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The Road Not Taken II: Austrians strive for a self-comforting irrelevancy on climate change, the greatest commons problem / rent-seeking game of our age

October 30th, 2009 3 comments

[Update: Readers may wish to note the latest developments, as I note in these follow-up posts.]

Stephan Kinsella – whom I have engaged before on the ramifications of the decidedly non-libertarian state grant of limited liabiility to corporations – has a new post up on the Mises Blog on global warming;  his first on this subject, as far as I know.

The post is surprisingly short, and consists of a simple introduction by Stephan a copy of letter to the EPA (which he has appended) that one Howard Hayden, a retired physicist, one whom Stephan assures us is “a staunch advocate of sound energy policy” – whatever that means (hey, me too!) – submitted in connection with the EPA`s Supreme Court-mandated consideration of whether to regulate CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Stephan also refers to Dr. Hayden`s letter as a “one-letter disproof of global warming claims.”

I welcome Stephan to this discussion, which has taken place at the Mises Blog in fits and starts over the past few years. However, the absence of any commentary by Stephan leaves me scratching my head. Where`s the beef? Are this person`s scientific views on climate so convincing or obviously correct, and are the policy implication so straightforward, and correct, that we should all “get it” and agree, without any commentary by Stephan? Or Is Stephan simply playing with our credulity, and his own?

In any case, given both (1) the focus of Austrian economics on productively addressing conflicts between people with conflicting preferences (and the frequently negative role that governments play in resource tussles, generally to the benefit of entrenched insiders and to government itself) and (2) the recent Nobel prize award to Elinor Ostrom regarding the ways that humans work together successfully or not) to address common resources, I am simply disappointed. Is this all that Stephan has to offer?

Observing that Stephan fits within a grand tradition at Mises of shallow thought on climate and other “environmental” issues, I felt compelled to post a few thoughts at Stephan`s post, which I copy below:



Thanks for bringing your post to my attention.

My short response? Remember “Thank you, Prof. Block, for feeding our confirmation biases“?

But since I can`t resist doing what nobody else seems inclined to – I suppose it is, after all, why you invited me to this feast – let me make a few comments on matters that would apparently not otherwise occur to you or to the rest of the community.

The fact that most of the contents of Dr. Hayden`s letter is confused twaddle that has been explained in detail countless times (and personally by me, ad nauseum, to the extreme annoyance of most of the blog over the years 2006-2008) aside, it puzzles me that you and others prefer to treat the pages of the Mises Blog as a forum to dismiss – through drive-by postings like this (a la Walter Block) of a particular piece of “skepticism” that caught your fancy – extremely widespread scientific views (held by EVERY major national academy of science, including China and India), rather than engaging in a discussion of preferences, institutions and policies.

As I`ve asked Jeffrey Tucker previously, is science the forte of the Mises Blog, or its readers?

Even if those who believe that man`s rising emissions of CO2 have nothing to do with an observably rapidly changing world and pose no threat whatsoever – and that those who disagree are all deluded and/or evil – turn out, after we play our little massive and irreversible game with the Earth for another few centuries, to be absolutely right, is engaging with them by dismissing their concerns an approach that holds even the slightest prospect of success?

It`s as if Austrians were determined to ignore their own principles, stampede themselves into irrelevancy, and to make sure that we get the WORST policy outcomes possible.

Why not, if you think others all wrong, deluded or evil, play along with their game, and actually seek policy changes that might not only address the expressed concerns of others in a meaningful way, while also advancing a libertarian, freedom-seeking agenda?

As I have noted in a litany of posts at my blog, most recently one addressed to Bob Murphy, such pro-freedom regulatory changes might include:

  • accelerating cleaner power investments by eliminating corporate income taxes or allowing immediate amortization of capital investment,
  • eliminating antitrust immunity for public utility monopolies (to allow consumer choice, peak pricing and “smart metering” that will rapidly push efficiency gains),
  • ending Clean Air Act handouts to the worst utilities (or otherwise unwinding burdensome regulations and moving to lighter and more common-law dependent approaches),
  • ending energy subsidies generally (including federal liability caps for nuclear power (and allowing states to license),
  • speeding economic growth and adaptation in the poorer countries most threatened by climate change by rolling back domestic agricultural corporate welfare programs (ethanol and sugar), and
  • if there is to be any type of carbon pricing at all, insisting that it is a per capita, fully-rebated carbon tax (puts the revenues in the hands of those with the best claim to it, eliminates regressive impact and price volatility, least new bureaucracy, most transparent, and least susceptible to pork).

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 be rebated to citizens (with a slice to the administering agency).

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 [persistently pointing this out it, and questioning whether his blog was a front for fossil fuel interests, appears to be what earned me the boot].

There have been occasional   libertarian  climate  proposals floated over the past few years, but they have never graced the Mises Blog, instead falling gently to the ground unnoticed – apparently, except for me – like the proverbial unstrained koala tea of Mercy.

