Archive for the ‘Block’ Category

[update] Bob Murphy, Rob Bradley and the Austrian Road Not Taken on Climate by two fossil-fuels gunslingers

October 28th, 2009 No comments

[Update: I copy at bottom a follow-up exchange I had on Bob`s thread with another reader – radio silence from Bob.]

Bob Murphy has a new post up at his blog, “CBO Testimony Misleads on Cost of Cap-and-Trade“, that draws attention to a new blog post at the Institute of Energy Research that Bob says he “had a lot to do with”.

The IER post rightly criticizes some of the numbers that the Congressional Budget Office has released, but the IER is playing games itself.

I left the following note at Bob`s (now substantially goosed up for the benefit of readers):

TokyoTom said…

IER? Isn`t that the “free-market” blog that bans libertarians who are not on their pro-coal, pro-pollution wagon? [Oops, I confused this with Rob Bradley`s MasterResource blog; IER is different, in that IER is – much more clearly than MR – an active rent-seeking front for fossil fuel interests, which Exxon made clear last year when it publicly announced that it would no longer fund IER`s “unproductive”, climate-skeptic position.]

But while we`re on the subject, let`s not forget:

– Austrians` fundamental objections to cost-benefit analysis;

that the mining, transport and combustion of coal, in addition to whatever climate “cost” it
might have to various people whose preferences can`t be measured, have
very real and significant costs in terms of damage to persons and property;

that federal law authorizes this (via the “Clean Air Act”, surface mining laws and ownership of the TVA), and grandfathers the very worst
midwestern utilities, the oldest 10% of which (41 or so) are  estimated to be responsible for 43% of the
$62 billion in annual  damages (not including damages from harm to ecosystems, effects of some air pollutants such as mercury, or climate change)(according
to the latest NAS report on the indirect costs of fossil fuels);

– that our federal government and states own most of the coal deposits and are otherwise addicted to the royalty revenues and complicit in turning a blind eye to damages;

– the future “costs” that the IER analysis refers to (in 2050) are not discounted to present value;

that alternative policies – such as

are never advanced, much less their costs weighed [that is, no attempt is ever made to engage opponents in good faith or to seek mutual gains by working to resolve underlying problems];

– the costs/consequences/risks and equities of “do-nothing” policies are hardly considered, and when so are heavily discounted;

– that deliberate “geo-engineering” holds no promise as a panacea, and itself is fraught with issues about statism, preferences, risks and liaibility;

the need for investment in infrastructure and change in laws to adapt
(and foster adaptation) to very real ongoing climate changes are never
discussed; and

– no one at IER ever seems to question the
unstated presumption that utilities and our transportation industries
have somehow homesteaded an ownership right over the global atmosphere – or the massive role that our federal government and states play as coal and other energy resource owners),
so that it`s perfectly okay to dismiss the preferences of those who
have concerns at home [those “religious” nuts like Exxon, and our Academies of Science] and those abroad in the least developed countries
that are most vulnerable to damages (much less to suggest how those
injured should be aided).

In other words, those defending the
status quo seem to have abandoned any Austrian training (or to have no
familiarity with its concern for problem-solving and awareness that
[as Block points out] common law protection of private property rights was hijacked a century
ago, with massive pollution and rent-seeking problems being the result

ought to post a few of these thoughts over at IER; Rob Bradley somehow
finds comments of this type over fundamental principles to be “ad hominem” arguments [of the kind that very quickly tested his patience and got me banned, without any word to his co-bloggers, who found my comments worthy of considered response].

Sure, we should fight over policy, but let`s not ignore principles or put our heads in the sand.

October 28, 2009 10:10 AM

*  From the NAS report:

Coal accounts for about half the electricity produced in the U.S.  In
2005 the total annual external damages from sulfur dioxide, nitrogen
oxides, and particulate matter created by burning coal at 406
coal-fired power plants, which produce 95 percent of the nation’s
coal-generated electricity, were about $62 billion; these nonclimate
damages average about 3.2 cents for every kilowatt-hour (kwh)
of energy
produced.  A relatively small number of plants — 10 percent of the total number — accounted for 43 percent of the damages.  By 2030, nonclimate damages are estimated to fall to 1.7 cents per kwh.


Supporters of cap and trade always turn to the
argument that opponents are burying their heads in the sand. It’s not
true. This legislation won’t do anything to help the environment. It is
merely a front so that the administration and the Democrats can say
they did “something.” We don’t need legislation that is going to cost
every single American household and won’t even be able to achieve its
stated goals. Write your Congressmen at

[A], you`re missing my higher -level poinht, which is that IER is
rather apparently UNINTERESTED in engaging productively or on a
principled basis on this issue; rather, they are simply sniping (though
they make excellent points) at the cap-and-traders).

of course, from the view of those financing them, this form of
engagement may very well be “productive”, if it delays any action that
will lower returns to coal, rail or utility investors.

regrettable is that this obfuscation, which has been going on for
decades, is what is likely to saddle us with extremely costly, porky
and ineffective “climate change” policies.

