Something is missing: theoretical principles for the political handling of historical emissions. A current FWF-project is developing them. ©

Climate target negotiations are also about justice. Such negotiations are dominated by two main principles. First: 'The polluter pays' (compensatory justice). Second: Emissions permits should be distributed equally per capita (distributive justice). However the application of these principles to historical emissions poses an ethical challenge. After all, who of us living today are responsible for the often unwitting pollution caused by previous generations? And considering the current distribution of emissions, how can the fact be taken into account that the current high quality of life in some parts of the world has been established on the basis of these historical emissions? These questions were addressed in the FWF Research Project "Climate Change Justice. The Significance of Historical Emissions" at the University of Graz – and there are some surprising answers.

Intergenerational conflict

The FWF research project deals with the fundamental prerequisites for justice and climate ethics between the generations. In terms of distributive justice, for example, a team around Lukas H. Meyer identified the need to clarify some very essential questions before starting to distribute climate permits, as the spokesperson for the programme Lukas H. Meyer from the Department of Philosophy explains: "To understand why climate change is so important and how we should deal with it, we first need to clarify what kind of future we want for humankind. What sort of world do we want to try to bequeath to our descendants? What are the conditions that will shape it and what are the ethical obligations that arise from the need to secure this future?"

Including historical emissions

The work that was carried out also showed that even if there were a satisfactory response to these questions, other challenges would still remain. These would relate in particular to a just distribution of emissions permits, as Meyer states: "We need to bear in mind that emissions are a by-product of all human activities that lead to an increase in people's quality of life. However, these activities – and consequently quality of life – are not evenly distributed on our planet. The damaging consequences of the activities, on the other hand, are distributed much more evenly, as climate does not recognise national borders." The group at the University of Graz has now succeeded in demonstrating how in these circumstances the consequences of historical emissions can be systematically taken into consideration when distributing emissions permits.

Climate & ethics in a state of flux

The members of the FWF Research Project have also succeeded in acquiring new insights into and developing principles for compensatory justice. A background theory was thus developed for the polluter pays principle. This has contributed to developing something that is much needed, namely a reliable ethical basis for the application of compensatory justice to historical emissions. In addition, the group showed that cultural aspects of climate change must also be taken into account for the development of strategies to reduce emissions or to adapt these in certain political societies. The group also reasoned conclusively that climate change causes certain rights to be violated, which fundamentally justifies the compensatory measure.

Need for new concepts

The project’s results so far have been based on arguments and views in legal theory, moral philosophy and political philosophy. These arguments allowed the international team to study concepts of compensatory and distributive justice as well as responsibility and ability to act, and to put all of this in a systematic context. It was thus possible to create principles which can be used in future to examine historical emissions in the climate debate in a much more nuanced manner than before.

Personal details

Lukas H. Meyer is Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of Graz and spokesman for the FWF Doctoral Programme Climate Change: Uncertainties, Thresholds and Coping Strategies. He studied philosophy, political science and public international law at the University of Tübingen, Freie Universität Berlin, Washington University in St. Louis, Yale Law School and the University of Oxford. His area of research is moral and political philosophy. Meyer also was one of the lead authors of the IPCC's 5th Assessment Report.


Multiple carbon accounting to support just and effective climate policies
, Karl W. Steininger, Christian Lininger, Lukas H. Meyer, Pablo Muñoz and Thomas Schinko, in: Nature Climate Change, November 2015, DOI: 10.1038/nclimate2867,

Intergenerational Justice, Meyer, L., The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Symposium Intergenerational Justice and Natural Resources, in: Moral Philosophy and Politics, Meyer, L., Sanklecha, P., Zellentin, A. (2015) (Ed.), Vol. 2, 1. Berlin/ Boston. de Gruyter. 2015. Berlin. de Gruyter

Social, Economic and Ethical Concepts and Methods. In: Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Meyer, L. et al. (2014): Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.