Austrians seem to act as if the love of reason requires a surrender of it in favor of the comforting distraction of a self-satisfied echo chamber of a type that would warm the cockles of any like-minded religious “alarmist” cult.

Then of course, we have our own  home-grown libertarians who are happy to participate actively in the debate (with many excellent points, naturally), but carefully skirt for the purposes of maximum effectiveness (and felicitously, for their own consciences) the fact that their views are funded by the dirtiest class of rent-seekers. Plus we have a few who are happy to regurgitate for us “heroic” “grassroots” efforts that are transparent corporate PR ploys.

Finally, since no one else seems to be remotely interesting in scratching the surface of Dr. Hayden`s letter, here is what a little due diligence turns up:

– sure, the solubility of CO2 in water decreases as water warms, and increases as water cools. Some skeptics use this to suggest that rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations are due not to man, but to a naturally warming. That`s why it`s so interesting that, despite a warming ocean, ocean pH is rising [oops, I meant pH is “falling”, as I`ve noted in a previous comment about rapidly changing ocean pH]  because dissolved CO2 is also rising (because man`s CO2 emissions are forcing more CO2 to be dissolved in water).

– You ask sarcastically, if the melting point of ice is 0 ºC in Antarctica, just as it is everywhere else, how will a putative few degrees of warming melt all the ice and inundate Florida, as is claimed by the warming alarmists? The answer is, simply, that (1) the warming oceans melt and undermine the coastal ice, and (2) as coastal buttresses are removed, gravity brings the continental ice down more rapidly. This process is well underway and apparently accelerating, as described in a study just published in Nature. Note also that not all of Antarctica lies precisely at the South Pole, and that some parts are melting directly as the atmosphere warms.

– finally, not all men are dinosaurs, nor is the rest of extant Creation (save birds, of course). Why should we feel comforted by the fact that we may, in the blink of an eye in geologic time (decades/centuries), be terra-forming the Earth for creatures that no longer exist, while stressing it for the rest of Creation? Do we have no right of preference in climate or in the life we share the Earth with, or have the investors in fossil fuel firms homesteaded the right to modify environmental matters willy nilly, come what may?

Thanks for providing the soapbox, Stephan.


I note that Stephan closes his introduction to Dr. Hayden`s letter with the following:

“I love Hayden’s email sign-off, “People will do anything to save the world … except take a course in science.””

Would that problems of governance of shared resources were so easy as taking a science course! Then ALL of us Austrians, and not merely our leading lights at the Mises Blog, could simply pack up and go home, and leave everything to a few philosopher-king scientists!

"Free market" Rob Bradley prefers to mock enviros rather than to make common cause

February 4th, 2009 No comments

Robert L. Bradley, Jr. is an energy expert (author, former speechwriter for Key Lay and director of public policy analysis at Enron, founder and CEO of Institute for Energy Research) with libertarian leanings. 

But in a series of posts on climate issues on the recently launched  “free market” energy group blog MasterResource that he spearheads, Rob doesn’t come off as much of a libertarian, free-market guy as he suggests, since he doesn’t so much advocate for free market approaches to such issues as he takes evident pleasure in mocking enviros (and the preferences they share with many others) – all while ignoring that the status quo isn’t free of rent-seekers (precisely as Roderick Long and Ed Dolan have criticized libertarians).

1.  Take, for example, his January 25 post, Why Do the Alarmists Feel Bad About Debates–and Debating?.  In this post, Rob examines an online debate between scientist Joe Romm of Climate Progress and Jerry Taylor of Cato, notes that Joe later seems to acknowledge that Jerry did better in the debate, but skips over some of Joe’s chief criticisms of “skeptic” opponents by concluding:

Mr. Romm has all but conceded that the skeptics of climate alarmism beat the alarmists in debate, posting about it here and here. He blames it on the dishonesty of the “deniers,” but in fact they might have a much stronger intellectual and practical case. And I dare say that Romm does not feel he did particularly well against Taylor in their online debate and is not itching to debate him again, particularly in person.

But if I am wrong, I say: let’s get a big audience for it. Make the stakes high. Sell tickets. Poll the audience. It will be that entertaining!

Here was my comment to Rob:

Well Rob, Joe Romm isn’t ALL alarmists, but I’d say it’s rather clear that he’s saying that “scientists” are not good policy debaters – as it’s something that they’re not trained in. I suppose you would hardly disagree.

On top of that, Joe Romm and others simply are not trained in public choice or Austrian perspectives on political economy issues, so he clearly doesn’t understand what Jerry patiently tries to explain. But there’s rather alot of that to go around – across the political spectrum and on many, many issues – and I rather fail to understand how mocking that who lack understanding is a good way to open their minds to how wealth creation occurs and to the perils of using the state.

In addition, Jerry Taylor is clearly different from – more open and intellectually honest – most of the other debaters Joe Romm refers to.

2.  In another thread, Rob suggested that “doing nothing” was the preferred policy approach to climate; thankfully, in response to a comment from me, Rob expressly noted that

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.