Block/Huebert/Kinsella revisit corporations, beg Qs of grant of limited liability towards persons involuntarily injured and resulting fight to influence state action

September 10th, 2009 No comments

I left the following comment at a recent Mises Blog post by Stephan Kinsella, but the number of links included apparently triggered the spam filter and held up the comment.  According, I post it here, so I can re-comment with a cross-link here.

Stephan, we have extensively discussed this matter previously, focussing mainly on the point that Vincent Cook raises, namely, the consistency with libertarian principles of the state grant of limited liability as against parties who become unwilling “creditors” of the firm as a result of being injured by the actions of the firm.

You continue to dodge this point just as Block and Huebert have explicitly begged the question in their latest effort (emphasis added):

“As long as there is no fraud, as long as all those who deal with corporations know full well that in case of any dispute, they will only be able to sue for an amount up to the full capitalization of the corporation and not have access to the shareholders’ personal assets, there can be no problem with the libertarian legal code.”

It goes without saying that injured persons don`t choose ahead of time who will injure them, much less the whether the liability of their tortfeasors will be limited to corporate assets. [IOW, when it comes to limited liability corporations, there IS a fairly glaring problem with the libertarian legal code.]

Our previous discussions on the Mises Blog took place here and here

And an earlier related discussion on the Mises Blog was here:

I have commented extensively myself on the consequences of this grant – which I see as fuelling risky corporate behavior and a cycle of “rent-seeking” fights with private interests seeking to use the state as a check against corporations – in a number of blog posts, such as the following:


Question at Bob Murphy`s: can ending a tragedy of the commons create jobs / enhance wealth?

May 22nd, 2009 5 comments

Check out the comments to Bob Murphy`s post that rightly but shallowly criticizes the “green jobs” mantra, EDF Summarizes Bastiat in One Picture.  I refer to Rockwell and Block.

Categories: Block, Bob Murphy, commons, rockwell Tags:

More stupid from Tierney; this time on "Kuznets curve" and the dynamics of "wealthier and greener"

May 11th, 2009 No comments

In addressing in a recent post Rob Bradley`s claim to have a “high” level of readers, I was reminded that one of his best and most frequent commenters was a budding conservative, war-supporting “libertarian” who actually, in the past month that I`ve been banned from the blog, has just graduated from high school.  A  “high” level of readership, indeed!

But as this young reader seemed interested in hearing more about libertarian views, I visited his blog (courtesy of Bradley, no longer being able to continue a conversation on MasterResource) and found that he was being led astray by New York Times` in-house “skeptic” science reporter, John Tierney, who had just devoted a long article – “Use Energy, Get Rich and Save the Planet” – to conclusively demonstrate that he had NO CLUE about the dynamics underlying the environmental Kuznets curve (EKC).  

Tierney seems to believe that the Kuznets curve means that greater wealth magically makes for a cleaner environment.  To the contrary, it is the hard work of people, expressing their desires to protect their own property and to realize other preferences regarding shared resources, to increase wealth by finding means (property rights institutions, litigation and government regulation) to end tragedy of the commons-type situtations, who improve their environment.  That is, working to close externalities leads to both wealthier and greener societies.  

(I`ve remarked on the Kuznets curve before; interestingly, conservatives seem to misunderstand it more than liberals.)

So I tried to offer a more libertarian understanding, which I`ve taken the liberty of memorializing here (with typo correction and emphasis and further links added):

  • Andrew, food for thought on enviro Kuznets:

    Unfortunately, Tierney simply fails to understand that the enviro Kuznets curve does not tell us that problems relating to environmental cost-shifting or to the over-exploitation of unowned commons are best resolved by ignoring them and simply hoping for the best. Rather, it affirms that as people become more wealthy, they care more about protecting the environment and put more elbow grease into achieving improvements – via improved property rights protection, improved information disclosure, greater consumer pressure and even through greater regulation (which is the path the West has largely followed), and reaching agreements with others sharing the relevant resource).

    In other words, the work relating to global, regional and various national commons (atmosphere, seas, forests, water, etc.) is still ahead of us. Libertarians can advocate for property rights (and privatization of public lands) as ways to have a more efficient (and just) path on the curve, or they provide implicit support for powerful and dirty industries by standing by and waiting until citizen pressure groups force government to act in heavy-handed ways.


  • timetochooseagain

    Tom, I disagree. The way that richer leads to cleaner is through improved technology, not with the government creating artificial markets and new definitions of property. How exactly is it you think that you can extend property rights to the atmosphere? And what would that do? Spawn lawsuits? Why would you want to do that? You would just jack up energy prices. I am trying to understand your suggestions, but they just don’t make sense to me.

  • Andrew. I suggest that you start with this short article by Yandle:

    I have plenty more links on my blog to him, Terry Anderson, Mises, Cordato, Block, Rothbard and others on Austrian approaches to environmental issues, fisheries, and climate. Ron Bailey (at Reason) has good posts on fisheries; leading enviro groups all agree that more privatization is desirable:

    Commons remain commons either because government ownership prevents privatization (as in the Amazon, US public lands and most fisheries management) or because full privatization is difficult. There are many examples of the latter case that involve semi-privatization and commons management, like traditional forestries, fisheries and water rights. Elinor Ostrom is the expert on commons; I have plenty of links to her too.

