The Gadfly Bytes --
April 8, 2008
Climate Reality Bites the Libertarians
Some of my best friends are libertarians.
We read each others’ papers, we exchange ideas by e-mail, and we invite
each other to participate in our seminars and conferences.
On numerous occasions, my libertarian friends have treated me with
generosity and respect. I’ve found them to be personable and tolerant of
my progressive opinions.
And also unyielding in their convictions.
My libertarian friends, I have discovered, are like the kindly Catholic
bishop, who will patiently listen to your heresies, all the while never
budging an iota from his absolute faith in the authority of the Pontiff,
the truth of the dogma of the immaculate conception, and the sinfulness
of birth control.
Likewise, the typical libertarian is steadfast in his beliefs,*
“there is no such thing as a public” (Ayn Rand) – that (so-called)
“society” is nothing more than an aggregation of individuals. It
follows that there is no such thing as “the public interest,”
“social problems,” or “victims of society.”
the profit motive combined with human ingenuity (Julian Simon’s
“ultimate resource”) is the primary engine of human progress and
the solution to any and all problems that might arise from industrial
a free market, unconstrained by government regulation, will always produce better results than centrally planned,
“collectivized” public enterprises. (“Market Fundamentalism”).
private ownership of natural resources and institutions is always
preferable to public ownership: “Whenever we find an approach to the
extension of private property rights in these areas, we find
superior results." (Robert J. Smith)
the fundamental and exclusive human rights are to life, liberty, and
property, and that governments have no
legitimate function other than the protection of these individual
rights. Accordingly, taxation for any other purposes, such as public
education, welfare, promotion of the arts, national parks, or the
protection of the environment, is theft.
these principles is to abandon libertarianism itself.
Accordingly, like Ptolemy’s fixed earth around which the sun, the planets,
the stars, and the entire universe circulate, these core libertarian dogmas
are eternally fixed, and neither, history, practical experience, and
occasionally not even science and logic, can be allowed to budge them.
Thus the inevitable collision between libertarianism and climate science
over global warming.
This “collision” may be found in the pronouncements and publications of such
“conservative” think tanks as The Heritage Foundation, The American
Enterprise Institute, The Cato Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise
Never mind that the two thousand scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change (IPCC), along with the vast majority of qualified
scientists of The American Association for the Advancement of Science, The
National Academy of Sciences (NAS), The National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration (NOAA), and the National Center for Atmospheric Research,
etc.. all affirm the reality of global warming.
My libertarian friends have never offered me a plausible explanation as to
how, if they are right, the overwhelming majority of so many accredited
scientists could be so wrong, or what might motivate them to persist in
their alleged “errors”.
Secular libertarians are not noted for their
rejection of established scientific opinion. They do not, for example, dispute
evolution or modern medical science, and in fact their faith in the capacity of
applied science (spurred on, of course, by private “competitive enterprise”) to
solve any and all pending resource shortages and environmental crises
exceeds that of
But when it comes to climate science many libertarians treat the results of
extensive and lavishly funded research of qualified experts with a
skepticism that rivals Bob Jones University’s dismissal of Charles Darwin.
Why is this so?
It is so because, like Biblical literalism vs. modern biology and
historical geology, the fundamental tenets of libertarianism are flatly
incompatible with a scientific understanding of the causes of, and the
remedies for, global warming. A libertarian who was somehow convinced of
these causes and remedies would almost certainly have to give up his or her
libertarianism. To be sure, one might maintain one’s insistence upon the
privacy rights and the sanctity of individual autonomy, in which case the
might then become a progressive.
Of course, the libertarian, if convinced at last of the validity of the IPCC
findings, would have to admit that Al Gore is essentially right, after all. That
concession, while painful, would be superficial. Much graver recantations
would be in order, involving not personalities but basic libertarian
Regarding the causes of the climate crisis: The overwhelming
scientific consensus is that global warming is “anthropogenic;” i.e.,
caused by human activity, which means largely by industrial activity. The
primary chemical culprit is carbon dioxide, released by the consumption of
fossil fuels: coal, natural gas, and petroleum. CO2 build-up is a
giant-size example of what economists call an “externality:” a effect of economic
transactions on unconsenting “third parties.” And
externalities are the No.1
nemeses of libertarianism, for externalities are the compelling justification, time and again, for
the regulation and intervention of private enterprise by governments, acting
in “the public interest” – which is to say, in behalf of all those unconsenting “third parties.” In this case, those "third parties" are
nothing less than all of mankind today and in all succeeding future
With the onset of the industrial revolution, some three hundred years ago,
wood fuel and human and animal labor were replaced first with coal and
later with petroleum. The advantages of this transition were enormous and
therefore irresistible. The effects of this transition upon the global
climate (i.e., the “externalities”) were unknown, and until very recently,
unknowable. But now, at last, we know.