Great!  Inquiring minds are waiting to hear about what it is that Rob Bradley and others at “MasterResource” actually recommend as an approach to climate concerns!

Meanwhile, can we stop pretending that “enviros” are the only ones fighting over the wheel of government, much less that they can hold a candle to wealthy corporate insiders?

[Update 2] Neocons, conservatives, libertarians and Exxon join Jim Hansen in calling for rebated carbon taxes in lieu of massive cap/trade rent-seeking and industrial planning

January 10th, 2009 No comments

[Update at bottom.]

Neocons, conservatives, libertarians and Exxon`s Rex Tillerson have recently joined arch-warmer Jim Hansen in calling for rebated carbon taxes in lieu of massive cap/trade rent-seeking and industrial planning.

I`ve blogged extensively on the reasons why I and others view carbon taxes – particularly if rebated to citizens – as a far better alternative to a domestic cap and trade program.

With the Obama inauguration looming, starting late last month a wide range of voices on the right have started to weigh in – each with their own reasons – in support of carbon or similar taxes, in order to shift the debate away from cap and trade and other extensive industrial policy.  Is it too late?  In any case, it`s worth taking a look at what people are saying recently:

Climate scientist Jim Hansen, who with his wife rather boldly sent to Barack and Michelle Obama a personal letter and background paper (with a discussion draft first made public in November).

Neocon Charles Krauthammer proposed a substantial “net-zero” gas tax in the December 27 (now updated to January 5) Weekly Standard, with intentions in part to cut off the flow of oil money to unfriendly (and Muslim) regimes abroad.

Republican Congressman Bob Inglis and economist Arthur Laffer argued in the December 28 New York Times  for a carbon tax coupled with tax-cut stimulus.

On January 9, the Wall Street Journal reported on ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson`s recent speech in DC calling explicitly for Congress to enact a tax on greenhouse-gas emissions as a “more direct, a more transparent and a more effective approach” than cap and trade.  This is not as new as the WSJ would have it; as I note on an earlier post, ExxonMobil came out rather explicitly in favor of carbon taxes a year ago.

Libertarian and natural resources law prof – and NRO and Volokh Conspiracy blooger – Jonathan Adler applauds and explains these developments for various reasons, noting particularly that a train wreck seems headed our way, and that Congressional action is needed to avoid having the Obama EPA attempt to implement climate change policy via the Clean Air Act (for which a Supreme Court case last year paves the way).

Of course there is reasoned (both reasonable and passionate) disagreement, such as from businessman Jim Manzi at NRO on December 30 and blogger Tony Quain in response to Krauthammer, and by Chris Horner of the Competitve Enterprise Institute on January 7.

All are worth a look.


[Update:  Although liberal economists and commentators have tended to diss a carbon tax as a political non-starter, I note that in a December 27 New York Times op-ed, Thomas Friedman voiced support for a revenue-neutral carbon tax or gas tax on roughly the same grounds as Krauthammer.

Friedman and the others noted above join a long list of economists and political commentators on both sides of the political spectrum (including AEIGeorge Will and Barbara Thoring on the right) who strongly prefer carbon taxes over cap and trade.

I note that I do not buy all of the arguments for a carbon tax, particularly the argument that a gas tax would be an effective foreign policy tool.  However, I summarized previously some economists’s discussions of using a domestic tax to limit the flow of revenues to oil-exporting countries.

Dan Rosenblum of the Carbon Tax Center (which is a great complier of information on carbon taxes vs. cap and trade policies) has an excellent summary on recent developments in the December 30 Huffington Post.

My view is that a carbon tax would be much preferable to a cap and trade system and, if rebated or offset by reductions in income or other taxes, may improve incentives for savings and investment.  Further, it would undercut arguments and justifications for other obviously counterproductive market inverventions like the CAFE standards and subsidies for supposedly “green” sources of energy (including ethanol). 

Of course the fact that a carbon tax is much more transparent than a cap and trade and other policies interventions is one of the chief reasons that politicians and rent-seekers prefer more complex and obscure ways to provide favors to various industries and interest groups.]

[Further update: I note that Cato devoted its August 2008 edition of Cato Unbound to a debate over climate change, anchored by an essay by Jim Manzi that specifically advocated substantial government in improved global climate prediction, carbon capture and storage, and  geo-engineering

In addition, libertarians Ed Dolan, Gene Callahan and Sheldon Richman all feel that climate change deserves serious consideration, Reason online`s Ron Bailey and libertarian/energy expert Lynne Kielsing supports climate change actions,  Bruce Yandle, CEI`s Iain Murray, Cato`s Indur Goklany has advanced a specific climate change-targeted proposal, and AEI`s Steven Hayward and Ken Green have provided relatively balanced analyses.]

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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.

Jim Manzi/Cato on climate: with flabby "libertariarian sinews", he advocates no panic, but domestic climate science and technology investments

August 18th, 2008 4 comments

[UPDATE:  See my follow-up post.]