    By the way, you really should read Rothbard and Block on the history of air pollution and the undermining of the common law by industrial interests. The result has been and remains, on net, a subsidy to large polluters, particularly utilities, who have a license to pollute and immunity from most suits from injured persons. If coal was paying its true costs it would have been much cleaner years ago. The American Lung Assn said in 2004 that power plant pollution causes 24,000 premature deaths each year (at least 50% more than annual homicides), as well as over 550,000 asthma attacks and 38,000 heart attacks annually.

  • timetochooseagain

    “If coal was paying its true costs it would have been much cleaner years ago.”

    And how would it do that without technological development exactly? There are natural incentives in the market to reduce pollution-one can’t sell electricity to dead people, after all. But if the technology to clean up energy does not exist, how are they helped to find it by being sued by people who use their energy and then complain about the pollution? There is not just the property rights of those with a stake in the commons to consider, but the rights of the energy producer, too. What your suggesting, the way I see it, would be defacto regulation of the right of producers to do what they do best-produce. In the Laissez Faire approach, everyone gets richer, they invest in energy research (of their own free will) to develop cleaner energy. Then pollution goes down. What is wrong with that? It seems anything else added on to that is ad hoc…

  • Easy, Andrew. People and firms invest all the time in doing things in response to incentives, both positive and negative; viz. they also try to reduce costs, including the costs their activities impose on others if those they injured have rights of recourse. The effort to reduce costs is one of the chief factors driving technological advances.

    Surely you`re not suggesting that the best way to encourage wealthier societies is to free people from responsibility for the damages they cause others? That`s hardly a Lockean or libertarian view. A “Laissez Faire approach” leaves government out, in favor of voluntary transactions and enforecment of property rights, including rights not to be injured. The regulatory state has in fact been a boon to the most powerful producers, by giving them rights to pollute, often grandfafthering dirty plants, while forcing the highest costs on more nimble and cleaner producers. If you^re interested in learning about libertarian approaches to the environment, again, I suggest you look at Rothbard, Cordato, Block and others, whom I link to on my blog.

    You seem to make reference to the enviro Kuznets curve, and how wealthier societies bring pollution dow, while completely missing the dynamics. Wealthier societies clean up because they insist on bringing an end to tragedy of the commons-type exploitation of resources. A society that focusses on property rights typically has a lower curve than societies that fail to enforce property rights (needed for Coasean bargaining) in favor of government regulatory approaches. Our own curve remains too high, because wealtheir investors prefer to use regulation to shift costs to the rest of society.

  • timetochooseagain

    Alright, Tom, I will look into the things you are talking about more thoroughly. You seem to know a lot about this topic.

Rot at the core: When will Tom Woods and other "Free Market intellectuals" have second thoughts about the state grant of limited liability to shareholders?

March 4th, 2009 3 comments

Tom Woods, in his recent “Another “Free Market” Intellectual Has Second Thoughts” post at the Mises Economics Blog, notes with great disappointment that Richard Posner is about to publish a book that will apparently abandon the free market and call for greater government intervention.

While I share Mr. Wood’s disappointment that Posner and others are not more vigorously defending free markets, I suggested in comments on Mr. Wood’s post that perhaps free market intellectuals are not yet really pulling their own weight in examining and describing the flaws in the market system that contributed to the current financial crisis, or in explaining the types of reforms that would actually be appropriate.  In particular, it seems to me that the role played by the state grant of limited liability to corporate shareholders in facilitating flawed and irresponsible risk-taking by executives and traders, as well as in perversely fuelling a vicious cycle of rent-seeking and further counterproductive regulation, should be much more seriously examined. 

In short, I believe that, as argued by James Glassman and William Nolan in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, unless and until owners and executives have “more skin in the game”, we will continue to ride a tiger of selfish risk-shifting, moral hazard, and ever more disruptive government regulation.

I copy below my comments on Tom Wood’s post:

Tom, it’s hard to judge an unpublished book, but I suspect you’re
right to do so. Has Posner given any more solid clues as to where he’s

However, as it’s clear that things went wrong, I can’t help but
wonder when can we expect to hear more from you and others on what
government factors (besides the Fed, Freddie and Fannie) “fatally
deformed” the financial markets, and laying out a “new, genuinely
free-market paradigm for the economy”. Isn’t there a good book or two
in there from Austrians?

It seems to me that that James Glassman and William Nolan have a key
insight into the type of reforms needed in a WSJ piece that refers to
von Hayek. They argue that “an irresponsible attitude toward risk led
to terrible mistakes in judgment” and conclude that “bankers need more
skin in the game”
. How to move in that direction?  Glassman and Nolan
point to the success of the Brown Brothers Harriman partnership, which
lacks the limited liability feature of modern corporations, and specifically recommend that governments recognize (by less burdensome laws and regulations) that entities like partnerships where owners face unlimited personal liability are more responible risk managers.

