Libertarians Debate What (If Anything) To Do About Global Warming

My colleague Shikha Dalmia has organized a Reason Foundation Roundtable to launch a a long overdue debate among libertarians and other supporters of free markets about what to do about man-made global warming. As Dalmia points out:

While it is difficult to use property rights to protect the global commons and avert climate change, it does not follow that government regulations are therefore the answer.

If not more government regulation, what possible answers does libertarian economic and political thinking bring to the issue of climate change? To begin this important debate, Dalmia asked the chairman of George Mason University's economics department, Donald Boudreaux, and the director of the International Policy Network, Julian Morris, for their views.

Just a few enticing tidbits from the discussion so far:

Boudreaux:

But I nevertheless insist that science does not unambiguously endorse action against global warming. Put differently - and contrary to today's elite opinion - ignoring global warming is not necessarily a sign of scientific illiteracy or of ideologically induced stupidity.

Morris:

[U]niversal adoption of the institutions of the free society would better enable adaptation to climate both now and in the future. It would also ensure that, if at some point in the future, a real catastrophe - whether human -induced or otherwise (including climate change) - does loom on the horizon, humanity would be in a better position to address it.

One of the respondents to the debate is Cato Institute senior fellow Jerry Taylor:

Donald Boudreaux argues that politicians can't possibly know the "right" level of emission controls to impose because that knowledge can only arise through market interactions, and voter preferences are notoriously incapable of mimicking real consumer preferences. Fair enough, but as Don confesses, transaction costs prohibit market interactions that might reveal that information. But his conclusion - that because of the above, the state should do nothing - is unpersuasive.

See other responses and join the discussion yourselves at the Roundtable website or here at Hit & Run.

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  • ||

    OK, cards on the table here: Am I still the only guy out there sceptical about the degree of human impact on climate change?

    Now wait wait. Don't kill me. Honestly, I feel like asking this question is almost a thought crime in America these days.

    Are there any fairly objective sources out there that I could read online in order to study the evidence? Famously, the right keeps pointing to William Gray as the darling child of global warming skeptics. Is this man a crank or does he have good points?

    We still-doubters keep getting lumped into the same group as people who complete question global warming. To me, the issue comes in slices:

    I. There is no global warming.
    II. There is global warming, but it is a cycular event impacted only in marginal ways by humans.
    III. Humans are the primary cause of warming trends.

    Currently, I'm in slice II, and am open to being moved to slice III if someone could give me some hard evidence. And yes, I am sceptical of groups that live on global warming study money. And YES, I also question company funded think tanks. So what does that leave me?

    Anyone have any recommendation on places to read the facts, study the issue etc (Read: NOT commentary articles by pundits and assorted blowhards). I'm willing to be convinced, but I want to do it while leaning on the principle of falsifiability and Ocham's Razor, not general public consensus.

    Gentlemen and ladies, help me out.

    -damon

  • Ron Bailey||

    damon: It is still quite intellectually legitimate to be skeptical of catastrophic climate change scenarios. In my case, the balance of the evidence has tipped me over into the worried camp. However, as a partial answer to your plea you might want to check out the excellent science policy blog Prometheus run by University of Colorado associate professor of environmental studies Roger Pielke Jr. at URL: http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/prometheus/

  • ||

    I have a huge problem with Global Warming that transcends any scientific issue.

    There are two ideologies that have a natural affinity to the Global Warming movement:

    1. Gaea worshippers: These people, often call "environmentalists", worship the Earth and regard humanity as an evil cancer that deserves to be diminished at best, eliminated at worst.

    2. Communists: These people, who are skeptical of individual property rights, regard the USA as the enemy that should be diminished at best, eliminated at worst.

    Methods to "combat global warming" can and will damage human prosperity in general, and American prosperity in particular. Hence, Global Warming is a means to the ends of both of those ideologies. Until those two ideologies (above) can be decisively separated from the arguments of the Global Warming movement, I will never accept it and will always resist it, for I have no way of knowing if a "scientific argument" stands on it own or is merely the means to the ends of one or both of those wicked ideologies.

  • ||

    But his conclusion...is unpersuasive.

    What a lame argument coming from a senior fellow at a "think" tank.

