One of the biggest challenges humanity has ever been confronted with, is the transition towards a low-carbon society and economy. One reason why this transition has many opponents is that it has very adverse consequences for various agents. Many producers and consumers see their plans and investments being ruined if the climate transition would succeed. While a lot of attention is paid to the agents that benefit from this transition, the losers of the climate transition are often overlooked. They are left disappointed, “lost in transition”. Are they entitled to any form of compensation, assistance or apology? What are their unfulfilled expectations worth?

God has provided us with the best possible world he could create, but there is still a lot of work to be done. There is no natural law that guarantees happiness or justice. To create an “earthly paradise” – or at least to make the best possible place of this world – we have to roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves. Sometimes we need to drastically change the world or the way we live and unleash a transition.

An example from the past of a large-scale transition to a better and more just world is the transition towards anti-apartheid. Apartheid refers to a system of racial segregation that governed South Africa for nearly 50 years, established in 1948 under the National Party. Apartheid protected the dominance of white South Africans over non-whites in every aspect of life. The Boycott Movement, founded in 1959 and later renamed the Anti-Apartheid Movement, tried to abolish the apartheid regime by boycotting the South African economy. Consumers were asked not to buy South African products. The United Nations supported the movement and made an international trade boycott of it. Student protests, hunger strikes, sit-ins and the seizure of buildings put pressure on institutions to divest their holdings in companies doing business in South Africa. Apartheid ended in 1994, when Nelson Mandela was elected as the president in the first democratic elections.[1] [2] [3] Another example is provided by the tobacco industry, which knew a great decline when in the mid 20th century, scientists discovered the negative health effects of tobacco smoking, like lung and throat cancer. Sensibilization, the availability of substitute products such as nicotine patches, nicotine gum and vape pens, the monitoring of tobacco use and prevention policies, the protection of people from tobacco smoke, the offering of help to quit tobacco use, warnings about the dangers of tobacco, bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship and raised taxes on tobacco, etc. plummeted the value of tobacco industries.[4] [5]

One of the greatest transitions that humanity is facing right now and on which I will focus further in this piece is the transition to a low-carbon society. Just as the tobacco industry was confronted with the consequences of tobacco consumption, the world is now confronted with the consequences of CO2 emissions and global warming: extreme weather conditions, devastated habitats, higher sea level levels, drought, crop failures, heat waves, increased risk of diseases, etc. While people used to be concerned about the scarcity of fossil fuels (oil in particular), the question now is how to deal with the fact that two-thirds of the available fossil fuels must stay in the ground to keep global warming compared to pre-industrial keep levels below 2°C.[6]

The transition to a low-carbon society is causing major losses for various agents. Hence, despite the indisputable scientific consensus, some deny the dangers of global warming, or at least the human responsibility for them. The losers of the transition to a climate-friendly world are numerous. Many states and companies that have coal, oil, or gas reserves have already made plans and investments to dig up reserves and make new explorations. Industries that transport and process the reserves and potential users of these energy sources also make huge losses.[7] [8] [9] The question arises what they are owed. Are these agents entitled to compensation, extra time to adjust, apologies or any other form of assistance? This is not only a matter of justice. A clear answer could contribute to political decision-making and the success of the transition.[10]

Protecting the original position of these agents is called grandfathering. The term has its origins in the transition away from racism in the 19th century in the southern United States. After the Civil War, it was no longer allowed for southern American states to use black people as slaves. In response, they imposed the Jim Crow laws, local laws that tried to protect the former white supremacy and racist structure of society. These laws imposed literacy and property restrictions on voting. They were intended to prevent former black slaves and their descendants from voting. However, since the aforementioned restrictions also discriminated illiterate and poor whites, they introduced exceptions for people whose ancestors or ‘grandfathers’ possessed a voting right.[11] Despite the racist origins of the notion, it does not have a negative connotation and it is often considered as legitimate. Think, for instance – now that we are talking about grandfathers – of changing retirement benefits. Because of economic or demographic changes, it could be necessary for a state to change its retirement benefits system, for instance by raising the age at which people can retire. Very often, a transitory regime is adopted at the same time, in the form of grandfathering for those who are already retired, and a phase-in period for those who would have retired soon.[12]

Some losers of the climate transition also claim an arrangement that protects their original position. When closing coal and lignite power stations, the German government provided 4.35 billion euros in compensation this year for the operators of these power stations. Rather than moral considerations, fear of protest seems to drive this decision.[13] Another example can be found in Norway, where the parliament decided to withdraw its financial support for oil explorations in the Lofoten Islands in the Arctic Ocean. No compensation or assistance was offered. The Norwegian Oil and Gas Association protested, “The whole industry is surprised and disappointed. The parliament did not provide the predictability we depend on”.[14] Also at a global level, developed countries, who are considered to be primarily responsible for reducing emissions because of their large historical footprint and/or ability to do so, claim that they are entitled to a larger share of the remaining budget because of the expectations they have created.[15] [16] Finally, on an individual level, many people consider it unjust that, for example, against their expectations, they are no longer allowed to enter low-emission zones if their car emits too much.[17] Do these people have a point? Does that also apply to the other agents I mentioned?