Cato Unbound’s new climate issue features a lead essay by Jim Manzi, who is an MIT- and Wharton-trained statistician and CEO of Applied Predictive Technologies (which uses pattern recognition and optimization models for sales and marketing).

Manzi is a newcomer to the climate commentary scene, but has made a splash in conservatives circles over the past year or so through a series of articles in the National Review and The American Scene.  Manzi’s bio at Cato states that Manzi’s position is that “global warming, while real, is a problem of limited magnitude, deserving a proportional response, not overreaction“.

Manzi’s essay at Cato is a polished rehashing of points that he has made elsewhere, tweaked shamelessly to appeal to libertarians, as in this lead-off paragraph:

“The danger of potentially catastrophic global warming is an almost paradigmatic case of decisionmaking under conditions of extreme uncertainty.  Of course, this is just another way of saying that many of the intellectual sinews of libertarianism are central to thinking through this problem.” (emphasis added)

While the essay is worth consideration, aside from this initial mention, it is painfully evident that Manzi’s “libertarian sinews” are rather flimsy; indeed, Manzi:

  •  makes no mention of basic Lockean-based libertarian principles (rights to property in one’s own person, in the fruits of one’s own labor, and in resources taken from nature when mixed with one’s own labor; and duties to abstain from harming others, from taking property of others, and to leave enough and as good for others when taking from the commons) that are relevant to environmental and public policy issues (see Rothbard; Edwin Dolan has laid an application of Lockean principles to climate change here; );

  • fails to acknowledge “environmental” problems as cases where resources are not clearly or effectively owned, either individually or on a community basis, so that some economic actors do not bear the costs or risks of their actions, which costs or risks are shifted to others against their will (see Cordato; Jon Adler makes similar points here); and

  • provides only a rudimentary discussion of public choice issues that, while noting both the difficulties of reaching a global agreement and that government policies to prepare for climate change may be both inefficient and hijacked special interests, disregards the possibilities that effective international steps can be taken by just a few countries and completely fails to consider the role that special interests have played to date in manipulating government policies and in protecting the “GHG emissions/risk-shifting is free” status quo.

Rather, Manzi:

(1) argues that the estimates for future damages that the IPPC derives from models appear rather modest,

(2) downplays the widespread agreement by economists (like Nordhaus) and others that standard cost-benefit analysis provides ample support for carbon pricing (particularly in the form of carbon taxes) now,

(3) argues that we cannot adequately gauge the “massive uncertainties” regarding the “danger of potentially catastrophic global warming” (addressing but failing to mention Weitzman),

(4) argues that the US should not adopt “insanely expensive” measures to “force massive change in the economy” via “rapid, aggressive emissions reductions”,

(5) lumps climate change in with other, external risks (like pandemics and rogues states, which risks, oddly, we actually try to manage), and

(6) and tones down his earlier pieces by presenting an artificially weakened case that,

if there is a real, though unquantifiably small, possibility of catastrophic climate change, and if we would ideally want some technological hedges as insurance against this unlikely scenario, and if raising the price of carbon to induce private economic actors to develop the technologies would be an enormously more expensive means of accomplishing this than would be advisable,” (emphasis added)

THEN the government might be justified in investing in “improved global climate prediction capability, visionary biotechnology to capture and recycle carbon dioxide emissions, or geo-engineering projects to change the albedo of the earth’s surface or atmosphere”.

Manzi concludes with a mix of a case for a surprisingly large government climate program (even if “rife with inefficiencies”) and a bashing of the worst case, while ignoring the middle ground:

“But consider that its costs would be on the order of 1/100th of the costs of imposing a large U.S. carbon tax. It could be massively inefficient and we would still be far better off in actually developing the long–lead-time technologies that we would want if faced with a currently unanticipated emergency.

Hedging against the risk to future generations of potential unanticipated impacts from global warming is a legitimate job for the U.S. government. Ideally, it would be tackled by the governments of the small number of countries with a sophisticated technology development capability acting in some kind of coordinated fashion. A massive carbon tax, a cap-and-trade rationing system, and the attempt to use the government to control the evolution of the energy sector of the economy are all billed as prudent reactions to this risk, but each is the opposite: an impractical, panicky reaction unworthy of a serious government.

I hope to address later various aspects of Manzi’s piece, but I think it is fair to conclude initially that it is not libertarian nor, ultimately, a balanced discussion, but rather a somewhat strange conservative position that we ought to worry about climate change and so the government should throw even MORE money at it, while refusing to harness markets to accomplish the research tasks Manzi wishes to fund or to ask those who are generating climate risks to internalize or shoulder any of the burden.

While this stance might please fossil fuel interests and their defenders, it’s hard to see what, exactly, in Manzi’s analysis – other than his opposition to “massive” carbon taxes – will appeal to libertarians.

