restricted access Climate Justice: Ethics, Energy, and Public Policy (review)
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Reviewed by
Climate Justice: Ethics, Energy, and Public Policy James Martin-Schramm Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010. 232 pp. $20.00

Religious ethicists are sometimes tempted to interpret climate change as symptomatic of a civilizational corruption so deep that practical responsibility seems nearly impossible. In its considered treatment of energy options and policy responses, [End Page 198] Climate Justice works to make applied Christian ethics competent to address climate change. By interpreting political possibilities with Christian commitments to justice, the book makes a distinctively practical contribution to the literature on Christianity and climate; it lifts an important theological voice in the growing subfield of climate ethics.

The book begins by elaborating the general notion of ecological justice into workable criteria. Martin-Schramm describes four basic norms of ecojustice (sustainability, sufficiency, participation, and solidarity), from which he develops twelve energy policy guidelines (e.g., equity, adequacy). He then specifies those guidelines into fourteen criteria by which to assess the justice of climate action (e.g., historical responsibility, emissions verifiability).

Subsequent chapters use those criteria to evaluate policy options. A chief difficulty in applying them lies in the tension between intergenerational and intragenerational claims. Global climate negotiations founder on disagreements about these undeveloped, plural dimensions of justice. Martin-Schramm therefore deploys criteria with a balancing objective: to develop obligations to the future while recognizing claims of the present poor and vulnerable, and while keeping the result within the bounds of North American political viability.

For example, Martin-Schramm recognizes that the criterion of historical responsibility indicates that the United States should bear about one-third of the costs of climate transition. But he finds that the resulting figure ($331 billion) so outstrips realistic acceptance that he rejects financial transfer in favor of a “national obligation wedge” in which the nation compensates by pledging to reduce future emissions. Since those emission reductions are unlikely apart from a price on carbon, Martin-Schramm argues that justice mandates a fossil fuel tax. With an eye to political viability, he proposes beginning with a modest $5/ton (for comparison, the Stern Report estimates the social costs of carbon at $85/ton).

Controversy in the details matters to the whole project because the point of Martin-Schramm’s approach is that a meaningful climate ethic should guide contextual action. Yet other accounts of climate justice will find a scandal of modesty on those contextual points. Martin-Schramm’s climate justice entails less economic transformation than the “Northern structural adjustment” demanded by the Latin American Council of Churches. It is also less ecocentric than accounts from indigenous theologians arguing that justice warrants rights for species at risk of extinction, and perhaps for Earth itself.

While Climate Justice is a self-consciously North American account, the criteria it develops would be different and work more critically were the underlying account of justice dialogically constructed across economic, political, and theological borders. Were it pragmatic, in the sense of arising from projects from across those borders, rather than applied deductively, a Christian climate ethic would likely produce an account of justice with more critical demands on industrial infrastructure and on ecological consciousness. [End Page 199]

In its self-limitation, however, lies the book’s practical promise. Martin-Schramm wants justice to illuminate effective ways toward real responsibility. His criteria for justice imply that advocating for impossible goals, or for objectives that would imperil other conditions of social justice, would amount to injustice. Making ethics matter for climate change, he shows, requires understanding what justice can do in context.

The open question for this book’s project is how a self-limited ethic of applied justice relates to the deeper processes of social transformation obviously needed for adequate response. Martin-Schramm closes with an account of his work reforming the energy economy of Luther College, which should inspire every reader with a sense of what persistent, informed, and contextual action can accomplish.

Willis Jenkins
Yale Divinity School