What do Global Warmers Owe Property Owners?


My colleagues over at Reason's public policy shop have launched a roundtable discussion on "Climate Change and Property Rights." As my Reason public policy colleague Shikha Dalmia points out, there remain many scientific uncertainties about future man-made global warming. However, as she also rightly notes:

But ultimately libertarians and other advocates of free markets ought to have no ideological predisposition regarding the scientific outcome. They cannot treat the earth's thermostat as an enemy of freedom. Indeed, regardless of whether climate change eventually turns out to be real or not, the libertarian goal ought to be to ensure the protection and advancement of freedom—and all its attendant institutions: free markets, limited government and property rights. These rights enhance human welfare by allowing individual choice and experimentation and creating an incentive for individual entrepreneurship and economic growth. But more: they are both the base of—and bulwark for—all other rights. They have normative value quite apart from their utilitarian value.

To that end, libertarian scholars in recent years have begun exploring the possibility of property rights-based solutions to global warming—should science conclusively show it to be a major problem. But the difficulty with such solutions is that they would require the privatization of the global commons—dividing the global air-shed among the planet's inhabitants, letting them tend to their own little piece of space as they see fit. It is not obvious how one would accomplish that. Given that a pure property rights solution to global warming is elusive, libertarians have also started examining other solutions that would least empower the government —and least threaten property rights.

To launch this discussion of property rights in the context of man-made global warming, Dalmia has solicited initial comments from two leading libertarian scholars in this area: Case Western Reserve University law professor Jonathan Adler and free market environmentalism stalwart Indur Goklany.

Just a taste of their discussion follows. First from Adler:

Under the common law principles endorsed by most FME [free market environmentalism] proponents, the consequences of anthropogenic warming could constitute actionable nuisances—just like activities that, say, cause downstream flooding, alter the "natural" flow of waterways depriving existing users, or otherwise interfere with a neighboring landowner's "quiet enjoyment" of her land. FME proponents would recognize these infringements even if legal remedies were unavailable. …

By the same token, if the land of a farmer in Bangladesh is flooded, due in measurable and provable part to human-induced climate change, why would he be any less entitled to redress than a farmer who has his land flooded by his neighbor's land-use changes? Nor does it matter that Bangladesh might stand to benefit from industrial development: If one's normative baseline includes a commitment to property rights, then aggregate welfare maximization is secondary—if not irrelevant.

And now from Goklany:

Greenhouse gas-producing activities in the US (and other industrialized countries) have created technologies to: raise food production and alleviate hunger; treat diseases such as AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis; and cope with droughts, floods and other natural disasters. Such activities have also lead to the discovery and harnessing of electricity and helped develop cell phones, internet and the personal computer, all technologies that every country in the world benefits from. The wealth they have generated, moreover, has allowed Bangladesh to benefit from trade, tourism and remittances from abroad. It has also allowed the US to offer aid to Bangladesh in times of famine and other disasters.

Had it not been for these activities, what would Bangladesh's level of human well-being be? Its life expectancy has gone up from 35 years in the 1940s to 61 now. Its hunger and malnutrition rates would undoubtedly be far higher as agricultural yields would be lower. It would be hard to even list all the ways in which Bangladesh has benefited.

Some might argue that the US can't subtract the benefits from the harms when estimating compensation because Bangladesh did not acquiesce to being harmed. But benefits are nothing but negative harms. Ignoring one but not the other would be as suspect as a company balance sheet identifying its credits but ignoring its debits. Who knows, in accounting for both benefits and damages, Bangladesh would not end up owing the United States!

Check out the Reason Roundtable debate over the role of property rights in addressing climate change here.