    We're stupid enough to put evolution up to a vote, so we're obviously going to be stupid enough to put global warming up to a vote.

    Let's just blame bin Laden and North Korea for global warming. It sure the hell isn't correct, but you can bet everyone else's bottom dollar that it is persuasive.

  • ||

    How disappointing.

    Global Warming is a major problem, and one that is going to be very difficult to solve. I was hoping I'd see some pragmatic, fact- and science-based approaches. Instead, all I see is the repetition of ideological talking points, from both the conference attendees, and the commenters on this thread.

    What the hell does it mean to have an "ideological affinity" towards accepting scientific truths?

  • ||

    joe wrote:

    "What the hell does it mean to have an 'ideological affinity' towards accepting scientific truths?"

    Scientific truths often aren't. You are making an argument by assertion by appealing to "truth" and implying an ad hominem by casting me as someone who would deny the Truth(TM).

    Since Gaea worshippers and communists do exist and do infest the Global Warming movement I refuse to ignore them becasue I think their aims are evil and it's very, very obvious how their evil aims would be completely furthered by "combatting global warming".

    Let me put it directly: how can you convince me that you are merely a concerned scientist and are in no way aligned with the Gaea worshipping movement or the communist movement? Because if you are aligned with the latter two movements, I think you suck and I don't trust anything you say. A communist or Gaea worshipper can quote "science" and "truth" all day long and I will still think he sucks and will never trust anything he says.

  • ||

    Herman Daly
    "given the political climate, probably the best thing that we can pray for is ecological tax reform. Shift the tax base from income, labour, value-added onto that to which value is added - namely the resource flow. So tax throughput, tax depletion and pollution, tax the resource flow - that to which you are adding value. That is what's causing depletion and pollution. Those are 'bads'. Tax bads, stop taxing goods. That's the basic idea. You don't want to tax what you want more of. You do want to tax what you want less of. This could be sold as a revenue-neutral shift. We're not going to tax more, we're going to tax differently, we're going to tax different things to instil different incentives. And the incentives that result from this would be not to dampen the incentive to work or to accumulate capital or to improve it, but to dampen the incentive to use more resources. So we would then collect money from the resource flow, which is what is tightly associated with depletion and pollution. And that would I think be a move toward efficiency, and standard economists agree with that to a large extent. "

    The Rocky Mountain Institute
    "Rocky Mountain Institute's position is that, far from being costly, protecting the climate is actually good for the economy. Greenhouse-gas emissions are simply the byproduct of the uneconomically wasteful use of resources. The obvious solution, then, is increased efficiency. Being more efficient not only reduces emissions, it also saves money and increases economic competitiveness. In fact, it doesn't even matter whether global warming is happening or not, because the most effective climate-protection measures are things we should be doing for economic reasons anyhow.

    RMI's approach to climate therefore focuses on market-based, profitable measures to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Since most emissions are linked to energy use, our climate work is closely allied with our efforts to promote energy efficiency. "
    http://www.rmi.org/sitepages/pid16.php

    Damon
    I think realclimate.org is also a good source.
    It falls in the "pro" camp, but does a nice job of addressing all the major counter arguments and presenting the evidence that best refutes them. They even have a specific detailed refutation of William Gray's position. It is written and commented on by scientists in the field. The comments sections can provide you will a good sense of where there is still real debate.

  • Dan T.||

    Let's face it - Global Warming is more or less evidence that in the long run, free markets and the concept of private property simply don't work as well as advertised.

  • ||

    I think Loundry's right. We've got a Global warming post, and it brings me, joe, MainstreamMan, and Dan T. right into the mix. Perfect evidence that the topic is strictly a nutjob issue.

  • Mike Laursen||

    Sigh. They're just dicking around trying to sound all philosophical and erudite and shit instead of coming up with practical ideas.

  • ||

    joe,

    its the first round...they are only laying the course material first.

    jesus,

    please help joe not to alienate everyone.

    Akira,

    haha!

  • ||

    Am I still the only guy out there sceptical about the degree of human impact on climate change?

    No, you're not.

  • ||

    I second the endorsement of RealClimate for the case for anthropogenic warming, with the caveat that their comment policy tends to be unnecessarily high-handed.

