GHG emission mitigation solutions - a challenge for the Right?
Posted on 22 August 2011 by scaddenp
This article is an enlargement on a comment I made here on the "Are you are genuine skeptic or a climate denier" thread. It concerns the thorny issue of right-wing political values and climate change, but rather than discuss the politics, I am interested in possible solutions to GHG mitigation that don't offend the political Right.
In particuar, I've been thinking pretty hard about the question of mitigation policies for libertarians. Scratch a skeptic and you tend to find a right-wing/conservative. Furthermore, I struggled to find libertarians that are not somewhere on the not-happening/not-us/not-bad spectrum. The conundrum faced was discussed here by Grypo along with some solutions from libertarian thinkers which didn't find favour with commentators. While I guess that it's possible that right-wing genes somehow provide a better understanding of climate physics than climate scientists have, it seems more likely to me that a clash with political ideology inhibits a proper evaluation of scientific evidence. Some of this might be simply a conservative resentment of a changing world, but I am hypothesising that for many (most?), the first inkling of global warming comes from hearing about an unacceptable proposed solution. If it is better to mitigate GHG emissions rather than adapt to rapid climate change (which certainly appears to be the case), then we need effective proposals that don't offend these values.
I am taking right-libertarian political theory in a nutshell to be:
- The right to individual liberty of action providing it does not infringe on the rights of other rights-respecting citizens.
- Individual responsibility for the consequences of these actions.
- Government is as minimal as possible with roles of protection from external aggression, maintenence of legal system to enforce contracts, and such police as needed to protect citizens from rights violation by theft, fraud or force.
The solutions to climate change most acceptable to this group are ones that also promote the libertarian agenda. Suggestions I have heard so far include insurance companies regulating safety and privatization of roads with appropriate cost. Unfortunately, these mostly dont seem to be very effective solutions - they depend on somehow getting alternative energy costs below coal without raising coal price to be effective. But what if you can't? The problem is that the costs of producing power from coal don't include external and future costs, but there is no easy mechanism that I can think of for adding in uncertain future costs. What does right wing political theory do in these cases?
"Cap and trade" attempts to add these cost to carbon emissions, but it is an anathema to the Right for which it is designed to appease (even though cap and trade was originally an invention of free market conservatives). It is quite rightly pointed out that these schemes are complex and costly to administer with abundant opportunities for cheating, even with Big Government oversight. Pigovian taxes (much like Hansen's "fee and dividend" scheme) are another possibility but these also don't seem to find much favour.
Another popular proposal is to leave it to market to solve the problem with more energy-efficient products. This also fails the test of effectiveness. There is only so much that be gained from improving efficiency and market forces have already pushed many technologies (like planes) to close to their theoretical limits. In the USA, less than one quarter of energy use is residential anyway, and only about one third of that drives gadgets. Transportation, industry, and commerce are roughly equal consumers of the rest. Focusing on personal energy use will not effect major saving except in transport.
Killing subsidies on fossil fuels should be a no-brainer - in fact killing all industry subsidies and returning the savings as reduced taxes should be more than acceptable, since subsidies imply coercive support of government-favoured industries. Libertarian think-tanks like Heartland and Cato Institute should be waving this banner, but I suspect that subsidy removal would cut deeply into the pockets of important donors to these institutions. A bigger sticking point, however, is likely to be that subsidy removal is proposed by a Democrat president.
Government action is portrayed as theft of the rights of fossil fuel-rich property holders, but is their situation any different from asbestos-containing property holders? Our knowledge of the ill effects to the public has improved in both cases (and both cases, met with industry denial).
As far as I can see, libertarian theory struggles with issues where the free action of many individuals results in a violation of the rights of another. Examples would be passive smoking, pollution control, and yes, climate change. How can a citizen with say, a lung condition, sue those who choose to smoke in public, or not buy emissions-control for their vehicles? No one individual is at fault, and no mechanism exists for rights protection that I can see. It is interesting to see libertarians responding with denial of the adverse health effects caused by passive smoking, too.
Government action is permitted by the Right in the case of external aggression, so it seems self-preservation values override those of liberty. This I think explains the ghoulish preoccupation by AGW-activists with ice-melt and extreme weather. They are trying to trigger a self-preservation response. But suppose your country won't suffer too badly under the effects of climate change, and the really bad stuff happens elsewhere? Does rights-respecting only apply to citizens of your country? Your state even? If not, then how is this rights-conflict arbitrated? Do libertarians truly think that one group of people are free to create a problem while others should pay the cost of adaption?
In an ideal world, it should be possible for a person to choose to take no mitigating action in belief that science is wrong, provided that person is also willing to take their share of the responsibility for liabilities for adaption and compensation. However, I cant think of any mechanism by which this could work for a multi-generational problem like climate change. People object to paying for the "sins of their fathers" (though the same people appear to be quite happy to pass the costs to another generation).
This is a tough problem. We are born with a desire to do what we like and an instinct for self-preservation, whereas respecting others' rights and taking responsibility are learned behaviours. I would really like Right-wing supporters, and libertarians in particular, to face up to the problems above with some workable solutions instead of denying such problems exist. Solutions that would get whole-hearted support are needed, and for that I think values other than liberty/preservation need to be invoked.
So here is the challenge:
If you were convinced (this is a hypothetical question) that it was cheaper to mitigate GHG emissions than to adapt to rapid warming, what effective methods of doing this are compatible with your political values?
My definition of "effective" would be something equivalent to phasing out coal-fired generation over a period of 30-50 years but I am open to alternatives. Anything that would hold CO2 below 450ppm really.
If a skeptic cannot this (or the answer is "none, I'd rather pay the cost"), then it is hard to accept that their skepticism is truly based on a dispassionate appraisal of the scientific evidence.