President Biden has expressed a commitment to making equity a guiding principle in domestic policy formation. When applied to climate policy, it may help eliminate major obstacles to getting our own house in order. But equity concerns may be a greater barrier when it comes to international negotiations: Poorer countries are demanding that it be an overarching consideration in evaluating policies not only within but across national boundaries.

The image to the right gets to the nub of the problem. Equality should not be confused with equity. Equality means that we all have access to the same tools and opportunities (ladders of equal height). This approach would be fine if all parties were to have the same access to the same underlying foundations: healthcare, education, jobs, shelter, and the other trappings of wellbeing. The higher ladder corrects for inequality. It gives the disadvantaged a step up, in effect leveling the playing field.

Domestically, one need look no further than the plight of coal miners or autoworkers for examples of what the President has in mind. Moving away from coal and oil will eliminate traditional jobs in these and related industries. The communities where workers live will also be adversely affected. Does America not owe some debt to those who helped power the post-World War II economic boom?

Facing up to past recalcitrance

Then there are the negative impacts from rising energy prices on disposable income. These impacts will be particularly hard-felt by those who are but one paycheck away from poverty. Through no fault of their own, they will bear a disproportionate burden from our past political recalcitrance.

The issue is how to cushion the blow. Policymakers have a number of tools at their disposal, ranging from market-based instruments to so-called command-and-control approaches. These can be used not only to discourage fossil fuel use, but also to address ensuing issues of equity. For example, with market-based instruments (e.g., carbon taxes, and cap and trade), the resulting revenue can be recycled back into the economy in a manner that compensates those most disadvantaged.

A command-and-control approach is more prescriptive. In this case, redress would lie in the hands of government agencies to fashion programs to retrain affected workers, compensate impacted communities, and help those most harmed by higher prices at the gas pump and in their monthly utility bills.

Most likely a combination of the two approaches will be needed. Addressing issues of equity will not be easy, however, and there are many political “third-rails.” Matching the supply and demand for jobs will entail careful coordination between the private and public sectors. The effects on surrounding communities will be complex. And even a small redistribution of income will likely be met with fierce resistance. Bipartisan leadership, sorely missing in recent years, will be required. But the alternative is unacceptable – inaction on the climate change problem, a “lose-lose” situation for all.

Global needs raise complex challenges

The meaning of fairness is further complicated at the international level. The first wave of the industrial revolution was powered by cheap and abundantly available fossil fuels, with planetary warming an unintended by-product. Now those aspiring to a standard of living similar to their wealthier neighbors are being asked to abandon fossil fuels in favor of cleaner but perhaps more expensive alternatives.

Again, the issue is how to cushion the blow. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has called upon wealthier countries to help their poorer neighbors in the transition to a carbon-free future. This action would require transfers of capital (financial and technological) to other countries. Unless agreement can be found on what constitutes equitable burden-sharing, international negotiations may grind to a halt.

For those who say we will just wait them out, bear in mind that climate change may not be as high on some countries’ lists of priorities. Particularly, the poorest who understandably are likely to be concerned with more pressing worries such as immediate survival.

Then there is also the issue of our access to adaptation possibilities.

Moreover, there is sufficient warming baked into the climate system to cause considerable harm. In adapting to these inevitable changes, how should the pain from past procrastination be distributed? Many countries lack access to adaptive capacity that the wealthier can muster. For example, they cannot build multi-billion-dollar sea walls to safeguard against rising oceans in order to protect life, property, and valuable ecosystems. Nor do they have the resources to ensure widespread deployment of vaccines and needed therapeutics to guard against climate-sensitive diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, and dengue and Zika viruses.

Furthermore, many people live in countries where the political leadership is struggling to maintain civil order. Only limited resources are available to meet the most basic needs of the population of a failing state. Climate change can significantly exacerbate such existing political instability, potentially leading to the development of regional conflicts and hundreds of millions of environmental refugees. In these circumstances, controlling greenhouse emissions falls even lower on national priorities.

So, whether it is reducing global warming or ameliorating the harm inflicted by past intransigence, we face daunting challenges. Equity must be a primary concern not only in domestic, but also in international policy formation. The expression “helping thy neighbor” is usually reserved for our fellow citizens, but if developed countries fail to help poorer countries, the global effort to control warming will falter. Close attention to this issue by the administration and the Congress is essential. Equitable climate policies are not only the right thing to do – they are also in our own national self-interest.


Richard Richels served as lead author for multiple chapters of the IPCC in the areas of mitigation, impacts and adaptation from 1992 through 2014. He also served on the National Assessment Synthesis Team for the first US National Climate Assessment.

Henry D. Jacoby is the William F. Pounds Professor of Management, Emeritus in the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management and former Co-Director of the M.I.T. Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, which is focused on the integration of the natural and social sciences and policy analysis in application to the threat of global climate change.

Benjamin Santer is an atmospheric scientist who has worked on all five previous Scientific Assessment Reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Gary Yohe is the Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He served as convening lead author for multiple chapters and the Synthesis Report for the IPCC from 1990 through 2014 and was Vice-Chair of the Third US National Climate Assessment.