The purpose of this post will be to tie together some ideas I've been toying around with in other posts, in order to start working towards a coherent introduction to my thesis on the libertarian approach to thinking about climate change. Here goes nothing.
Moving Past the Science
As a group, libertarians have not dealt well with the prospect of anthropogenic climate change. As most of the world scrambles to find "solutions" to what they anticipate will be a serious problem for human civilization, the typical libertarian approach to the issue has been to deny that climate change is real, or to deny that humans have caused it. There are two problems with this position. First, the most vehement critics of what has become the "mainstream" view are not particularly well qualified for their missions, and often demonstrate a misunderstanding of their opponents' views which seem to indicate that they don't actually know what they're arguing against. Further, where there are well-qualified and well-informed "skeptics," their positions tend to be less vitriolic and more nuanced, being based more on uncertainty and imperfect knowledge, to the point where their views end up falling relatively close to those which are accepted by the mainstream scientific community. As far as I can tell, a relatively strong case can be made in favor of questioning our ability to know the precise truth about climate change, and our ability to predict future states of the climate; the same cannot be said about the position that climate change is not happening, or that humans are not causing it, or that it will not continue into the future in any significant way. This leads to the second problem with the libertarian habit of questioning the scientific basis for concern about climate change: it does not address the question of what position libertarians would endorse if climate change were happening. There is no reason to believe that anthropogenic climate change, or some substantively similar phenomenon, could not happen. Accordingly, it seems extremely reasonable to ask what libertarians would say about such a phenomenon, if we knew that it was occurring right now. In this article, I will sketch the kind of answer we should be looking for.
Market Failures and Government Inefficacy
Where climate change has been discussed, by libertarians and others, it has generally been labeled as a market failure. Economic theory tells us that market failures occur whenever inefficient social outcomes result from individuals acting on their own desires. Looking at climate change from this paradigm, we would notice that for most individuals, the benefits of, say, driving a car instead of taking the bus more than outweigh any costs they would ever incur from their incremental contribution to climate change. Accordingly, it will be in everyone's interest to drive their car. But the predictable result of everyone making the sort of choices that result in driving everywhere, instead of using public transportation, is that we end up with climate change. As Garrett Hardin famously wrote "...we are locked into a system of "fouling our own nest," so long as we behave only as independent, rational, free enterprisers."
Simply recognizing this problem will not solve it. Mitigating climate change will involve sacrifices, and individuals will undoubtedly resist making these sacrifices if they do not have the assurance that others will follow suit. Unfortunately, getting individuals to voluntarily cut down on their contributions to climate change would be fraught with difficulties, ranging from the large costs of negotiating the agreement to the pervasive incentive to "cheat". These hurdles seem to rule out the kind of decentralized solution that the free-market is capable of providing. The most obvious and widely discussed solution is the one Hardin suggests: legislation. If we know that we will "foul our own nest" if left to our own devices, then it seems reasonable to impose rules on ourselves, and to punish those who violate those rules, in order to ensure that we don't bring about our own destruction.
But many libertarians bristle at the suggestion that central planning can solve the problems presented by market failures. It seems unreasonable, they argue, to suggest that we can fix an imperfect market by simply turning the matter over to the government. After all, governments have problems of their own. As Gene Callahan points out, "Government interventions and "five year plans," even when they are sincere attempts to protect the environment rather than disguised schemes to benefit some powerful lobby, lack the profit incentive and are protected from the competitive pressures that drive private actors to seek an optimal cost-benefit tradeoff."
Accordingly, a number of libertarians have apparently taken the stance that we cannot hope for an "optimal" level of climate stability, so our best option is to simply face the realities of our suboptimal state of affairs. And because, they continue, the free market is the most efficient system we know of for allocating resources to best suit the needs of society, the best way to face climate change would be to allow individuals the freedom to adapt in their own way. As George Reisman writes, "Even if global warming is a fact, the free citizens of an industrial civilization will have no great difficulty in coping with it - that is, of course, if their ability to use energy and to produce is not crippled by the environmental movement and by government controls otherwise inspired."
Climate Change: A Matter of Justice
This view of the issue leaves out an important consideration which is central to the libertarian paradigm: According to most accounts, climate change will have victims. This fact brings us out of the realm of mere economic efficiency and forces us to confront the issue from an ethical standpoint. Imagine if we were trying to determine the proper social response to a particular theft. It might be true that of all social systems, a victim of theft would be best equipped for dealing with her loss in an unfettered free-market. She would not need to consult a central planning board in order to replace the things that were taken, and her higher purchasing power – brought about by her participation in a thriving market economy – would enable her to afford the replacement with comparative ease.
But surely libertarians would not be satisfied with this “solution.” In our story, the thief violated the rights of his victim by stealing from her, and therefore he should be held accountable for fixing the damage he caused. It is crucial to acknowledge that holding the thief responsible does not represent a departure from the normal course of the free-market; the very functioning of the free-market is predicated on the recognition of rights. This reveals an important feature of the libertarian position that the proper response to climate change is to simply allow individuals the freedom to adapt to it: It assumes that climate change does not represent an injustice. If climate change were an injustice, then the proper response would not simply be to allow people to adapt: libertarians would need to advocate the enforcement of justice.
Accordingly, it seems like the proper libertarian stance on climate change needs to be stated in terms of justice. The scientific disputes and efficiency-based arguments which have thus far characterized the libertarian position are wholly unbecoming of a political philosophy built on the foundation of respect for individuals’ rights. The libertarian community needs to ask what kinds of rights, if any, are infringed by climate change, and what should be done about those infringements. Anything else would simply be unlibertarian.