As I have argued in a series of posts, starting with my review of
Huebert and Block‘s criticisms of Long
, the state grant of limited
liability to shareholders (in particular the grant vis-a-vis those
injured by corporate acts and involuntary creditors, which is a pure
grant from the state and cannot be contracted for) has led to a number
of perverse results, which can be fairly clearly seen in the financial


Note to William Anderson: Limited liability is a key to understanding the Great American Ponzi scheme

January 5th, 2009 No comments

William Anderson (an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute and economics prof. at Frostburg State University) has a thoughtful New Year’s Day post, pointing out how Paul Krugman fails to understand the causes of ouir economic stagnation and financial meltdown.

I posted the following comment, in which I argue that the state grant of limited laibility (which I have discussed in several recent posts) is a key to understanding the Great American Ponzi scheme:

Bill, I agree with the thrust of your criticisms of Krugman, but have a few small quibbles.

First, while you rightly condemn “most economic regulation … of the command-and-control variety”, you blame all of this on “the whims of bureaucrats and environmentalists” and completely fail to note that state and federal environmental regulation (i) initially responded to real environmental problems and (ii) also represents the successful efforts by established firms to raise barriers to entry and to cartelize their industries.  See Roger Meiners & Bruce Yandle, Common Law and the Conceit of Modern Environmental Policy, 7 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 923, 926-46 (1999), and Walter Block, Environmentalism and Economic Freedom: the Case for Private Property Rights..

Second, while you are correct that Krugman fails to understand the role of the state in creating the distortions that underlie our current problems, it seems to me that you have neglected one of the key state interventions that has fuelled the rent-seeking and risk socialization that we see today – the grants of legal personhood (with unlimited purposes and life and Constitutional rights) to corporations and blanket limited liability to shareholders.

Limited liability has enabled corporate managers to act without close shareholder oversight and management; this I believe has played a key role in the vast misalignment of incentives that Michael Lewis and David Einhorn describe at the NYT, and in the risk mismanagement that Joe Nocera of the NYT describes at length in the NYT Magazine.  Those taking large bonuses (whether in the financial industry or large corporations) were essentially playing with OPM – Other People’s Money – and capturing the upside of short-term gains while leaving shareholders and taxpayers holding the bag for loses.

I hope that you and others here will look more deeply at the role of the state in the problem of misaligned incentives that continue to corrupt American capitalism.

Limited liability produces both pollution and political meddling: Block on Environmentalism

December 23rd, 2008 No comments

In my recent post on limited liability, I argued that one of the perverse consequences of limiting shareholder responsibility for corporate torts was to create the moral hazard by which investors could capture the upside of risky activities that imposed costs on others, without having to worry about whether the harms such activities may impose on others exceeded the benefits to the firm. 

This dynamic can be clearly seen in the historical growth of various environmental torts, which expanded as courts, taking a signal from government policy to favor industry, turned away from a strict enforcement of property rights.  The result was massive pollution, which enriched corporate owners while transferring costs to others.  The further result?  The massive resort to federal regulatory approaches that further undermined property rights, not only by dictating to industry but by giving firms that complied with regulations a “right to pollute” within such bounds, regardless of harms caused to others.

Walter Block captures some of these dynamics in his excellent piece on the need to return to a property rights approach to environmental harms,  “Environmentalism and Economic Freedom: the Case for Private Property Rights”, Journal of Business Ethics 17: 1887–1899 (1998).  An excerpt is below (emphasis added):

But then in the 1840s and 1850s a new legal philosophy took hold. No longer were private property rights upheld. Now, there was an even more important consideration: the public good. And of what did the public good consist in this new dispensation? The growth and progress of the U.S. economy. Toward this end it was decided that the jurisprudence of the 1820s and 1830s was a needless indulgence. Accordingly, when an environmental plaintiff came to court under this new system, he was given short shrift. He was told, in effect, that of course his private property rights were being violated; but that this was entirely proper, since there is something even more important that selfish, individualistic property rights. And this was the “public good” of encouraging manufacturing.

Under this legal convention, all the economic incentives of the previous regime were turned around 180 degrees. Why use clean burning, but slightly more expensive anthracite coal rather than the cheaper but dirtier high sulfur content variety? Why install scrubbers, and other techniques for reducing pollution output, or engage in environmental research and development, or use better chimneys and other smoke prevention devices, or make locational decisions so as to negatively impact as few people as possible? Needless to say, the incipient forensic pollution industry was rendered stillborn.

And what of the “green” manufacturer, who didn’t want to foul the planet’s atmosphere, or the libertarian, who refused to do this on the grounds that is was an unjustified invasion of other people’s property? There is a name for such people, and it is called “bankrupt.” For to engage in environmentally sound business practices under a legal regime which no longer requires this is to impose on oneself a competitive disadvantage. Other things equal, this will guarantee bankruptcy.

From roughly 1850 to 1970, firms were able to pollute without penalty. This is why “there is no way to force private polluters to bear the social cost of their operations” a la Pigou; this is why there was a Samuelsonian “divergence of social and private costs.” This was no failure of the market. It was a failure of the government to uphold free enterprise with a legal system protective of private property rights.