    Loundry,

    Trying to poison the well is unproductive - any skeptical argument can just as easily be dismissed as being made by a potential industry shill, so the only way to get to the bottom of things is to look at the arguments themselves.

    Dan T.,

    The trickiness of global warming is that it is one of the rare cases the consequences cannot be localized, so you can't define property rights for them. This is why I support a C-tax or tradeable permits system (I lean towards permits, but could easily be swayed) - they're going to end up using a suboptimal emissions target, but you can't use market forces to find the optimum in this case either, and they probably will be closer to the optimum than not attempting to regulate the externalities. A number of very pro-market types have endorsed the idea of a C-tax (see Greg Mankiw's Pigou Club for example).

  • ||

    Russ 2000

    LOL.

    I do believe there are lots of nut jobs attracted to this issue. See Loundry above. But what that has to do with the practical policy suggestions I cited, I am not sure.

    Try having a debate based on ideas, rather than your opinion of those that disagree with you.

    Dan T.
    The term free market is an abstract that has not been instantiated in the real world at any time in history, so current conditions can't refute it. If you mean freer markets, I don't think that there is any evidence that more controlled economies are less of a contributor. This is not such as simple issue as all that.

  • ||

    One approach to reifying uncertain costs of global warming and the resources required to address it into actual public policy is to compare addressing global warming with other uses of the resources. This is the tack taken by the Copenhagen Consensus.

    Surprising to some, unsurprising to others, of ten challenges faced by public policy, climate change comes in tenth in the cost-benefit analysis -- getting beat up by things such as clean water and improved basic health services.

    When environmentalists suggest clear-cutting the old growth forests of the world, dumping the detritus into the deep ocean, and replanting with vegetation genetically engineered to sequester carbon as rapidly as possible, then I'll start believing that allowing global warming will cost humanity less than preventing it. Environmentalists are quick to sacrifice others' values to global warming. Are they as quick to sacrifice their own?

  • ||

    MattXIV wrote:

    "Trying to poison the well is unproductive - any skeptical argument can just as easily be dismissed as being made by a potential industry shill, so the only way to get to the bottom of things is to look at the arguments themselves."

    I do not think it is fair to cast my statement as poisoning the well. I only use the terms "Gaea worshippers" and "Communists" as terms of conveneince, as it is the ideology that I oppose, not the people themselves.

    There is no doubting that there are people who are skeptical of private property rights and hate capitalism. They regard capitalism as a great, if not the greatest, moral evil, and the USA is, therefore, the enemy. A very quick search on the Internet will reveal that people who ascribe to this ideology almost always promote the global warming agenda. Why is this? Because the USA has the most to lose from "fixing" global warming, and that appeals very strongly to their goals. In other words, it isn't about "scientific arguments". It's about destroying capitalism in general, and the USA in particular. I am saying that I cannot trust global warming arugments until you can free those same arguments from this anti-capitalism and anti-USA ideology.

    There is also no doubting that there are people who regard the Earth and nature free of human influence and interference as good; thus, the human influence and interference iteself is evil. Naturally, this ideology is practically married to the global warming agenda because the global warming agenda stipualtes that badness happens due to human infuence and interference. In other words, it isn't about "scientific arguments". It's about saving Mother Earth from the evil humans. I am saying that I cannot trust global warming arguments until you can free those same arguments from the anti-human ideology.

    I also freely admit that there are corporate shills who will freely buy off scientists in order to front scientific studies in order to protect their interests. Who can blame them? Clearly they have the most to lose from the "global warming" agenda. The anti-capitalism crowd routinely and openly defines corporations as evil. Would corporations lie? Of course they would! Just as freely as communists and gaea-worshipps would.

    But I think the biggest liars of them all are the people who say, "This isn't about ideology. This is about SCIENCE!"

    Of course there's science involved here. Everyone can come up with their own "scientific studies" and then call them "scientific truth". But to what end? What do we *do* based on all that science? You cannot answer that question without an ideology to guide you.

  • ||

    MainstreamMan wrote:

    "I do believe there are lots of nut jobs attracted to this issue. See Loundry above."