Op-ed by nuclear physicist on climate change: questions for "skeptics"

August 5th, 2008 4 comments

John P. Holdren, an MIT and Stanford-trained nuclear physicist who is professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and director of Harvard’s Woods Hole Research Center, former President and Chairman of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and consultant for the past 35 years at the Magnetic Fusion Energy Division of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory [yes, this is an appeal to authority] had a short but interesting op-ed in the August 4 Boston Globe.

I think he’s trying to be sensitive, but Holdren may come off a bit arrogant; he’s certainly insensitive to those who are concerned that government may bungle any climate “solution”.  Given his technical knowledge and experience, I hope readers will understand where he’s coming from and encourage them to read the whole thing – which really isn’t too long.

But since I have you here, allow me to quote liberally:

skeptics about [climate change] tend to move, over time, through three stages. First, they tell you you’re wrong and they can prove it. (In this case, “Climate isn’t changing in unusual ways or, if it is, human activities are not the cause.”)

Then they tell you you’re right but it doesn’t matter. (“OK, it’s changing and humans are playing a role, but it won’t do much harm.”) Finally, they tell you it matters but it’s too late to do anything about it. (“Yes, climate disruption is going to do some real damage, but it’s too late, too difficult, or too costly to avoid that, so we’ll just have to hunker down and suffer.”) …

The few with credentials in climate-change science have nearly all shifted in the past few years from the first category to the second, however, and jumps from the second to the third are becoming more frequent.

Their arguments, such as they are, suffer from two huge deficiencies.

First, they have not come up with any plausible alternative culprit for the disruption of global climate that is being observed, for example, a culprit other than the greenhouse-gas buildups in the atmosphere that have been measured and tied beyond doubt to human activities. (The argument that variations in the sun’s output might be responsible fails a number of elementary scientific tests.)

Second, having not succeeded in finding an alternative, they haven’t even tried to do what would be logically necessary if they had one, which is to explain how it can be that everything modern science tells us about the interactions of greenhouse gases with energy flow in the atmosphere is wrong.

Members of the public who are tempted to be swayed by the denier fringe should ask themselves how it is possible, if human-caused climate change is just a hoax, that:

  • The leaderships of the national academies of sciences of the United States, United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, Russia, China, and India, among others, are on record saying that global climate change is real, caused mainly by humans, and reason for early, concerted action.
  • This is also the overwhelming majority view among the faculty members of the earth sciences departments at every first-rank university in the world.
  • All three of holders of the one Nobel prize in science that has been awarded for studies of the atmosphere (the 1995 chemistry prize to Paul Crutzen, Sherwood Rowland, and Mario Molina, for figuring out what was happening to stratospheric ozone) are leaders in the climate-change scientific mainstream.  …
  • US polls indicate that most of the amateur skeptics are Republicans. These Republican skeptics should wonder how presidential candidate John McCain could have been taken in. He has castigated the Bush administration for wasting eight years in inaction on climate change, and the policies he says he would implement as president include early and deep cuts in US greenhouse-gas emissions. …

    The extent of unfounded skepticism about the disruption of global climate by human-produced greenhouse gases is not just regrettable, it is dangerous. It has delayed – and continues to delay – the development of the political consensus that will be needed if society is to embrace remedies commensurate with the challenge. The science of climate change is telling us that we need to get going. Those who still think this is all a mistake or a hoax need to think again.

    (emphasis added)

    Holdren is focussed on arguments regarding science, and so fails to address questions as to the efficacy of proposed solutions involving government action, which questions are of course important.

    Although Austrian and libertarian observers may have very useful things to add to the policy discussion, it seems fair to say that, except for a few such as Jonathan Adler, Gene Callahan, Edwin Dolan, Sheldon Richman and Bruce Yandle, many have preferred not to discuss policy but to focus either on climate science or on the motives of those self-deluded religious, fascist creeps who think that there may be a problem.

    While concerns about science and motives are perfectly legitimate, let me add a few points that Austrian “skeptics” ought to consider:

    – Austrians tend to view “environmental” problems not as harms to a disembodied “environment”, but as real problems involving conflicts in individual/firm plan formation that arise because of a lack or clear or enforceable property rights in particular resources or large information, transaction or enforcement costs that make contracting difficult

    Are there clear or enforceable property rights with respect to emissions of GHGs, or the atmosphere or climate more generally?

    Is private contracting a practical way for individuals and firms with differing preferences as to climate or GHG emissions to meaningfully express such preferences?

    – What lessons does history teach us about the exploitation of open-access resources that are not protected by accepted rules among the relevant community of users?  If there are problems with such resources, how have such problems been addressed in the past, with what degree of efficacy?

    Climate change damage and property rights: do Lockean principles require Western nations to compensate poorer ones?

    June 13th, 2008 No comments

    Dedicated libertarian law professor Jonathan Adler and longtime libertarian policy analyst Indur Goklany discuss the above issue at in a Roundtable entitled “Climate Change and Property Rights” hosted by Shikha Dalmia of the Reason Foundation and made available online last week.

    [Update:  Ron Bailey discusses the Adler/Goklany debate here.]