In the 1970s a “discovery” was made: the air quality was dangerous to human beings and other living creatures. Having caused the problem itself, the government now set out to cure it, with a whole host of regulations which only made things worse. There were demands for electric cars, for minimal mileage per gallon for gasoline, for subsidies to wind, water, solar and nuclear power, for taxes on coal, oil, gas and other such fuels, for arbitrary cutbacks in the amount of pollutants into the air. The nation wide 55 mile per hour speed limit was not initially motivated by safety considerations, but rather by ecological ones. “Rent seeking” played a role in the scramble, as eastern (dirty burning sulfur) coal interests prevailed over their western (clean burning anthracite) counterparts. The former wanted compulsory scrubbers, the latter wanted the mandated substitution of their own coal for that of their competitors.

FN 23. From 1845 to 1970, approximately, polluters had a free run of the atmosphere, other people’s property and their lungs. From roughly 1970 to 1995, and counting, there was concern for invasive air and water borne pollutants, but only command and control (and in the last few years tradeable emissions rights schemes) regulations. Provision for environmental lawsuits is still, as of this 1995 writing, virtually nonexistent. See Horwitz (1977), Block (1990, pp. 282–285).

[Revised] Corporations, the state, limited liability and rent-seeking: Some criticisms of Huebert and Block's criticisms of Long

November 26th, 2008 No comments

[Update:  Items 2 & 3 revised and an item 4 added.]

J.H. Huebert and Walter Block have posted a critique of Roderick Long‘s recent Cato essay.  Allow me to make a few comments:

1.  Huebert and Long argue that “There Is No Such Thing as Corporate Power”, stating that:

“Long writes that “Corporate power depends crucially on government intervention in the marketplace.”

But what does he mean by “corporate power”? A corporation is merely a group of individuals who have entered into a particular type of business relationship. The corporate form allows them to be known collectively by their business’s name instead of their own names. And it allows them to enter into contracts under which they limit their own liability – something which is perfectly legitimate under libertarianism. (Objectivist historian Robert Hessen has made this point well in his book, In Defense of the Corporation, and see our article, “Defending Corporations,” forthcoming in the Cumberland Law Review.)

The corporation, therefore, has no power to speak of.

Instead, only the state has power.”

(emphasis added)

This omits something rather crucial – that the corporate form allows owners to sidestep any personal liability for the wrongful acts that their corporation commits, with the result that liability of the corporation is limited by its assets.  Can someone point me to where libertarian principles defend this result?

2.   Huebert and Block further state that:

“sometimes the state uses its power to confer benefits, direct and indirect, on corporations. It also uses its power to confer benefits on partnerships. And sole proprietorships. And individuals. There is nothing special or different about government privileges for corporations – so why does Long single them out?”

I’m sorry, but a state grant of uncontracted-for limited liability vis-a-vis consumers and others IS a special privilege , and the very reason why so much economic activity is concentrated in corporations, as opposed to partnerships, sole proprietorships and individuals.

Further, there is indisputably quite a difference in SCALE of the benefits that the state confers on corporations, particularly larger ones.

3.  Huebert and Block concede that

“There is a kernel of truth in Long’s viewpoint – some larger firms do use the apparatus of the state to steal an advantage over smaller competitors. As a matter of history, things work out this way more often than in the opposite direction.”

But they fail to acknowledge the obvious implications of this concession:  the aggregated resources and long lives of larger corporations make it much easier for them, as compared to individuals, other forms of association and smaller corporate rivals, to effectively seek rents from the state by offering bribes of various forms (campaign contributions, lecture fees, junkets and revolving-door employment) .  Consequently, the state very often marches to the tune of large corporate drummers, with lobbyists and politicians acting as entrepreneurs in brokering the rents.  It is readily apparent that in the larger firms, executives are very effective at extracting equity at the cost of investors, and are often likewise effective in socializing costs (via federal and state bailouts) when their firms fail.

The creation and expansion of the corporate form has worked hand-in-glove with a steadily expanding and intrusive state.  Huebert’s and Block’s statements that “The corporation, therefore, has no power to speak of” and “onlly the state has power” are both obvious rhetorical excess.

4.  While Long argues that “In a free market, firms would be smaller and less hierarchical, more local and more numerous … and corporate power would be in shambles. Small wonder that big business, despite often paying lip service to free market ideals, tends to systematically oppose them in practice.”  Huebert and Block take this to mean that Long is making the “unfounded” assertion that “big business needs the state to survive”.  Rather than being unfounded, such a view simply cannot be found in Long’s essay.

Huebert and Block argue that:

As it is, there are big businesses that don’t benefit much from government and there are small businesses that benefit greatly from government. In a fully free market, undoubtedly, large and small businesses would both survive, succeed, and prosper. Long’s assertions to the contrary are unfounded speculation.

The first two sentences are unobjectionable, and are not inconsistent with Long’s points. 

Of course what a fully free market would look like is pure speculation, all around.  But without the ability of larger firms to use the state to raise barriers to entry, it seems to me axiomatic that there would be a greater percentage of smaller firms.

UK jury approves damage to power plant in defense of a commons/ other private property; libertarians and conservatives freak out

September 12th, 2008 6 comments

See this surprising decision in the UK, letting climate-change protesters/trespassers off the hook for damages resulting from spray-painting a coal plant smokestack, on the grounds that a UK law “allows damage to be caused to property to prevent even greater damage.”

