Henry Shue has made a seminal contribution to the international debate about climate justice. By distinguishing between ‘subsistence emissions’ and ‘luxury emissions’ (Shue, 1992, 1993), he established the normative principle that emissions from poor countries should be treated differently than those from rich countries. Based on their historical responsibility for climate change and superior economic capacity, industrialised countries are morally obliged to take a lead in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and supporting developing countries with their adaptation costs, mainly through financial and technological transfers. In his engagement with global climate change for well over two decades (Shue, 2014), Shue has put forward a carefully developed and powerfully argued theory of climate justice that is of direct relevance to the international politics of climate change. His work is located at the point where normative theory intersects with political reality. Unsurprisingly, given the often dismal state of international climate negotiations, Shue’s measured tone of abstract normative reasoning has occasionally given way to more strongly worded expressions of frustration and anger, especially when targeted at ‘feckless leaders’ that fail to provide leadership, most notably in the United States (Shue, 2011). He is, in the best sense of the word, an engaged normative theorist, an idealist in a world of supposed realists, but fully conscious of the harsh environment that an anarchical international society offers for anyone wishing to translate universal ethical principles into political action.

In this article, I intend to reflect on Shue’s argument about the ‘unavoidability of justice’ (Shue, 1992) from the perspective of International Relations (IR) rather than normative theory. The IR discipline is usually concerned with the ‘is’ of world politics, not the ‘ought’, though it should be noted that normative questions about ‘how should we act?’ are never too far from the surface in the ‘practical discourses’ that make up IR theorising (Reus-Smit and Snidal, 2008). I am interested in exploring the extent to which normative arguments about climate justice, and especially distributive justice, are reflected in the main outcomes of international climate negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). By tracing the evolution of justice elements in the climate regime from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the 2015 Paris Agreement, I hope to illuminate both the power and the limitations of justice claims in international climate politics.

Falkner, R. (2019). The unavoidability of justice – and order – in international climate politics: From Kyoto to Paris and beyond. The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 21(2), 270–278. https://doi.org/10.1177/1369148118819069

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