    As both Jon Adler and Indur Goklany are serious and even-handed, fortunately the discussion includes none of the cheap, sneering dismissals of the moral issues (as “climate welfare” such as I addressed earlier on these pages and more recently on the main blog, where an author dismisses as “absurd” and another poster labels “beautiful propaganda” my suggestion that Lockean views must be seriously considered when addressing claims that the use of the atmosphere should be shared) that tends to be the hallmark of shallow, reflexive and emotional engagement so frequently encountered here at Mises and elsewhere from purported libertarians with respect to climate change and other environmental issues.

    Unfortunately, the exchange between Adler and Goklany is far too academic, and neither commentator makes any effort to seize common ground (and climate change concerns) to push for liberalization of agricultural trade or other institutional changes that would (i) materially improve wealth (and ability to adapt to climate change) in poorer nations and (ii) enhance needed mitigation and adaptation efforts at home.

    Both Adler and Goklany appear to agree on the fundamental, Lockean-based principles underlying their discussion and would probably agree that, even though the nations that benefit most from climate change (and from the long period of GDP growth when GHG emissions have not been priced) have at least a moral obligation to be concerned about an uncompensated shifting of costs to other (largely poorer) nations, it is nigh impossible to build a legal case mandating compensation. 

    I suppose both Adler and Goklany probably also agree that (1) climate change is likely to further bedevil the development problems in poorer nations, which are least capable of adapting to such changes, (2) development problems in such countries is largely related to the failure of governing elites to protect property rights and capital, and (3) traditional development aid has in large measure failed and instead served to benefit well-connected elites from both sides.

    I am curious (4) what both Adler and Goklany think about proposals that do not amount to compensation, but recognize the interest that the West has in aiding growth and climate adaptation in the developing world, such as the proposal reported last Friday in Osaka by Treasury secretary Hank Paulson for the Group of 8 industrialized nations to back a special $10 billion fund to help developing countries fight global warming and (5) why they (and other libertarians) do not seem to see that climate change concerns in many way present golden opportunities to urge positive governmental changes, such as greater free trade (and roll back of domestic agricultural subsidies and import restrictions), greater freedom in domestic energy markets, the desirability of allowing accelerated depreciation and lowering capital gains taxes, etc.

    Why are libertarians so reluctant to focus on a positive agenda that would actually do some good?

    In note that, back in July 2000, Adler proposed a “no regrets” domestic deregulatory agenda when he was associated with CEI: “Greenhouse Policy Without Regrets: A Free Market Approach to the Uncertain Risks of Climate Change“; Jon has subsequently been rather quiet with respect to any specific climate change policy agenda.  Cato has just published an essay by Goklany, “What to Do about Climate Change“, in which Goklany essentially argues that a focus on mitigation (GHG reductions) is a relatively expensive and in effective way to combat climate change or advance well-being (particularly of the world’s most vulnerable populations), as compared with adaption efforts that would reduce vulnerabilities to climate-sensitive problems that could be exacerbated by climate change.

    As I have previously noted, there are several libertarians who have recently been urging constructive libertarian approaches to climate change:

    • Edwin Dolan, in his Fall 2006 Cato Journal essay, Global Warming: Rethinking the Market Liberal Position, analyzes relevant Lockean considerations and cautions that market liberals appear to be hamstringing their own analytic strengths by falling into a reflexive and conservative mind-frames that benefit established economic interests.
    • Sheldon Richman of the Foundation for Economic Education also recommends Dolan’s essay and calls for less wishful thinking and greater engagement by libertarians in the December 8, 2006 edition of The Freeman:  The Goal Is Freedom: Global Warming and the Layman.
    • Gene Callahan makes a similar warning in his essay How a Free Society Could Solve Global Warming“, in the October 2007 issue of The Freeman.
    • 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.

    I further note that Shikha Dalmia of the Reason Foundation hosted a similar roundtable on climate change policy in October 2006.

    Nick Kristof on politics: why we conclude that I’m right, and you’re evil

    April 17th, 2008 No comments

    Here’s a very interesting piece by Kristof at the New York Times about the reactions of Obama and Clinton supporters, and introducing cognitive science studies of why more information often polarizes, rather than bringing people together

    Divided They Fall

    Simply, we are cognitively wired as tribal animals.  That means we are inclined to see “our side” as right, and the other side as lying and scheming.  And very clever rent-seekers know this and try to use it to jerk us around.

    Ron Bailey of Reason has two similar posts up:

    More Information Confirms What You Already Know

    The Culture War on Facts


    Anybody see any similarities for what passes for discussion of climate science generally, and at here at Mises?  I’ve got loads of examples for those who can’t seem to see it, or are interested in looking more.  Here are several, most recent first:


    Climate spin: Who are the sneaky ones who changed “global warming” to “climate change”?


    Thank you, Prof. Block, for feeding our confirmation biases


    Thanks, Dr. Reisman; or, How I Learned to Hate Enviros and Love Tantrums


    Escape from Reason: are Austrians conservatives, or neocons, on the environment?