Why is this single jury verdict supposedly the end of the world (as Iain Murray of CEI, blogging at NRO’s Planet Gore would have it)?  Libertarians (Rothbard, Block, Bratland, Cordato) have long argued that:

– we should move away from the statist regulation of polluters and return to a simpler world of a resort towards common law and courts (permitting injunctions on industrial activity for the slightest damage) to defend property; and that

– the issuance of a license allowing a firm lawfully “to pollute and, hence, invade or damage property of other parties” “entail[s} a fundamental and pervasive violation of property rights”; that

– one “observes that any detectable man-made climate change has occurred during periods of inadequate or nonexistent tort protection from air pollution”; and that

– “A sensible and thoughtful first crucial step in assuring a sustainable atmosphere for future generations is to assure adequate tort protection of the personal property rights for current generations“?

It is clear that I am on firm ground in expecting in response to this decision a rush by “skeptical” libertarians and conservatives to demand MORE action by government, rather than less of it.  After all, the defense offered by the greenies in the UK was based on a statute that can be simply amended, and thereby order restored (with nary a pang of concern for fusty old common-law doctrines).

And if this is what we get from libertarians, is there any wonder that greenies – including radicals like Austrian Ed Dolan and libertarians Jon Adler and Ron Bailey – think that resort to some sort of globally coordinated multi-state action is needed to deal with a global issue?

Oh, and let me add – it seems like a “wrong” decision to me, too.

Antarctic cooling? Or WHY "The Antarctic Ain’t Cooperating" [Updated]

March 3rd, 2008 4 comments

[Significant update at bottom] 

I’ve decided to put up this little post in connection with Walter Block’s recent post,, in order to avoid having my comment stuck in a spam filter (I’ve found that comments with too many links get caught).

I see I missed providing a cite to a recent article by Andew Revkin at the NYT on what scientists think of some of this winter’s screwy weather (the topice of Block’s post):  

Skeptics on Human Climate Impact Seize on Cold Spell,  March 2, 2008:

Here’s a little information that shows the progress of understanding of climate change affecting the Southern Hemisphere and Antarctic:

The IPCC’s 2001 report says: “For the change in annual mean surface air temperature in the various cases, the model experiments show the familiar pattern documented in the SAR with a maximum warming in the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere and a minimum in the Southern Ocean (due to ocean heat uptake).”

Ozone Hole Is Now Seen as a Cause for Antarctic Cooling, May 3, 2002:

Science 3 May 2002:

“Despite an overall global warming trend, temperatures over large parts in the interior of Antarctica have exhibited a small but distinct cooling trend during the past several decades. Thompson and Solomon (p. 895; see the news story by Kerr) present evidence that high-latitude Southern Hemisphere circulation changes during the past few decades reflect a systematic trend in regional atmospheric circulation. Trends in tropospheric circulation trends can be traced to the recent cooling of the lower stratosphere caused by photochemical ozone losses.”

Study Shows Potential for Antarctic Climate Change, Oct. 6, 2004:

“Since the late 1960s, the SAM [Southern Annular Mode] has more and more favored its positive phase, leading to stronger westerly winds. These stronger westerly winds act as a kind of wall that isolates cold Antarctic air from warmer air in the lower latitudes, which leads to cooler temperatures.

“Greenhouse gases and ozone depletion both lower temperatures in the high latitude stratosphere. The cooling strengthens the stratospheric whirling of westerly winds, which in turn influences the westerly winds in the lower atmosphere. According to the study, greenhouse gases and ozone have contributed roughly equally in promoting a strong-wind, positive SAM phase in the troposphere, the lowest part of the atmosphere.”

Antarctic cooling, global warming? 3 December 2004:

King penguin faces extinction due to climate change, 11/02/2008:

Antarctica is Cold? Yeah, We Knew That, 12 February 2008:


In comments below, Geoffrey Plauche points to a post entitled “The Antarctic Ain’t Cooperating” at the “World Climate Report” – the website run by former climate scientist, now policy critic Pat Michaels, as “criticizing … the alarmist hype coming from some scientists, some politicians and others (like Gore), and particularly the media”.  While a review of the post certainly shows criticism of the press (not scientists) for incomplete disclosure and discussion of data about Antarctica (a criticism that is not in itself unfair), a little further digging reveals that it is Pat Michaels who is being deceptive – for self-acknowledged political and business reasons – by failing to refer to or provide additional background information that show that there is plenty of evidence indicating that while Antarctica may be warming more slowly than elsewhere (which was not unexpected), there are ample signs of warming and other changes consistent with GHG forcings.

Pat Michaels describes the “World Climate Report” as “concise, hard-hitting and scientifically correct” and “exhaustively researched, impeccably referenced, and always timely”.   It is intended as a “response to the global change reports which gain attention in the literature and popular press” that “points out the weaknesses and outright fallacies in the science that is being touted as “proof” of disastrous warming” and is “the perfect antidote against those who argue for proposed changes to the Rio Climate Treaty, such as the Kyoto Protocol, which are aimed at limiting carbon emissions from the United States”.  Michaels trumpets World Climate Report as the “definitive and unimpeachable source for what Nature now calls the “mainstream skeptic” point of view, which is that climate change is a largely overblown issue ….”

