Libertarians and global warming
I had a set-to with Jonathan Adler of Volokh about DDT recently, so I was pleased to note this piece on free-market environmentalism and climate change, which makes a number of points I’d been thinking about following debates over at the Australian Libertarian blog. Rather than recapitulate Adler’s post, I’ll make a number of points of my own regarding the response of (most, though not all) libertarians to climate change, which I think are in the same spirit:
* First, I’m a bit surprised to find libertarians mostly on the wrong side of this debate. Global climate change is one of the few instances where lots of environmentalists (not all, by any means) are supporting a property-rights based solution (tradeable emissions permits), despite starting from a position (in the leadup to Kyoto) of almost uniform opposition to anything that didn’t rely primarily on direct and detailed regulation. it seems as if the ideological opponents are upset because the government-created nature of the property rights in question will be self-evident, rather than obscured by a century or two of history.
* I’m struck by the reliance of most libertarian critics, such as Indur Goklany, who debates Adler here, on consequentialist benefit-cost arguments in favor of climate inaction. As Adler says, it seems odd to find libertarians saying that it’s OK, for example, to completely wipe out the property of Pacific Island nations, on the basis that there will be a net social benefit for the world as a whole from doing so.
* If emission permit trading is rejected on ideological grounds (I can’t exactly figure out what these are, but I’m not well equipped to arbitrate on ideological disputes among libertarians) it doesn’t seem as if any the other solutions commonly proposed by the FME camp are applicable. Take for example the Coasian favorite of tort action. For a global congestion problem, this would require everyone in the world to sue everyone else, presumably in some newly created world court (Goklany disputes this, saying, in effect “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, a principle that renders any sort of response to pollution impossible)
* This has led lots of libertarians, and others on the right, to write as if the mainstream scientific view on global warming renders libertarianism untenable, or, more succinctly “global warming equals socialism”. If only it were so easy! Even it the scientific evidence weren’t overwhelming, it’s surely a big problem for a political viewpoint if its viability depends upon assumptions about cloud feedbacks. As I’ve said, I don’t think any such concession is necessary. A successful response to global warming is vitally important, but it doesn’t imply (or, I should note, preclude) radical changes to the existing social order.
fn1. This is from a conservative, not a libertarian, but the same sentiment is evident among many libertarians.