Home > energy, Enviro Derangement Syndrome, power, property, rent-seeking > Towards a productive libertarian approach on climate, energy and environmental issues

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

[This is a work in progress and largely taken from previous posts, but readers might find some value in it in the meanwhile.]

1. Heated but vacuous climate wars

On environmental issues in general and climate in particular, find me someone (like George Will) ranting about “Malthusians” or “environazis” or somesuch, and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t understand – or refuses to acknowledge – the difference between:

(1) wealth-creating markets based on private property and/or voluntary interactions/contracts protected by law, and

(2) the tragedy of the commons situations that result when there are NO property rights (atmosphere, oceans), when the pressures of developed markets swamp indigenous hunter-gather community rules, in many cases where governments formally own and purport to manage “public” resources, and when governments absolve purportedly “private” actors from liability for harms to others (such as via grants of “limited liability“).

So what’s the deal? Here’s a perfect opportunity for skeptics to educate the supposedly market ignorant, but they refuse, preferring to focus instead on why concerned scientists must be wrong, how concerns by a broad swath of society about climate have become a matter of an irrational, deluded “religious” faith, or that those raising their concerns are “misanthropes” or worse.

Such pigheadedness is met by those on the left likewise see libertarians and small-government conservatives as deluded and/or deliberate pawns of evil Earth-destroying corporations.

Both sides, it seems, prefer to fight – and to see themselves as right and the “others” as evil – rather than to reason.

While we should not regret that we cannot really constrain human nature very well, at least libertarian and others who profess to love markets ought to be paying attention to the inadequate institutional framework that is not only poisoning the political atmosphere, but posing risks to important globally and regionally shared open-access commons like the atmosphere and oceans (which are probably are in much more immediate and grave threat than the climate). And they also ought to recognize that there are important economic interests that profit from the current flawed institutional framework and have quite deliberately encouraged the current culture war.

2. Why the reflexive libertarian disengagement?

I have on numerous occasions tried to point out, to posters on the Mises Blog who have addressed climate issues, the stunning unproductivity of the approach that they have taken — that of focussing on science and dismissing motivations and preferences, rather than exploring root causes and middle ground, and have continued to scratch my head at the obstinacy and apparent lack of vision.

The following seem to be the chief factors at work in the general libertarian resistance to any government action on climate change:

– Many libertarians, as CEI’s Chris Horner has stated,  see “global warming [as] the bottomless well of excuses for the relentless growth of Big Government.”  Even libertarians who agree that is AGW is a serious problem are worried, for good reason, that government approaches to climate change will be a train wreck – in other words, that the government “cure” will be worse than the problem.

– Libertarians have in general drifted quite far from environmentalists (though there remain many productive free-market environmentalists/conservationists). Even though libertarians and environmentalists still share a mistrust of big government, environmentalists, on the one hand, generally have come to believe that MORE government is the answer, despite all of the problems associated with the socialized ownership of resources and/or inefficient bureaucratic management (witness the crashing of many managed fisheries in the US), the manipulation of such management to benefit bureaucratic interests, special interests and insiders (wildfire fighting budgets, fossil fuel and hard rock mining, etc.) and the resultant and inescapable politicization of all disputes due to the absence of private markets. On the other hand, many libertarians  reflexively favor business over “concerned citizens”, while other libertarians see that government “solutions” themselves tend to snowball into costly problems that work in favor of big business and create pressures for more government intervention. Thus, libertarians often see environmentalists as simply another group fighting to expand government, and are hostile as a result.

– Libertarians are as subject to reflexive, partisan position-taking as any one else. Because they are reflexively opposed to government action, they find it easier to operate from a position of skepticism in trying to bat down AGW scientific and economic arguments (and to slam the motives of those arguing that AGW must be addressed by government) than to open-mindedly review the evidence or consider ways that libertarian aims can be advanced by using the pressure from “enviro” goals.

This reflexive hostility – at times quite startingly vehement – is a shame (but human), because it blunts the libertarian message in explaining what libertarians understand very well – that environmental problems arise when property rights over resources are not clearly defined or enforceable, and when governments (mis)manage resources, and that there are various private steps and changes in government policy that would undo the previous government actions that are at the root of environmentalists’ frustrations.The reflexive hostility is also a shame because it has the effect, in my mind rather clearly, of rendering libertarians largely blind to the ways that large energy, power and certain manufacturing corporations continue to benefit from (and invest heavily in maintaining) the existing regulatory structure, in ways that shift large costs and risks to unconsenting third parties.

– There are some libertarians and others who profess to love free markets at AEI, CEI, Cato, IER, Master Resource and similar institutions that are partly in pay of fossil fuel interests, and so find it in their personal interests to challenge both climate science and policy proposals that would impose costs on their funders.

I felt particularly struck by the commonness of a refrain we are hearing from various pundits who prefer to question the good will or sanity of environmentalists over the harder work of engaging in a good faith examination and discussion of the underlying institutional problem of ALL “environmental” disputes:  namely, a lack of property rights and/or a means to enforce them. 

3. The whys of climate concerns and calls for “clean” energy

I want to get started with a list of policy changes that I think libertarians can and should be championing in response to the climate policy proposals of others.

The incessant calls for – and criticism of – government climate change policies and government subsidies and mandates for “green/clean power” both ignore root causes and potential common ground.  As a result, both sides of the debate are largely talking past each other, one talking about why there is a pressing need for government policy to address climate change concerns, while the other is concerned chiefly about the likelihood of heavy-handed mis-regulation and wasted resources. This leaves the middle ground unexplored.

