Climate justice?


Three decades ago, Jon Elster wrote Local Justice: How Institutions Allocate Scarce Goods and Necessary Burdens (1992, Russell Sage Foundation: New York). It’s of interest today because one of its enduring points has been that not only can local justice systems lead to global injustice, global justice systems can lead to local injustices. I end with a pastoralism illustration.

First, his definitions:

Local justice can be contrasted with global justice. Roughly speaking, globally redistributive policies are characterized by three features. First, they are designed centrally, at the level of the national government. Second, they are intended to compensate people for various sorts of bad luck, resulting from the possession of ’morally arbitrary properties.’ Third, they typically take the form of cash transfers [e.g., think reparations]. Principles of local justice differ on all three counts. They are designed by relatively autonomous institutions which, although they may be constrained by guidelines laid down by the center, have some autonomy to design and implement their preferred scheme. Also, they are not compensatory, or only partially so. A scheme for allocating scarce medical resources may compensate patients for bad medical luck, but not for other kinds of bad luck (including the bad luck of being turned down for another scarce good). Finally, local justice concerns allocation in kind of goods (and burdens), not of money.

Elster (1992, p4)

The semi-autonomous institutions are local in three senses: arena, country and locality. Different arenas, such as organ transplantation, college admissions and job layoffs, follow different principles: “Need is central in allocating organs for transplantation, merit in admitting students to college and seniority in selecting workers for layoffs” in the US. Allocative principles vary by country as well: “In many European countries, need (as measured by number of family dependents) can be a factor in deciding which workers to lay off”. Lastly, allocative principles can also vary by locality within the same country or arena, as with the case of local transplantation centers in the US.

In short, complexity in local justice systems comes not just from the fact that the goods are scarce, heterogeneous and in kind and that the sites of allocation may well be local in multiple senses. Local justice systems vary also because principles are tied to complex (and not always certain) arrays of criteria, mechanisms, procedures, and schemes.


Local justice systems have clear implications. Not only are they not designed to compensate for global injustices, they can actually lead to those injustices:

From childhood to old age, [the individual] encounters a succession of institutions, each of which has the power to give or deny him some scarce good. In some cases the cumulative impact of these decisions may be grossly unfair. We can easily imagine an individual who through sheer bad luck is chosen for all the necessary burdens and denied all the scarce goods, because in each case he is just below the cutoff point of selection. To my knowledge this source of injustice has not been recognized so far…. Those who are entrusted with the task of allocating a scarce good rarely if ever evaluate recipients in the light of their past successes or failures in receiving other goods. Local justice is largely noncompensatory. There is no mechanism of redress across allocative spheres….

[B]y the nature of chance events, some individuals will miss every train: they are turned down for medical school, chosen by the draft lottery, laid off by the firm in a recession, and refused scarce medical resources; in addition, their spouse develops cancer, their stocks become worthless, and their neighborhood is chosen for a toxic waste dump. It is neither desirable nor possible to create a mechanism of redress to compensate all forms of cumulative bad luck. For one thing, the problems of moral hazard would be immense [i.e. if people knew they were going to be compensated for whatever happened to them, they could take more risks and thereby incur more harm]. For another, the machinery of administering redress for bad luck would be hopelessly complex and costly.

(Ibid 133-4)

If so, local justice clearly can lead to global injustice.


But just as clearly from a local justice perspective, the global justice promised in, say, climate justice (e.g., via reparations), leads to local injustices, when the former is implemented uniformly over an otherwise differentiated landscape. One thinks immediately of how to define an “extreme event” that triggers automatic debt relief.

To expand, the more uniform the application of climate justice policies, the greater the local pressure for suitably heterogeneous applications, if not alternatives. But the more heterogeneous on the ground, the greater the chance of global injustice arising from lack of coordination and cross-learning on the ground.

In this way, just as it is not possible for local justice systems to compensate for the global injustices they create, so too it may well not be possible for global justice systems to compensate for the local injustices they create, at least in any timely way or coverage.


So what? For one thing, the continued insistence that global climate justice involves money transfers (as distinct from in-kind compensation typical of local justice systems) ends up further monetarizing a global environment that local systems take to be quite otherwise.

In so doing and arguably much more important, the insistence obscures the huge importance of in-kind compensations at the local level. Think here of the livestock sharing systems (e.g., khlata in Tunisia and mafisa in Botswana). These are local justice systems irrespective of the livestock involved being methane producers from the global climate perspective. Indeed, I can’t think of a better example of global climate justice at odds with local justice systems, globally.

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