Historical Use of the Climate Sink

Megan R Blomfield

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)
354 Downloads (Pure)


In this paper I discuss a popular position in the climate justice literature concerning historical accountability for climate change. According to this view, historical high-emitters of greenhouse gases—or currently existing individuals that are appropriately related to them—are in possession of some form of emission debt, owed to certain of those who are now burdened by climate change. It is frequently claimed that such debts were originally incurred by historical emissions that violated a principle of fair shares for the world’s natural resources. Thus, a suitable principle of natural resource justice is required to render this interpretation of historical accountability complete. I argue that the need for such a principle poses a significant challenge for the historical emission debt view, because there doesn’t appear to be any determinate answer to the question what a fair share of climate sink capacity would have been historically. This leaves the historical emission debt view incomplete and thus unable to explain a powerful intuition that appears to motivate the view: namely, that there is something unjust about how the climate sink has historically been used. I suggest an alternative explanation of this common intuition according to which historically unequal consumption of climate sink capacity, whether or not wrongful in and of itself, is a symptom of broader global injustice concerning control over and access to the world’s natural resources. This broader historical injustice will be harder to quantify and harder to repair than that which the historical emission debt purports to identify.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)67-81
Number of pages15
JournalRes Publica
Issue number1
Early online date30 Mar 2016
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2016


  • climate ethics
  • global justice
  • historical responsibility
  • rectificatory justice
  • resource rights


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