There are plenty of root causes for the calls for legislative and regulatory mandates in favor of climate policies and clean / green / renewable power, such as:

  • concerns about apparent ongoing climate change, warnings by scientific bodies and apprehensions of increasing risk as China, India and other developing economies rapidly scale up their CO2, methane and other emissions,
  • the political deals in favor of environmentally dirty coal and older power plants under the Clean Air Act,
  • the enduring role of the federal and state governments in owning vast coal and oil & gas fields and relying on the royalties (which it does not share with citizens, but go into the General Pork Pool, with a relatively meager cut to states),
  • the unwillingness of state courts, in the face of the political power of the energy and power industries, to protect persons and private property from pollution and environmental disruption created by federally-licensed energy development and power projects,
  • the deep involvement of the government in developing, encouraging and regulating nuclear power, and
  • the frustration of consumer demand for green energy, and the inefficient and inaccurate pricing and supply of electricity, resulting from the grant by states of public utility monopolies and the regulation of the pricing and investments by utilities, which greatly restricts the freedom of power markets, from the ability of consumers to choose their provider, to the freedom of utilities to determine what infrastructure to invest in, to even simple information as to the cost of power as it varies by time of day and season, and the amount of electricity that consumers use by time of day or appliance.

4. Is a small-government, libertarian climate/green agenda possible and desirable?

So what is a good libertarian to suggest? This seems rather straight-forward, once one doffs his partisan, do-battle-with-evil-green-fascist-commies armor and puts on his thinking cap.

From my earlier comment to Stephan Kinsella:

As Rob Bradley once reluctantly acknowledged to me, in the halcyon days before he banned me from the “free-market” Master Resource blog, “a free-market approach is not about “do nothing” but implementing a whole new energy approach to remove myriad regulation and subsidies that have built up over a century or more.” But unfortunately the wheels of this principled concern have never hit the ground at MR [my persistence in pointing this out it, and in questioning whether his blog was a front for fossil fuel interests, apparently earned me the boot].

As I have noted in a litany of posts at my blog, pro-freedom regulatory changes might include:

Other policy changes could also be put on the table, such as:

  • an insistence that government resource management be improved by requiring that half of all royalties from mineral and fossil fuel development be rebated to citizens (with a slice to the administering agency), and
  • reducing understandable NIMBY problems by (i) encouraging project planners to proactively compensate persons in affected areas and (ii) reducing fears of corporate abuses, by providing that corporate executives have personal liability for environmental torts (in recognition of the fact that the profound risk-shifting that limited liability corporations are capable of that often elicits strong public opposition and fuels regulatory pressure).

5. Other libertarian discussants

A fair number of libertarian commenters on climate appear to accept mainstream sciences, though there remain natural policy disagreements. Ron Bailey, science correspondence at Reason and Jonathan Adler, a resources law prof at Case Western, Lynne Kiesling at Knowledge Problem blog, and David Zetland, who blogs on water issues, come to mind.

I`m not the only one – other libertarian climate proposals are here:

  • Jonathan Adler at Case Western (2000); he has other useful commentary here, here,
  • Bruce Yandle, Professor Emeritus at Clemson University, Senior Fellow at PERC (the “free market” environmentalism think tank) and a respected thinker on common-law and free-market approaches to environmental problems, has in PERC’s Spring 2008 report specifically proposed a A No-Regrets Carbon Reduction Policy;
  • Iain Murray of CEI; and
  • Cato’s Jerry Taylor is a frequent commentator and Indur Goklany has advanced a specific climate change-targeted proposal.
  •  AEI’s Steven Hayward and Ken Green together have provided a number of detailed analyses (though with a distinct tendency to go lightly on fossil fuels).

Several libertarians recently urged constructive libertarian approaches to climate change:

There have been several open disputes, which indicate a shift from dismissal of science to a discussion of policy; the below exchanges of view are worthy of note:

  • The Cato Institute dedicated its entire August 2008 monthly issue of Cato Unbound, its online forum, to discussing policy responses to ongoing climate change.  The issue, entitled “Keeping Our Cool: What to Do about Global Warming“, contains essays from and several rounds of discussion between Jim Manzi, statistician and CEO of Applied Predictive Technologies, Cato Institute author Indur Goklany; climate scientist Joseph J. Romm, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress; and Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, the co-founders of The Breakthrough Institute.  My extended comments are here.
  • Reason Foundation, posted an exchange on Climate Change and Property Rights June 12th, 2008 (involving Reason’s Shikha Dalmia, Case Western Reserve University law professor Jonathan H. Adler, and author Indur Goklany); discussed by Ron Bailey of ReasonOnline here; here`s my take.
  • Debate at Reason, October 2007, Ron Bailey, Science Correspondent at Reason, Fred L. Smith, Jr., President and Founder of CEI, and Lynne Kiesling, Senior Lecturer in Economics at Northwestern University, and former director of economic policy at the Reason Foundation.
  • Reason Foundation, Global Warming and Potential Policy Solutions September 7th, 2006 (Reason’s Shikha Dalmia, George Mason University Department of Economics Chair Don Boudreaux, and the International Policy Network’s Julian Morris).


Finally, I have collected here some Austrian-based papers on environmental issues that are worthy of note:

Environmental Markets?  Links to Austrians

Ones such paper is the following: Terry L. Anderson and J. Bishop Grewell, Property Rights Solutions for the Global Commons: Bottom-Up or Top-Down?

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.