April 6, 2015

Libertarian Principles & Climate Change

Most libertarians who engage in the global warming debate contend—vehemently—that anything short of “just saying no” to mainstream science and public policy to address climate risk is a gross violation of nearly every principle libertarians hold dear. An examination of the arguments forwarded by anti-warming libertarians, however, finds no trace of libertarian principle at all. While it’s perfectly fine for libertarians—or anyone else for that matter—to discuss climate change without reference to an ideological playbook, there is nothing within libertarian philosophy that adds weight to the Right’s reluctance to address climate risks. Let’s consider the arguments my libertarian friends are wont to offer in this debate.

The science does not justify addressing climate risks. It should go without saying that how one feels about individual rights and liberties has nothing to do with how one interprets the scientific literature regarding atmospheric physics. Consider a summary of the evidence for concern about warming from Reason’s science correspondent, Ronald Bailey (one of the few DC libertarians who takes climate change seriously), and presumably the best summary conservative Republicans in the Senate can muster for skepticism about the same (a summary no doubt drawing in part from information offered up by libertarian activists who disagree with Bailey). As my friend Sheldon Richman has argued, how does a commitment to liberty inform how one feels about who has the stronger argument?

Libertarians are free to referee the scientific debate in any manner they wish. They are not free, however, to argue that ideological priors should have anything to do with that call. The fact that the implications of climate change are politically uncomfortable should not color how libertarians assess the underlying science (a trait, historically speaking, more common amongst conservatives than libertarians).

Restricting greenhouse gas emissions will harm the economy and put tens of thousands of jobs at risk. Why would libertarian principle compel us to care? If party A is harming party B, the fact that party A will be poorer were they to cease and desist should be neither here nor there. This argument would not resonate with libertarians in other contexts, so why should it resonate here?

Mitigating climate risks will produce fewer benefits than costs. Since when did libertarian principles dictate embracing utilitarian calculations in the course of deciding whether to protect property rights? If party A is harming party B, the contention that A gains more than B loses in the course of that transgression should not encourage libertarians to green-light rights violations.

Restricting greenhouse gas emissions will increase the size of government. According to libertarians, the purpose of government is to protect rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. If greenhouse gas emissions infringe on those considerations (as they most assuredly do if the scientific consensus regarding climate change is correct), libertarian principles demand that government should act to enjoin those rights violations.

Future generations will be far wealthier and better positioned than we are to address climate change. If present generations are imposing costs on future generations, then this is an exercise in transferring wealth from the (relatively) rich people of the future to the (relatively) poor people of today. Why should libertarians embrace those wealth transfers when they are found to be objectionable in other contexts?

Environmentalists are trying to shut-down capitalism by controlling energy markets. To whatever extent this is true, it is neither here nor there lest libertarians wish to make ad hominem argumentation a matter of ideological principle. The underlying motives of some environmentalists in the climate debate have nothing to do with whether climate change is happening, whether it is caused by industrial emissions, or whether it is imposing significant harm or the risk of significant harm.  Period.

It is unclear who has property rights in the atmosphere so there is no point in talking about rights violations associated with climate change. This is a sophisticated dodge but one that takes us down a rabbit hole. Are we to seriously entertain the idea that manufacturers “homesteaded” rights to the atmosphere during the industrial revolution? That would seem to run into John Locke’s admonition to “leave enough and as good for others when taking from the common.” If producers don’t have property rights to the atmosphere, that means they are either held by individuals or by the state. Given that it is impossible to imagine the former (at least, in any functioning manner), that leaves us with the latter. Accordingly, where exactly in libertarian philosophy is it written that it’s OK to destroy private property or put lives at risk as long as it’s done through the vehicle of the public commons?

I don’t mean to argue that libertarians should be taken to task for forwarding arguments outside of their ideological hymnals. One could make a strong argument, after all, that libertarians have little to offer to the environmental debate as libertarians. But if one wishes to carry the banner of “principle” in this conversation, those principles do not sit comfortably with the arguments forwarded by many self-described libertarians. And they certainly can’t be marshaled against those who maintain that some action to address climate change is necessary.