But who produces the World Climate Report?  Pat Michaels’ personal and self-described “advocacy science consulting firm”, New Hope Environmental Services.  And who hires Pat Michaels?  Well, firms that have a direct financial stake in trying to hang onto their present ability to emit GHGs free of charge into the global atmopsheric commons, of course, even though Pat does his best for his clients’ sake to keep it under his hat.;  It is not surprising that particularly heavy users of the global commons (clearly electric utilities and coal producers in Pat’s case) would like to continue to operate under the same sweet terms that they have up until now, but other users of the global commons of course have the right to their own preferences as well.  But why the secrecy?  Why aren’t the electric utilities and coal producers who support Pat, instead of funding one-sided arguments about science, willing to be straightforward about their preferences so all commons users can discuss how to manage the atmospheric commons?  I suspect that it has something to do with the small problem called “rent-seeking” whenever governments are in the middle of a problem – viz., these fossil fuel interests are trying to influence government in order to get (manintain!) favorable treatment, as opposed to trying to come to terms with others.  Thus the desire to mask their behavior and muddy the science – to influence public opinion and government – rather than forthrightness. 

In other words, Pat Michaels is in the business of selling climate policy positions.  This is clearly manifested in posts like “The Antarctic Ain’t Cooperating”, which while “scientifically correct” is much less than scientifically complete, and misleadingly so.  This shows that his motivation isn’t really so much to clarify as it is to muddle – in order to advance his own policy preferences and/or those of his clients.  While Pat is fully entitled to his own preferences, he is not entitled to his own facts.  If Pat wants to really advance our understanding of climate developments, he should be providing a rounder picture, rather than feeding factoids to those who are happy to pretend (or continue to fool themselves) that there is no scientific case for ongoing climate change (and a significant human role in it).

But as “skewed but technically accurate” science is what Pat’s clients want, it’s hard to fault him for doing his best to be responsive to them.  But it nevertheless behooves us to be aware, when Pat speaks, who has actually paid for his voice, and why, so we might better know how to weigh his words.

Allow me to expand on the information I’ve already provided above by quoting relevant parts of two recent publications that provide a fuller picture of develoments in Antarctica:

1.    The British Antarctic Survey released in December 2007 a statement about climate change in Antarctica entitled “Climate Change – Our View”:  Among others, the BAS statement concludes (with some rephrasing):

  • The Southern Ocean is a significant sink for both heat and carbon dioxide, acting as a buffer against human-induced climate change.

  • Since the commencement of continuous observations of Antarctic climate in1957-58, surface temperatures have remained fairly stable over much of Antarctica, although individual station records show a high level of year-to-year variability, which could mask any underlying long term-trend.

  • By contrast, large and statistically-significant warming trends are seen at stations in the Antarctic Peninsula. Over the past 50 years, the west coast of the Peninsula has been one of the most rapidly-warming parts of the planet. Here, annual mean temperatures have risen by nearly 3°C, with the largest warming occurring in the winter season. This is approximately 10 times the mean rate of global warming, as reported by the IPCC. The east coast of the Peninsula has warmed more slowly and here the largest warming has taken place in summer and autumn.

  • Significant warming has also been observed in the Southern Ocean. Upper ocean temperatures to the west of the Antarctic Peninsula have increased by over 1°C since 1955. Within the circumpolar Southern Ocean, it is now well-established that the waters of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) are warming more rapidly than the global ocean as a whole. A comparison of temperature measurements from the 1990s with data from earlier decades shows a large-scale warming of around 0.2°C in the ACC waters at around 700-1100 m depth.

  • Analysis of weather balloon data collected over the past 30 years has shown that the Antarctic atmosphere has warmed below 8 km and cooled above this height. This pattern of warming in the troposphere and cooling in the stratosphere is seen globally and is the expected signature of increases in greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide. However, the 30-year warming at 5 km over the Antarctic during winter (0.75°C) is over three times the average rate of warming at this level for the globe as a whole.

  • Subtle but important changes have occurred in the atmospheric circulation around Antarctica. Since the early 1960s, atmospheric pressure has dropped over Antarctica and risen in the mid-latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere, a pattern of variability known as the Southern Hemisphere Annular Mode (SAM). These changes have resulted in a strengthening of the westerly winds that blow over the Southern Ocean around Antarctica. Stronger westerlies will impact on ocean currents, upwelling and mixing, but the consequences of such changes have yet to be fully understood.

  • Recent climate change has driven significant changes in the physical and living environment of the Antarctic. Environmental change is most apparent in the Antarctic Peninsula, where climate change has been largest. Adélie penguins, a species well adapted to sea ice conditions, have declined in numbers and been replaced by open-water species such as chinstrap penguins. Melting of perennial snow and ice covers has resulted in increased colonisation by plants. A long-term decline in the abundance of Antarctic krill in the SW Atlantic sector of the southern ocean may be associated with reduced sea ice cover.

  • Large changes have occurred in the ice cover of the Peninsula. Many glaciers have retreated and around 10 ice shelves that formerly fringed the Peninsula have been observed to retreat in recent years and some have collapsed completely. Furthermore, 87% of glaciers along the west coast of the AP have retreated in the last 50 years, and in the last 12 years most have accelerated. The Antarctic Peninsula is contributing to sea-level rise, at about the same rate as Alaska Glaciers.