    I'm actually not attracted to this issue. I'm repelled by it. But I am raising a point that needs to be raised: global warming is inherently an ideological, not a scientific, issue. The science is merely used to support whichever ideology one happens to prefer. It's important that we identify the ideologies that are driving this discussion -- not that you are capable of commenting substantively about that (see above, "nut job"), but I wasn't addressing you.

  • ||

    Loundry,
    I was referring to your post for examples of nutjobs... not calling you a nutjob.

  • ||

    "I am saying that I cannot trust global warming arugments until you can free those same arguments from this anti-capitalism and anti-USA ideology."

    I think this is easy to do.
    The science on this topic is driven by both agendas, so there is less danger of bias than you seem to imply. I see no reason to suspect that an ideological bias of one tilt or the other would be more productive unless it had more actually data to back it up.

  • ||

    MainstreamMan wrote:

    "Try having a debate based on ideas, rather than your opinion of those that disagree with you."

    Opinions *are* ideas, and the worthiness of humanity and morality of private property are ideas worth defending.

  • ||

    MainstreamMan wrote:

    "I think this is easy to do.
    The science on this topic is driven by both agendas, so there is less danger of bias than you seem to imply. I see no reason to suspect that an ideological bias of one tilt or the other would be more productive unless it had more actually data to back it up."

    In other words, your method of freeing the global warming message from anti-capitalism and anti-USA ideologies is simply to assert that there is nothing to worry about? I can see why you think that is "easy to do", but I don't think it effective in the slightest. I think it is, in fact, very difficult to extricate the global warming message from those ideologies becasue I cannot know the motive behind the person fronting it.

    If I can frame it very simply, how can I tell the good scientists from the bad scientists?

  • ||

    The science on this topic is driven by both agendas, so there is less danger of bias than you seem to imply. I see no reason to suspect that an ideological bias of one tilt or the other would be more productive unless it had more actually data to back it up.

    Let's test this statement with the science on free trade vs. protectionism. The amount of data to back up the latter is absolutely zero. Yet, not only are protectionist policies not laughed out of the Congressional chambers, there is significant legislative and executive support of protectionism.

    The simple fact is that governments do things that governments can do and governments do not do things that governments cannot do. This effect produces an inherent bias toward government solutions and away from market solutions. Public choice theory -- where the beneficiaries of government solutions are better organized politically than those bearing the costs -- only exacerbates the issue.

  • ||

    MainstreamMan wrote:

    "I think this is easy to do.
    The science on this topic is driven by both agendas, so there is less danger of bias than you seem to imply. I see no reason to suspect that an ideological bias of one tilt or the other would be more productive unless it had more actually data to back it up."

    In other words, your method of freeing the global warming message from anti-capitalism and anti-USA ideologies is simply to assert that there is nothing to worry about? I can see why you think that is "easy to do", but I don't think it effective in the slightest. I think it is, in fact, very difficult to extricate the global warming message from those ideologies becasue I cannot know the motive behind the person fronting it.

    If I can frame it very simply, how can I tell the good scientists from the bad scientists?

  • ||

    Forgive the double-post. The server is very unreliable for me and happens to fail giving no indication if it actually worked or not.

  • ||

    FYI Shikha Dalmia is the person that wrote that incredibly crappy article comparing the cost/benefit of the Hummer and Prius.

    http://www.reason.org/commentaries/dalmia_20060719.shtml

    And I'm supposed to listen to her about Global Warming now?

  • ||

    Donald Boudreaux uses an argument straight from the playbook of Libertarianism For Dummies:

    1) This is a complicated issue
    2) Mere humans can never be sure they're doing the right thing.
    3) Therefore, let's not do anything but talk about it, probably the market will take care of things for us.

    That's a fine argument against any human activity, but it fits better in an undergrad philosophy class than in a political discussion.

    Why haven't we seen anything more from Reason's own science reporter?

  • ||

    Therefore, let's not do anything but talk about it, probably the market will take care of things for us.

    No, we are not saying "Lets not do anything about the problem", we are saying "Lets not let the government do anything about the problem".

    You are just not able to comprehend that there are other ways to address problems than government! For you, government is the source and the meaning of everything - so to want to "do something" about the problem implicitly means "more government power over people so the government can do something about the problem". You are incapable of imagining one without the other.

  • Mike Laursen||

    No, we are not saying "Lets not do anything about the problem", we are saying "Lets not let the government do anything about the problem".

