Collective Domination : Kantian political theory and anthropogenic climate change

In this doctoral thesis, I develop a Kantian political theory for anthropogenic climate change. I argue that human-induced climatic changes are a form of collective domination. My analysis adds an outspokenly democratic perspective to the public debate on climate change, which is increasingly marked by a new distrust in democracy.

I first emphasise the need for a political theory of climate change. Climate change raises many important normative questions: How serious a problem is climate change and why? What is a just and equitable answer to climate change? Who is responsible for tackling climate change? Many answers, often opposing, have been offered. Opposition often results from deeply engrained disagreements over appropriate ethical standards. To avoid imposing our own views on these important questions, however well-conceived we think they are, an approach is needed that guides our normative theorising under the condition of this de facto disagreement over ethical standards. While normative political theory is specifically tailored to operate under this condition, I contend that a Kantian political theory provides an especially compelling way to do so.

At the heart of Kantian political theory is the notion of domination. However, the process of adapting the Kantian notion of domination to climate change faces an important challenge. We are accustomed to thinking of domination in terms of the paradigm example of a master–slave relationship. The relationship that climate change establishes among various agents differs, however, from this paradigm example in two significant ways. First, the relevant agents will almost certainly never meet each other (indirect relationship), and, second, individual agents cannot bring about the dominating climatic changes on their own (collective relationship). Therefore, I advance an additional understanding of the notion of force that is geared towards the indirect nature of climate change. Drawing on the philosophical debate about coercion and the literature on forced migration, I argue that it is through changes to the option-set of a rational agent that climatic changes and, thus, the agents who cause them, exert force. This rendering of force sheds a clear light on the conceptual basis for speaking of forced climate displacement and provides a striking instance of domination as Kantians understand it.

Finally, I develop an understanding of the collective nature of climate change. I argue that the normativity of individual emissions of greenhouse gases, such as through a sunny Sunday afternoon joyride, is different from other trivial cases of wrongdoing, such as delivering a kick to the shins. While the debate on this question has been focused almost exclusively on quantitative aspects of the respective causal chains that link the individual actions to the harm they cause, I contend that their difference lies in a neglected qualitative feature: Contrary to the harm done in more trivial cases, climate harm is a non-aggregative outcome. It is, therefore, a wrong that is committed not by you or me, but by us collectively.

It is the political wrong of domination that Kantian political theory seeks to identify. History provides us with many examples of only poorly disguised faces of domination. I argue that our unprecedented ability to change the climate is yet another face of domination, even though it may be less apparently so. It is here that the proposed analysis emphatically reasserts a democratic perspective on climate change. Climate domination can be overcome only if we ensure that the opposing views of every person are taken into account when answering the important normative questions climate change raises. Thus, a Kantian political theory account of climate change urges us to place the question of transnational and intergenerational democracy at the top of our agenda. The resulting political theory of climate change can be read as adding a new facet to a critique that was introduced as early as 1991 by Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain and was directed at what they defiantly labelled as ‘environmental colonialism’.


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