    Edwin Dolan: applying the Lockean framework to climate change


    “Climate Change, Evidence and Ideology”


    John Baden: a Mt. Pelerin misanthrope/watermelon?


    Holiday joy: roasting “watermelons” on an open pyre!


    “Heroic” contrarians, proven wrong on AGW, make another slick cry for relevance at Bali


    Who knows climate science? The Mises Blog!


    Goering and Madison on War


    Bali:  Murdoch & 149 Other Top Vile Collectivists/Capitalists Call for Global Poverty …


    Tribal pigheadedness: RedState bans Ron Paul supporters


    Libertarian denial; clever but not wise










    [Update] Climate change lawsuits: Does the difficulty of proving causation mean there is no harm?

    April 8th, 2008 No comments

    There is a new climate change lawsuit in US courts, this time by the Inuit inhabitants of an Alaskan village that will soon be rendered uninhabitable by the rapid erosion resulting from the year-round pounding of seas that were once frozen; the villagers are blaming man-made climate change and suing oil, coal and power producers.

    Similar climate change damages are being felt throughout the high latitudes, as startling rises in temperatures mean that buildings and roads are falling apart (and petroleum firm’s drilling schedules are being interrupted) as permafrost melts, and villages and other structures (like NORAD radar sites) are being lost to erosion, and forests are dying and burning as winters are no longer sufficiently cold to kill pine bark beetle grubs. 

    There are of course winners as well – there is a race for countries and firms to figure out how to profit from the melting North and the prospects of a seasonally ice free passage – but they are not the same as the losers, and libertarian approaches have never justified actions based on bottom line decisions of net utility.  Rather, the traditional view espoused by Austrians and other supporters of common law approaches is that property owners have a right not only to damages, but also to absolutely stop the activities of others who interfere with their property.

    The new lawsuit (and others out there) faces a heavy burden of proof of causation, even if the relevant court doesn’t wimp out by concluding, as others have – clearly wrongly, from a common law perspective – that issues of damages relating to climate change are “political questions” that must be left to the recalcitrant federal legislature and President, and are not justiciable by courts.  Surely Austrians and others who would like to see a turning away from statist legislative or regulatory approaches should be welcoming this case and others like it as an opportunity to affirm that courts certainly do have a role in judging claims of climate damage and fashioning solutions – and are even preferable to centralized legislation.

    There are obvious, severe difficulties in linking individual plaintiffs to individual defendants, difficulties that remain even if a class action were to be used to try to link with other defendants, and these difficulties may be sufficiently great that the Alaskan plaintiffs are left with nothing but legal fees.  But note that the difficulties are orders of magnitude higher when we consider linking any supposed climate change victims elsewhere around the world with fossil fuel producers and power companies also globally, as there simply is no available judicial systems, and costs of action are much higher (both absolutely and relative to income).  And litigation would be even more difficult if we are to consider other sources (such as the cement industry), other GHGs (methane and CFCs) and other human influences such as soot.

    But surely the very difficulty in using litigation as a means of recourse does not imply that (i) those who may in fact be injured – or those who are concerned about their plight – are either pretending their injury or wrong to be seeking redress for it or (ii) that we as a members of a society should continue to prefer to do nothing about the way industrial activity is affecting a crucial and shared global resource.  Nor does it mean that we have to wait for irrefutable proof, satisfactory to all, before we recognize that the atmosphere, like the crashing ocean fisheries, has no owner and must be protected by human institutions if we don’t wish to see it seriously trashed.

    As Mises himself noted, private property institutions themselves arose in response to the economic inefficiency of older systems that did not force economic actors to bear the external effects of their actions:  “Mises on fixing externalities”,  We are intelligent and occasionally rational creatures – why should we not be pro-actively considering what institutions might be desirable and feasible for dealing with the effects of our activities on the atmosphere and  climate (and oceans, ecosystems and unowned species, or how to improve governance in countries that don’t recognize or protect property rights)?

    More on the lawsuit by Alaskan natives here:

    [UPDATE:  More on the legal theory of this case and on other recent climate change cases here, by Matthew Pawa, one of the attorneys representing the Inuit:]

    More on Austrian approaches to climate change here: (a debate) (a debate)

    –  Sheldon Richman, in his essay  “The Goal Is Freedom: Global Warming and the Layman”, in the December 8, 2006 edition of The Freeman:;

    –  Gene Callahan, in his essay “How a Free Society Could Solve Global Warming”, in the October 2007 issue of The Freeman:; and

    –  Edwin Dolan, in his Fall 2006 Cato Journal essay, “Global Warming: Rethinking the Market Liberal Position”


    Categories: AGW, Callahan, climate, Dolan, litgation, mises, Pawa, Richman Tags:

    Thank you, Prof. Block, for feeding our confirmation biases

    February 26th, 2008 10 comments

    Walter Block of Loyola University has graced the main LvMI blog with a rare post, this time a clipping – without commentary – from a piece entitled “Forget global warming: Welcome to the new Ice Age“, by Canadian conservative commentator Lorne Gunter concerning the relatively high snowfalls this winter in various parts of the North Hemisphere:

    What’s the point, except to show that Prof. Block is happy to find something that feeds his own reluctance (and that on the LvMI blog generally) to talk about climate science or policy?  Where’s the beef, Prof. Block?

