Climate Change, COVID-19, Justice, and Quality of Life
Abstract: Justice would appear to require that those who are the principal beneficiaries of a history of economic and political behavior that has resulted in harmful global climate change should bear a correspondingly large share of the burden in contending with these harms worldwide. At the same time, however, a prevalent material conception of quality of life has led many to assume that taking on this burden would require diminishing the quality of life—and associated level of well-being or happiness—enjoyed in the most-developed countries. For such societies fully to accept this burden therefore seems unlikely to achieve the social and political support it would need. However, I will argue that a material conception of quality of life is at odds with what can be learned from an extensive body of evidence regarding “subjective well-being”—an imperfect though informative empirical measure of how people experience and evaluate their lives. This evidence suggests an account of the sources and nature of subjective well-being that is compatible with more sustainable levels of resource utilization and more equitable global distribution. The COVID-19 pandemic can be seen as a stress-test for responses to global climate change, and it has witnessed wide differences in the health outcomes for countries that are not simply a function of the level of material wealth or available technological or medical resources. Effective social policies, institutions, and practices have been accompanied by better and fairer health outcomes with less disruption of daily life, suggesting that the purported “health vs. economy” or “health vs. personal freedom” trade-offs in the most-developed societies have been misconceived. Might something similar be true of the supposed costs to the quality of life of more effective environmental policies and practices on the part of the most-developed societies?