Justifying subsistence emissions, past and present

Published on 05 April 2019


‘One way in which normative theory can guarantee being irrelevant is to keep discussing the same formulations of the issues while the world moves on’ – H. Shue

In a number of early articles reflecting on the normative issues raised by climate change, Henry Shue argues for, and elaborates on, a set of issues which follow from the general claim that the poorest globally should not be required to take a share of the costs of mitigation. This is prima facie a very intuitive claim, and elaborated in Shue’s notoriously eloquent and impassioned style it has become a fixed point in the climate justice literature. It is the current status of his justification for this claim that I will focus on in this commentary. The world moves on, as Shue warns us, and we must be alive to the potential temporality of our theoretical commitments. Although this special edition rightly focuses one of his many conceptual contributions to the field of climate justice, Shue’s own dedication to this process of critical reflection, so visible in his work, is cause for celebration in itself.

More specifically, I will consider the extent to which Shue’s influential distinction between subsistence and luxury emissions can help justify, in our changed circumstances, why the poor should be shielded from mitigation costs. We can describe this project as an attempt to establish ‘poverty constraints’ (Gardiner, 2017: 445) on climate change policy. To be clear from the outset, we need not see this constraint as determining the ambition of our overall account of climate justice; rather, it can be viewed as expressing the minimum requirement that must be satisfied. Interestingly, this issue has generated some recent debate in the literature (Gardiner, 2017; Moellendorf, 2014), and so it is timely to have here Shue’s reflections on the subject and on the article that has had such a hold on the debate.

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