Having reliable expectations is very important in life. Expectations help us to make plans and achieve goals. That does not mean that we have to fulfill everyone’s expectations all the time. That would be an impossible task. What we do have to avoid, however, is creating false expectations. By saddling someone up with a false expectation, we are harming that person. The false expectation could let the person make useless plans and investments and leave him or her with costs that he or she would otherwise not have had. Therefore, for the transition to a low-carbon economy to proceed fairly, we must create right expectations and if this has not been done in the past, this has to be compensated by those who are responsible for creating those false expectations.

The car drivers who are no longer allowed to enter the city may claim that the state is responsible for their incorrect expectations. The lack of warnings or a consistent and transparent climate policy can legitimize their expectations. Norwegian oil companies can criticize their state in a similar way. After all, states are powerful structures that have a lot of control over the legislation they impose. If certain regulations have been in place for decades and no signals of change have been given, it is legitimate for individuals and companies to expect these regulations to continue in the near future.

For developed countries that want more emission rights or compensation, the argument makes less sense. States that suffer great losses from the transition to a climate-friendly world could claim less easily that they were saddled up with false expectations. After all, who could have done this? There is no highly centralized regulatory body at the international level. The regulatory institutions of the European Union or the United Nations are relatively weak compared to the regulatory power of states. Expectations about future climate regulations or their absence cannot be legitimized on the basis of previous acts by the EU or UN.[18] In addition, states, more than individuals or companies, can be assumed to have investigated the dangers of global warming and the need for a transition. After all, the dangers of climate change have been known since 1990.[19] These losers of the climate transition, therefore, are responsible themselves for their losses.

In order to complete the necessary climate transition and other transitions in a just and successful way, it is important to pay attention to the losers of these transitions too. Many of them claim to be entitled to compensation for their losses or extra time to adjust. The “legitimate expectations” of these agents are a possible avenue to substantiate these claims, but they do not work as a justification in all cases. Sometimes, the expectations of these agents are indeed legitimate, but often, transitional losers are responsible themselves for their unfulfilled expectations and the associated losses.

[1] Byrnes, M. (2013). Life in Apartheid-Era South Africa. CityLab.

[2] Matravers, M. (2017). Legitimate Expectations in Theory, Practice, and Punishment. Moral Philosophy and Politics, 4(2), 307–323.

[3] Schönteich, M., & Boshoff, H. (2003). ‘Volk’ Faith and Fatherland The Security Threat Posed by the White Right: Vol. Chapter 2: Evolution of the white right.

[4] Czajka, B. (2019, september 10). Is it the End of the Tobacco Industry? GlobalEDGE.

[5] WHO Tobacco Free Initiative. (2015). The economic and health benefits of tobacco taxation. WHO.

[6] IPCC. (2018). Summary for Policymakers.

[7] McGlade, C., & Ekins, P. (2015). The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2 °C. Nature, 517(7533), 187–190.

[8] Lenferna, G. A. (2018). Can we equitably manage the end of the fossil fuel era? Energy Research & Social Science, 35, 217–223.

[9] Heede, R., & Oreskes, N. (2016). Potential emissions of CO2 and methane from proved reserves of fossil fuels: An alternative analysis. Global Environmental Change, 36, 12–20.

[10] Marianne Fay, S. H. (2015). Decarbonizing Development.

[11] Damon, M., Cole, D. H., Ostrom, E., & Sterner, T. (2019). Grandfathering: Environmental Uses and Impacts. Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, 13(1), 23–42.

[12] Colla, A.-F. (2017). Elements for a General Theory of Legitimate Expectations—Dimensions. Moral Philosophy and Politics, 4(2), 283–305.

[13] Wettengel, J. (2020, januari 31). Spelling out the coal exit – Germany’s phase-out plan. Clean Energy Wire.

[14] The Independent. (2019, april 9). Norway refuses to drill for billions of barrels of oil in Arctic, leaving ‘whole industry surprised and disappointed’.

[15] Wesley, E., & Peterson, F. (1999a). The Ethics of Burden-Sharing in the Global Greenhouse. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 11(3), 167–196.

[16] Meyer, L. H., & Sanklecha, P. (2014). How legitimate expectations matter in climate justice. Politics, Philosophy & Economics, 13(4), 369–393.

[17] Meyer, L. H., & Sanklecha, P. (2011). Individual Expectations and Climate Justice. Analyse & Kritik, 33(2), 449–471.

[18] Klabbers, J. (2013), International Law, Cambridge University Press.

[19] Gosseries, A. (2004). Historical Emissions and free riding.