Principle 1 of the 1972 “Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment” reads in part: “Man has the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being, and he bears a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations.” Similar language has been added to any number of national and international statements ever since.[9]

Philip Montague frames the rights argument in terms of “basic justice,” which he defines as “the very general principle that the good and bad things that happen to people should have some reasonably direct connection with their responsible behavior.” According to this principle, he adds, “good things should befall those who behave well, and bad things those who behave badly.” This thinking accounts for the virtually unanimous view of international panels and commissions that the developed nations bear the lion’s share of responsibility for cleaning up the damage caused by greenhouse gases because they are the ones most responsible for causing that damage.[10]

The recognition of basic rights is another area in which contemporary just war theory has shifted from a primary focus on upholding the rights of states toward upholding the rights of human beings. This was one of the central conclusions of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. In its final report, “The Responsibility to Protect,” the commission states that people’s fundamental rights to security include “their physical safety, their economic and social well-being, respect for their dignity and worth as human beings, and the protection of their human rights and fundamental freedoms.”[11]

That all people have a fundamental right to security brings me to the last basic requirement of just cause I’d like to mention, and that is the responsibility of governance. Simply put, just war theory operates under the assumption that responsible governments protect their people. This responsibility maintains whether the threat is from other nations or from groups or individuals within a nation. The ethicist James G. Murphy defines the state’s obligation to protect its people as coming under “the general heading of promoting the public good, including making and enforcing laws to maintain justice, equity and social order…” More broadly, Murphy adds, governments are responsible for the enforcement of laws that defend or improve quality of life.[12]

This perspective is another manifestation of the recent shift of emphasis in just war theory from protecting state’s rights to protecting human rights. As the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty put it, “The ‘responsibility to protect’ implies above all else a responsibility to react to situations of compelling need for human protection. When preventive measures fail to resolve or contain the situation and when a state is unable or unwilling to redress the situation, then interventionary measures by other members of the broader community of states may be required.”[13]

I mentioned earlier the recent study that cited climate change as a significant factor in the unrest that led to the current conflict in Syria. That study also cited as a contributing factor there the failed agricultural and environmental policies of the government of President Bashar al-Assad. To bring the argument closer to home, it could be said that by allowing carbon emissions from automobiles and factories to continue at levels that have proved dangerous to the environment, the United States set the stage for the disastrous series of droughts and wildfires that have recently afflicted the Western states. It doesn’t seem too great a stretch to see this as a failure on the part of the government to protect the basic rights of its citizens, and therefore as a potential justification for the use of aggressive force in defense of those rights. Competent Authority I’ll conclude my remarks today with a couple of quick comments on competent authority, which may be the trickiest requirement to consider when applying just war theory to climate change. The question this requirement seeks to answer is simple: If aggressive action is justified, who can justifiably take the responsibility of launching it?

The traditional answers are another nation state or the Security Council of the United Nations. Neither answer is very satisfactory in the case of global warming, for several reasons. For one, the nations most responsible for global warming are by definition the most developed nations, and therefore the most powerful nations militarily. Greenland may be justified in launching an attack on the United States to stop the activities that are destroying its glaciers, but its chances of winning would be slim. Also to be considered is that, in the Western democracies, the corporations and companies most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions have, in many cases, successfully undermined or evaded the regulatory machinery of the countries in which they operate. Standards aimed at protecting a nation’s people mean little if they’re not enforced.

It’s possible that one or more developed nations will recognize, soon, that radical steps are necessary if climate change is going to be adequately addressed, and resolve to take those steps. It’s also unlikely. As I mentioned above, change on the scale required is simply too disruptive to be contemplated, voluntarily, at least. Neither can we expect the United Nations to initiate any meaningful response. As Michael Walzer puts it, the UN’s decrees “do not command intellectual or moral respect,” and therefore have little meaningful impact.[14]

It’s hard to know who would qualify as a competent authority when it comes to combating climate change. Certainly there is cause for concern when self-described revolutionaries assume the right to act unilaterally, as Theodore Kaczynski — the Unabomber — did. Although Kaczynski claimed to be acting on behalf of a group called the “Freedom Club,” in truth he acted alone, and the targets he chose were both idiosyncratic and immoral, not to mention ineffective. Still, necessity may at some point both dictate and justify some sort of non-governmental, non-institutional, grass-roots response. What that response might be is difficult to imagine.

For these reasons, it seems clear that the launching of any aggressive action to combat climate change will have to engage the requirements of just war theory not only intelligently but also creatively. The requirements of proportion and likelihood of success are among the questions that need to be answered, along with the question of who can and who can’t be considered the enemy. Any proposed solutions will be creative by definition because the nations of the world have never before faced a situation like this one. Unfortunately, one thing is clear, and that is that no consensus will form in favor of aggressive action to counter climate change until conditions become desperate enough to force one. To what degree any of the requirements of just war are considered at that point remains to be seen. Just war theorists are well aware that, when supreme emergency prevails, moral justifications often become superfluous.

Notes: [1] “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought,” Kelly, Mohtadib, Canec, et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, Vol. 112, no. 11. The White House,National Security Strategy, 2015, p. 12.

[4] Ibid, p. 252–254. UN Charter 1945, Chapter VII, Article 51.

[7] Philip Montague, “Self Defense and Choosing Between Lives,” Philosophical Studies, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Sept., 1981), p. 210. David Rodin, “War and Self-Defense,” Ethics & International Affairs, Volume 18.1 (Winter 2004)

[10] Montague, p. 216. On the responsibility of developed nations to bear the responsibility of climate change, see Stephen M. Gardiner, “Ethics and Global Climate Change,” Ethics, 114 (April 2004), p. 579–580.

©Doug Hill, 2015


Originally published at thequestionconcerningtechnology.blogspot.com on November 29, 2015.