Climatic Change 130 (3):335–345 (2015)

David R. Morrow
American University
Disagreements about morally appropriate mitigation policies arise in part from implicit disagreements about the nature and moral significance of needs. One key question is what, if anything, distinguishes “needs” from “mere wants.” One approach, prominent in economics and implemented in existing integrated assessment models of climate change, rejects a hard distinction between needs and wants. An alternative approach, prominent in the philosophical literature on needs, identifies needs with the requirements for autonomous agency, which is the capacity to set and pursue one’s own goals. A second key question is in what sense, if any, the satisfaction of needs should take precedence over the satisfaction of wants. Those who reject the distinction between wants and needs can say only that some desires should be weighted more heavily than others. Those who endorse the distinction can say that, given certain ethical assumptions, it is wrong to frustrate one person’s needs in order to satisfy others’ mere wants. Thus, rejecting the distinction between wants and needs tends to justify less aggressive mitigation policies, in which satisfying the so-called “wants” of present generations compensates for frustrating the so-called “needs” of future generations. Endorsing the distinction between wants and needs, along with certain ethical assumptions, tends to justify more aggressive mitigation policies. Both positions are intellectually defensible; understanding them helps illuminate disagreements over mitigation policy.
Keywords climate change  climate justice  mitigation
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