    I posted the following to his thread; as it’s pending there I thought I’d put it up here (with a few typo corrections)

    [snark level: high]

    Dear Prof. Block:

    Thank you for continuing in the hoary LvMI blog tradition, followed by Dr. Reisman, Sean Corrigan and many others here, of doing one’s level best, by way of self-example, to illustrate how strongly we are in the grip of reflexive cognitive patterns such as confirmation bias.

    This confirmation bias helps us at LvMI to report, with self-reassuring glee, any iota of evidence that the planet might be cooling, while dodging evidence to the contrary, and to mock those who say that the “climate” is complex and not the same as the weather.

    We just love confirmation bias, because it allows us to dismiss all those who have concerns about how our long-term and unmoderated experiment with the Earth’s climate and eco-systems are going as evil and/or crackpots – AND thus spares us from doing any heavy lifting on a number of distasteful tasks:

    – actually trying to understand what climate scientists are saying about the climate system, our influences on it and present or future system responses;

    – considering the likely consequences if we continue to treat the atmosphere and oceans as unmanaged open-access commons (Mises himself noted: “The extreme instance is provided by the case of no-man’s property referred to above. If land is not owned by anybody, although legal formalism may call it public property, it is utilized without any regard to the disadvantages resulting [to others]”);

    – engaging in a good faith discussion with those who have differing views (and their own confirmation biases, no doubt); and

    – exploring Austrian and libertarian principles and explicating their possible application to the problem that others declaim (i.e., the general efficacy of property rights, problems of information and transaction costs, rent-seeking, bureaucratic mal-incentives, the lack of rule of law relating to shared global/regional commons and in poorer nations, and with coordinating action for transborder commons under a Westphalian global order, and the legacy of 150+ years of – as you have put it – the “failure of the government to uphold free enterprise with a legal system protective of private property rights“).

    It is precisely this cognitive bias that Friedrich Hayek noted in his 1960 essay, “Why I am Not a Conservative”:

    Personally, I find that the most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it—or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism. I will not deny that scientists as much as others are given to fads and fashions and that we have much reason to be cautious in accepting the conclusions that they draw from their latest theories. But the reasons for our reluctance must themselves be rational and must be kept separate from our regret that the new theories upset our cherished beliefs. . . . By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his own position. Frequently the conclusions which rationalist presumption draws from new scientific insights do not at all follow from them. But only by actively taking part in the elaboration of the consequences of new discoveries do we learn whether or not they fit into our world picture and, if so, how. Should our moral beliefs really prove to be dependent on factual assumptions shown to be incorrect, it would hardly be moral to defend them by refusing to acknowledge facts.”

    Hayek noted these additional traits that distinguish market liberals from conservatives, which also are commonly manifested here:

    • Habitual resistance to change (hence “conservative”);
    • Use of state authority to protect established privileges against the forces of economic change; and
    • Claim to superior wisdom based on self-arrogated superior quality in place of rational argument.

    The upshot?  That most of us here at LvMI are engaged in the task of convincing ourselves that the climate is not changing or that those who have concerns about it are illogical man-haters, and that we refuse to engage these others by (i) understanding first that for resources where property rights are undefined or uneforceable, public debates rather than private transactions are the chief means of expressing one’s preferences, and (ii) actively defending or advancing freedom – through attempting to persuade others.

    There are other freedom-loving thinkers who have made modest starts in a productive engagement with others, such as:

    –  Sheldon Richman, in his essay  “The Goal Is Freedom: Global Warming and the Layman”, in the December 8, 2006 edition of The Freeman:;

    –  Gene Callahan, in his essay “How a Free Society Could Solve Global Warming”, in the October 2007 issue of The Freeman:; and

    –  Edwin Dolan, in his Fall 2006 Cato Journal essay, “Global Warming: Rethinking the Market Liberal Position”

    But we here at LvMI don’t want to be troubled to be productive, engage others or advance the cause of freedom, so we don’t post, cite to or discuss authors like that.  Being thoughtful or engaging is too much work!  We prefer to cherish our existing beliefs and to nourish our hatred of “enviros”, while ignoring everyone else, as I’ve noted here:

    I am relieved that you seem to want to be one of us, and are not challenging us to get engaged, like Callahan, Richman or Dolan.



    PS:  One of the conditions of membership in the “Reisman/Corrigan Club”, as we sometimes call it, is that we forswear reading any of the IPCC reports and the reports of all major academies of science.  Can you confirm that you have you have not yet tainted yourself with such “information” and undertake not to?  Also, you must avoid posts by apostates such as this who post other “science” tripe: