Libertarians and delusionism

This post from TokyoTom deplores the fact that (TT excepted) supporters of the Austrian School, and for that matter libertarians in general, are almost universally committed to delusional views on climate science. The obvious question is why. As TT points out, there are plenty of political opportunities to use climate change to attack subsidies and other existing interventions. And the fact that the environmental movement has shifted (mostly) from profound suspicion of markets to enthusiastic support for market-based policies such as carbon taxes and cap and trade seems like a big win. Most obviously, emissions trading relies on property rights and Austrians are supposed to like property rights.

On the other hand, given the near-universal rejection of mainstream climate science, we can draw one of only three conclusions
(a) Austrians/libertarians are characterized by delusional belief in their own intellectual superiority, to the point where they think they can produce an analysis of complex scientific problems superior to that of actual scientists, in their spare time and with limited or no scientific training in the relevant disciplines, reaching a startling degree of unanimity for self-described “sceptics”
(b) Austrians/libertarians don’t understand their own theory and falsely believe that, if mainstream climate science is right, their own views must be wrong
(c) Austrians/libertarians do understand their own theory and correctly believe that, if mainstream climate science is right, their own views must be wrong

While (a) clearly has some validity, most of the comments on climate science made here by self-described Austrians and libertarians suggest that either (b) or (c) is true. But which?

The problem is complicated (but also to some extent clarified) by the bewildering variety of Austrian/libertarian sects. Starting as far out on the spectrum as we can go, it seems clear that, if mainstream climate science is correct, neither anarcho-capitalism nor paleolibertarianism can be sustained. The problem with anarcho-capitalism and other views where property rights are supposed to emerge, and be defended, spontaneously, and without a state is obvious. If states do not create systems of rights to carbon emissions, the only alternatives are to do nothing, and let global ecosystems collapse, or to posit that every person on the planet has right to coerce any other person not to emit CO2 into the atmosphere. For paleolibertarians, the fact that property rights must be produced by a new global agreement, rather than being the inherited ‘peculiar institutions’ of particular societies seems equally problematic.

For more moderate libertarians, who accept in principle that property rights are derived from the state, I think the problem is more that the creation of a large new class of property rights brings them face to face with features of their model that are generally buried in a near-mythical past.

To start with, there’s the problem of justice in the original allocation. Until now, people developed countries have been appropriating the assimilative capacity of the atmosphere as if there was always “enough and as good” left over. Now that it’s obvious this isn’t true, we need to go back and start from scratch, and this process may involve offsetting compensation which effectively reassigns some existing property rights.

Then there is the problem that the emissions rights we are talking about are, typically time-limited and conditional. But if rights created now by modern states have this property, it seems reasonable to suppose that this has always been true, and therefore that existing property rights may also be subject to state claims of eminent domain.

Overall, though I, think that acceptance of the reality of climate change would be good for libertarianism as a political movement. It would kill off the most extreme and unappealing kinds of a priori logic-chopping, while promoting an appreciation of Hayekian arguments about the power of market mechanisms. And the very fact of uncertainty about climate change is a reminder of the fatality of conceits of perfect knowledge.

This seems to be the kind of thing Tokyo Tom is talking about. But so far, it seems as if he is in a minority of one. Any others want to join him?

Note While I’d be interested in comments from libertarians on whether they think mainstream climate science is consistent with their views, comments repeating delusionist talking points will be deleted or ruthlessly edited.

338 thoughts on “Libertarians and delusionism

  1. @P.M.Lawrence
    I think hell will freeze over first PML before we see any signs of glaciation in our liftetimes here (unless we curtail the man made environmental hell we are busily creating). I dont think you can extract the amount of oil we have been extracting in the age of oil, in under 100 years, and pump the lot into the air without noticing some ill effects – and we are. Nor do I think you can invent plastics that are used in millions of ways but dont degrade effectively and expect not to notice environmental ill effects from that. Im astonished in Australia, we cant get our heads around a small iniative like banning the plastic bags or plastic drink bottles. In Germany you have been able to dump excess packaging in bins at the supermarket for decades. Not here. Even the simplest iniative is “too hard” even with Garrett in the job???

    Im old enough to recall my mother wrapping the garbage in newspaper and before her my grandmother composting waste in a bin under the sink for all those tea leave and veg peelings etc which got tipped in back of the garden.

    Its nice to think a natural cycle of a new glaciation will solve our problems with global warming but thats just wishing and hoping. We live like pigs basically, and take technologies like plastic for granted basically. Its a throw away world, and we are throwing it away.

  2. @PML, Pournelle has the paper wrong. He’s referring to this 1979 study–
    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v281/n5732/abs/281558a0.html
    –and it documents a transition from one forest type to another “within ~150 +/- 75 yr”, not “from deciduous trees to under sheet ice in well under 100 years”.

    Furthermore (p.47)–
    http://dx.doi.org/10.1006/qres.2002.2366
    –the pollen stratigraphy of the site in question doesn’t even match up with other European sites, and the apparent abruptness of the transition there may be an illusion due to local conditions (the lake dried up a bit during one stage and skipped a sedimentary layer, or something).

    Natural ice age cycles are not perfectly synchronous with the orbital shifts believed to drive them, so there must be factors internal to the Earth system which determine exactly when glaciation or deglaciation get under way. Tipping points for natural global cooling must exist; but we would be headed *away* from them right now, because of anthropogenic CO2.

  3. @Fran Barlow

    Good point – like the Heisenberg principle.

    CO2 emissions do not help but I think that it would be wrong to imply time after time that CO2 is the only environmental issue that we face.

  4. @Alice

    I don’t think you read all the way through to the end: “…if there is a natural cycle driving these things and [emphasis added] it isn’t overwhelmed, we are about due for another glaciation”.

    I didn’t say hypothetical natural ice ages would head off hypothetical man made global warming. I pointed out what the former hypothetical would lead to – if it came true and wasn’t interfered with, e.g. by the latter hypothetical coming true.

  5. @SeanG

    CO2 emissions do not help but I think that it would be wrong to imply time after time that CO2 is the only environmental issue that we face.

    Nobody says it’s the only environmental issue we face. It is however the key issue in the current climate anomaly as it is the only explanation that fits the relevant data.

  6. @P.M.Lawrence

    if there is a natural cycle driving these things …

    You presume what must be shown. Since you give no etiology for the ‘natural cycle’ which could be measured for its contribution the reference is an exercise in metaphysics and certainly without pertinence to the current climate anomaly.

  7. @mitchell porter

    Pournelle has the paper wrong… it documents a transition from one forest type to another “within ~150 +/- 75 yr”, not “from deciduous trees to under sheet ice in well under 100 years”.

    That’s a little disingenuous. Pournelle picked the lower end of the range, and the study showed the arrival somewhere nearby of the sorts of trees found nearest to permanent ice; Pournelle was talking about the ice sheet implication, not the evidence for it drawn from the remaining forest (see also the other material his correspondents just gave him). What is more, the study cited in your second link provided more support for shorter rather than longer interglacial periods.

    Natural ice age cycles are not perfectly synchronous with the orbital shifts believed to drive them, so there must be factors internal to the Earth system which determine exactly when glaciation or deglaciation get under way. Tipping points for natural global cooling must exist; but we would be headed *away* from them right now, because of anthropogenic CO2.

    Like Alice, you seem to have missed that I was making just that point at the end of my comment; see my reply to her. The overall thrust of my earlier comment was that there are indeed fast and material changes on record (quite possibly from passing tipping points), and that things might indeed interfere with it; your concluding sentences support that rather than rebutting it.

  8. @Fran Barlow

    You presume what must be shown. Since you give no etiology for the ‘natural cycle’ which could be measured for its contribution the reference is an exercise in metaphysics and certainly without pertinence to the current climate anomaly.

    Far from presuming anything, I was making it clear that it was not established. Far from being “an exercise in metaphysics”, it is highly pertinent to the question of what may lie in the geologically near future, i.e. it is something as worth looking out for, to see it as it happens, as the next quarter’s rainfall.

  9. @P.M.Lawrence
    I have only one tthing to say PML – you are confusing the “natural cycle” with the “unnatural cycle” and dont seem able to tell the difference between the two.

  10. @Fran Barlow

    This is where I disagree in two key points.

    Firstly, political capital can only be spent sparingly and it is being spent on the CO2 fixation. So on areas such as water security, desalination, releasing pollutants in seas/rivers, deforestation etc we cannot get effective political action because political capital has already been spent.

    Secondly, I am still skeptical that if we eliminate all human CO2 emissions that climate change will immediately stop. However, I agree with you that it is not doing us any good (environmentally) but that it would be foolish to waste time on an ETS when we should be focused about rebalancing our energy needs towards nuclear and renewable sources.

  11. @Alice

    No, Alice, far from making any such confusion and being unable to tell the difference, I went to some trouble to make that distinction clear first by making it and then by pointing people (including you) to it in follow up comments. But it is a distraction from the original point, that fast and material changes are indeed possible, as shown by the fact they have happened.

  12. SeanG Says:

    However, I agree with you that it is not doing us any good (environmentally) but that it would be foolish to waste time on an ETS when we should be focused about rebalancing our energy needs towards nuclear and renewable sources.

    Here we see the argument of someone who is either completely, uttery clueless, or else a willing and knowing part of the disinformation campaign.

    CO2 is bad, but we should try to reduce it by focussing on nuclear and renewable energy, as long as we don’t implement any means to achieve such a focussing (e.g. ETS)? This is not a statement that any honest, sensible person could make.

  13. @SeanG

    Firstly, political capital can only be spent sparingly and it is being spent on the CO2 fixation.

    For someone who fixates on economics, your use of ‘capital’ is poor. One deploys capital but does not ‘spend’ it. “Political capital” is really political goodwill. Yet you are wrong anyway because a focus on CO2 mitigation augments goodwill amongst those inclined to support the government. It is likely to underpin other environmental campaigns by encouraging a holistic and coherent view of the tasks/challenges of the community.

    As with your invocation of “the natural” your invocation of a “focus” on energy without an accompanying vehicle to do so is empty. You of all people should appreciate that price signals are key to driving investment decisions in non-command economies.

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