  • Analysis of global measurements of atmospheric CO2 indicates that the Southern Ocean carbon sink has weakened significantly since 1981. This reduction in the capacity of the ocean to absorb CO2 has been attributed to increased upwelling of carbon-rich waters associated with strengthening of the westerly winds. Although future changes in the ability of the Southern Ocean to sequester CO2 are not completely known, this will be a key factor that helps shape global climate.

  • Most of the IPCC model experiments do simulate the observed strengthening of the circumpolar westerly winds, suggesting that this phenomenon is a robust response to changed climate forcing.

  • Further experiments have indicated that changes in anthropogenic forcings, particularly stratospheric ozone depletion and increases in greenhouse gases, have made the largest contribution to the strengthening of the westerlies. Recent climate observations show that changes in the strength of the westerlies strongly influence temperature variations on the east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.

  • Taken together, these two results suggest that a significant fraction of the recent observed changes in climate in this part of the Antarctic can be attributed to human activity with a reasonable degree of certainty. Further support for this view comes from analysis of marine sediment records which enable us to examine how the extent of Antarctic Peninsula ice shelves has varied over time. While some of the smaller ice shelves in this region have periodically grown and decayed over the past 10000 years, the Larsen-B ice shelf appears to have been stable throughout this period until it collapsed suddenly in March 2002. This suggests that recent warm temperatures are exceptional within the context of the last 10000 years, making it unlikely that they can be explained by natural variability alone.

  • Many of the theories that seek to explain the circumpolar warming of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current also have the strengthening of the westerly winds as their root cause. Whilst there is not yet a clear consensus on which are the mechanisms that are most important, there is increasing evidence that a significant part of this change is ultimately driven by human activities.


2.  In May 2007, ENVIRONMENTAL RESEARCH LETTERS published “Scientific reticence and sea level rise” by James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute,, which discusses in part recent developments in the Antarctic:

  • Positive feedback from the loss of buttressing ice shelves is relevant to some Greenland ice streams, but the West Antarctic ice sheet, which rests on bedrock well below sea level, will be affected much more. The loss of ice shelves provides exit routes with reduced resistance for ice from further inland, as suggested by Mercer and earlier by Hughes.

  • Warming ocean waters are now thinning some West Antarctic ice shelves by several meters per year.

  • The Antarctic peninsula recently provided a laboratory to study feedback interactions, albeit for ice volumes less than those in the major ice sheets. Combined actions of surface melt and ice shelf thinning from below led to the sudden collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf, which was followed by the acceleration of glacial tributaries far inland. 

  • The summer warming and melt that preceded the ice shelf collapse was no more than the global warming expected this century under BAU scenarios, and only a fraction of expected West Antarctic warming with realistic polar amplification of global warming.

  • Modeling studies yield increased ocean heat uptake around West Antarctica and Greenland due to increasing
    human-made greenhouse gases.  Observations show a warming ocean around West Antarctica, ice shelves thinning several meters per year, and increased iceberg discharge

  • As the discharge of ice increases from a disintegrating ice sheet, as occurs with all deglaciations, regional cooling by the icebergs is significant, providing a substantial but temporary negative feedback. However, this cooling effect is limited on a global scale as shown by comparison with the planetary energy imbalance, which is now sufficient to melt ice equivalent to about one meter of sea level per decade.  Yet the planetary energy imbalance should not be thought of as a limit on the rate of ice melt, as increasing iceberg discharge yields both positive and negative feedbacks on planetary energy imbalance via ocean surface cooling and resulting changes of sea ice and cloud cover. 

  • Global warming should also increase snowfall accumulation rates in ice sheet interiors because of the higher moisture content of the warming atmosphere. Despite high variability on interannual and decadal timescales, and limited Antarctic warming to date, observations tend to support this expectation for both Greenland and Antarctica.  Indeed, some models have ice sheets growing overall with global warming, but those models do not include realistic processes of ice sheet disintegration.  Extensive paleoclimate data confirm the common sense expectation that the net effect is for ice sheets to shrink as the world warms. 

  • The most compelling data for the net change of ice sheets is provided by the gravity satellite mission GRACE, which shows that both Greenland and Antarctica are losing mass at substantial rates.  The most recent analyses of the satellite data confirm that Greenland and Antarctica are each losing mass at a rate of about 150 cubic kilometers per year, with the Antarctic mass loss primarily in West Antarctica. These rates of mass loss
    are at least a doubling of rates of several years earlier
    , and only a decade earlier these ice sheets were much closer to mass balance. 

  • Warming [in Antarctica] has been limited in recent decades, at least in part due to the effects of ozone depletion.  The fact that West Antarctica is losing mass at a significant rate suggests that the thinning ice shelves are already beginning to have an effect on ice discharge rates.  

  • Warming of the ocean surface around Antarctica is small compared with the rest of world, consistent with climate model simulations, but that limited warming is expected to increase.  The detection of recent, increasing summer surface melt on West Antarctica raises the danger that feedbacks among these processes could lead to nonlinear growth of ice discharge from Antarctica.