    Yes! So, why aren't our fellow libertarians involved in the roundtable spending their time coming up with some non-governmental suggestions for addressing global climate change?

  • ||

    It is my understanding that a huge volcanic eruption, say like Mount St. Helens, puts out more greenhouse gas in a week than mankind has produced in 100 years. If my understanding of this is correct then mankind need not worry about causing global warming. It is natures fault.

  • ||

    Bobster, you are most definitely mistaken, although this is a piece of misinformation that people are commonly told. From realclimate.org (and verifiable at many other sites):

    "One point that is also worth making is that although volcanoes release some CO2 [the most significant greenhouse gas] into the atmosphere, this is completely negligable compared to anthropogenic emissions (about 0.15 Gt/year of carbon, compared to about 7 Gt/year of human related sources)."

    In fact, large volcanic eruptions often result in temporary (a few years) _cooling_.

  • Mike Laursen||

    Bobster, several sources I'm looking at say that it is the other way around: humans are generating much more CO2 than volcanos.

  • ||

    Loundry--

    So if you can't tell the good scientists from the bad scientists the best you can do is wring your hands and say you won't do anything?

    Yeah, that'll solve the problem. "I'm so stupid, I can't decide anything!"

    Face it, people. We've only got one planet to live on, so far. It would behoove us perhaps to be a wee bit more careful about potential risks affecting it before we so blithely decide there's nothing to worry about and go skippity-hopping off into the sunshine-filled future.

  • ||

    hmmm ideas...

    I don't like too many regulations, as the climate change future will require flexibility with which to adapt to the coming changes. Regulations get in the way.

    The best start is to stop providing corporate welfare to the fossil fuel companies. In the U.S. this is peanuts at $15 billion a year in various monies and protections, but even doing away with that is an important signal to industry. Elsewhere, this would be harder, as fuels are often directly subsidized.

    Next end subsidies and many regulations in the agricultural industries; not all, but these things prevent the freemarket development of biofuels. And the subsidies do hurt the development of other developing nations; and if they don't develop, we may likely get pulled into nasty expensive wars that would otherwise be avoided; this would be due to panic response to climate change s they did not/could not prepare for. On that note, helping to end corruption in foreign lands would help them be willing to prepare.

    Third, don't require consumers/producers to be more efficient/use renewables etc.; but do require that our governments to be effectively carbon-neutral. We need is real leadership with a critical mass of demand and supply. The purchasing power of our governments can provide this.

    Lastly, it is more or less the right of governments to control their borders. So simply require that all persons, products, and possibly services crossing borders be effectively carbon neutral via a carbon-tariff. This will boost local economies, at the expense of the global. But it will not destroy civilization.

    All the above is not anti-capitalist at all, and provides a balanced solution to our near term climate issues. (it could use some improving though)

  • ||

    Boudreaux's claim is pretty much besides the point. There's a real theoretical issue here: assuming that externalities really exist in market X, what should be done about them?

    Arguing that global warming isn't the threat it's cracked up to be doesn't cut it. Without some way to regulate externalities, we'd still have burning rivers in Ohio, and waterways in NYC marked "unsafe for boat-bottoms."

    A solid theory of libertarian environmentalism is something I'd like to see. Boudreaux, unfortunately, is not the man to deliver it.

  • Mike Laursen||

    Sam-Hec, the ideas you posted in your last comment were much more interesting than anything that has been said in the roundtable discussion. mac, you're right: a solid theory of libertarian environmentalism would be terrific.

    [attempt to post this comment #4]

  • ||

    Seeing that I started this huge mess.... here's a suggestion:

    Have the fine folks at Reason ever thought about putting together an "issues" section with latest posts to the science on both sides?

  • tester||

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  • ||

    If I can frame it very simply, how can I tell the good scientists from the bad scientists?

    The good scientists are the ones with reproducible observations and theories with predictive value, regardless of personal ideology, much less any ideology their findings happen to benefit. If you lack the domain knowledge necessary to evaluate climatological studies, the consensus of those possessing it is the most rational substitute.

    What do we *do* based on all that science? You cannot answer that question without an ideology to guide you.

    On the other hand, you have an ideology and no answers.

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