The Libertarian Climate Conundrum

According the first principle of the Libertarian Party 2010 platform, "No individual, group, or government may initiate force against any other individual, group, or government."  This is extended to personal property in the second principle, "Property rights are entitled to the same protection as all other human rights."  

CATO, a notable Libertarian policy advising body, describes the ice melt and seal level rise problem in Chapter 45 "Global Warming and Climate Change" of the Cato Handbook for Policymakers, 7th Edition (2009), as such:

The 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC (which was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize along with Gore) projects sea-level rise of between 9 and 19 inches in the 21st century, for its ‘‘midrange’’ estimate of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.  

*(grypo's note: These projections are overly conservative, now obsolete, and under scrutiny moving forward to AR5, as RealClimate illustrates)

The chapter goes to make other popular skeptic arguments, detailed here at SkS, such as, It has stopped warming and It's not Bad.  Disregarding whether this may be the case, an adherence to basic Libertarian principles creates an ethical quandary.  And this is the problem that Jonathan Adler, noted Libertarian law professor, tries to balance in his paper, Taking Property Rights Seriously: The Case of Climate Change.  He states:

[I]t is not clear that the proper conservative or libertarian response to the threat of global warming is “do nothing.” To the contrary, this essay suggests, the consistent application of a stated commitment to property rights requires a complete rethinking of the conventional conservative and libertarian approach to climate change.

Later on, he responds to question of small changes in sea level:

[T]hose countries flooded by such an increase in sea level should not be forced to bear such costs if they are the foreseeable consequence of polluting activities by others.

Here is another example taken directly from another CATO publication, "What To Do About Climate Change", by Indur M. Goklany.

Through 2085, human well-being is likely to be highest under the richest-but-warmest (A1FI) scenario and lowest for the poorest (A2) scenario. Matters may be best in the A1FI world for some critical environmental indicators through 2100, but not necessarily for others. Either focused adaptation or broad pursuit of sustainable development would provide far greater benefits than even the deepest mitigation—and at no greater cost than that of the barely effective Kyoto Protocol.

Once again, setting aside that this argument does not assess the full range of possibilities and risk, is this really a libertarian argument?  Or is it a utilitarian one?  Is it consistent with the first two principles described by The Libertarian Party's platform?  Jonathan Adler says:

Such utilitarian analyses may be accurate, but they are not particularly responsive to the property-rights concern that underlies FME [free-market environmentalism]. Whether or not a given climate change policy would maximize net social welfare or have net positive effects on important social trends is less important than safeguarding the system of property rights upon which FME relies.

So how do Libertarians deal with the problem of climate change?  There is the possibility that particular people are ignoring the science, which, if that is the case, the IPCC and SkS are the best places to start reading.  Or there is the CATO approach of denying the existence of the upper bound effects and paying no attention to the possible risks, but even this method of cherry-picking still implies that the use of fossil fuels here will affect other persons and property elsewhere, violating the first two principles of the Libertarian platform. Furthermore, as a recent study says, adding to the already extensive literature, "populations contributing the most to greenhouse gas emissions on a per capita basis are unlikely to experience the worst impacts of climate change, satisfying the conditions for a moral hazard in climate change policies", supplying yet another dimension to the ethical problem.

What does Jonathan Adler suggest the free market environmentalists do to alleviate the issue?  One idea, he borrowed from a noted climate scientist:

A Fee-and-Dividend approach would be more transparent, less vulnerable to special interest pleading, more conducive to investment in technological innovation (because it would avoid the price volatility produced by cap-and-trade), would be easier to implement within existing trade rules (and would not require a new international agreement for this purpose), and — if implemented as Hansen suggests — be less costly to most Americans. (Emphasis mine)

Yes, a Libertarian agrees with James Hansen's free market approach to dealing with climate change.

So, as the evidence accumulates in past observations, present observations, and future predictions in accordance with theory and basic physical reality, how does the Libertarian resolve this dilemma of property rights and individual liberty?  How long can Libertarians place faith in a no consequences result from climate change?  Is there any law system in play at the moment that can deal with these issues on a global basis?  The answer is obviously, no.  

I would suggest they listen more to Jonathan Adler and less to policy handbooks from corporate funded Washington DC think tanks.  I would suggest they research real free market solutions that deal with the first principles of Libertarian thought.  Otherwise, this policy argument will move on without them.  It's time for Libertarians to get on board and bring their principles along too.


Chapter 45 "Global Warming and Climate Change" of the Cato Handbook for Policymakers, 7th Edition, 2009

Taking Property Rights Seriously: The Case of Climate Change, Jonathan Adler 2009

Geographic disparities and moral hazards in the predicted impacts of climate change on human populations, J. Samson et al. 2011

What To Do About Climate Change, Indur M. Goklany 2008

Further reading for libertarians on climate change policy:

Tokyo Tom "Towards a productive libertarian approach on climate, energy and environmental issues"  

Posted by grypo on Monday, 21 March, 2011

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