Simply put, global warming is the by-product of the unconstrained “free
market” that is celebrated by the libertarians. Also, let us not forget, it
is the by-product of the command economies of the Soviet Union and China,
whose governments were as unconcerned about externalities as any of the
The industrial revolution, while it has caused untold misery among the
working classes, has also brought about incalculable advantages: advances in
medicine that have more than doubled the human life span, ease of
communication and transportation, material abundance, and an explosion of
scientific knowledge and technological capacity. Seated at this computer,
with instant access to multiple libraries of information, having just
enjoyed a meal of salmon from Alaska, oranges from Florida and avocados from
Chile, and hale and hardy past my biblically allotted three-score and ten
years, I should be ungrateful indeed if I were to disparage the bounties of
But all this does not mean that mankind, upon releasing the fossil energy
accumulated through millions of years, was not therefore obliged to study,
forecast, and act upon the consequences of that release.
Those consequences fall not simply upon isolated, enterprising individuals,
they fall upon a global collective entity – a “public,” a “society,” the
existence of which, let us recall, the libertarians refuse to acknowledge.
And they also fall upon future generations, who do not vote and do not
participate in today’s markets. Moreover, that study, forecasting, and
action, by their very collective nature, can not be done by individual
entrepreneurs and private corporations, for “where’s the profit in it?”
No, the task of responding appropriately to the gathering climate emergency
must fall upon non-economic entities, acting in behalf of mankind at large.
Such entities are called “governments.”
Well, those governments have responded, in internal agencies such as the
NAS, NCAR, NOAA, and in the United Nations agency, the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change. Add to these, non-profit non-governmental
organizations, such as the American Association for the Advancement of
The response of the libertarians to this informed consensus is
But how could it be otherwise? Accepting the conclusions of IPCC and the
virtually unanimous opinion of climate scientists throughout the world would entail
the conclusion that unconstrained market forces, privatization, and moral
atomism have brought human civilization to the brink of unspeakable
Regarding the remedies to the climate crisis:
Don’t look to private
enterprise for a solution to global warming. The fundamental responsibility
of the private corporation is to protect investments and ensure the survival
of the enterprise. If science won’t serve the corporate interests, then public relations
will have to do the job. Case in point: the tobacco industry. So too,
“global warming skepticism,” lavishly funded by the coal and petroleum
industries. In both cases,
the “science” is
reversed and therefore fatally compromised, as the corporate order is
given: “these are our ‘conclusions,’ now it's your job to come up with
some ‘evidence’ to support them.”#
Individual self-interest, the libertarians tell us, is the engine of
progress. And it is both spontaneous and sufficient. No need for governments
to “plan” or interfere; just leave progress to the benevolent “invisible
hand” of the marketplace.
Tragically, those with eyes to see, can see where that approach has led us.
Those who still refuse to see should look at the satellite photos of the Arctic ice
cap, the Antarctic ice shelves, and then learn from the trained eyes of the
scientists who have measured the CO2 levels at Mauna Loa, who have examined
the Greenland and Antarctic ice cores, who have measured the declining
volume of the Greenland ice shield, etc.
All these researches have been sponsored and funded by governments.
Quasi-market solutions, such as carbon trading, while not totally useless,
have proven at last to be too little and too late.
And so, some enlightened economists have finally if reluctantly come to the
forced conclusion that only a massive, international government effort can
avert the looming global catastrophe.
In a New York Times article, published just two days ago,
Andrew C. Revkin reports a growing consensus opinion that
needed ... is the development of radically advanced low-carbon
technologies, which ... will only come about with greatly increased
spending by determined governments on what has so far been an anemic
commitment to research and development. A Manhattan-like Project, so to
In an article in the journal
Nature last week, researchers
concerned with the economics, politics, and science of climate also
argued that technology policy, not emissions policy, must dominate.
means scientifically informed guidance “from the top.” No place for an “invisible hand” of the
market here. “A
Manhattan-like Project” means government funding and administration today,
just as it did sixty-five years ago at Oak Ridge, Hanford and Los Alamos.
Exxon-Mobil won’t do it. Why should they? They are flourishing quite well,
thank you very much, in the “awl bidness.” Global warming is a public
emergency, requiring a public response.
“Market forces” are not irrelevant to this vast undertaking. Tax incentives
and competition for government contracts can stimulate incentive,
innovation, and enterprise. For example, windfall profit taxes could be
levied on the oil companies, with the proceeds directed back at them
earmarked for alternative energy research and development. But market
forces, thus utilized, are subordinated to public policy. And the
libertarians will have none of it.
It is this uncompromising market
fundamentalism that disqualifies the
libertarians from a seat at the table where climate control and remediation
policy is to be deliberated.
And so, we arrive at last at the logical crux of the libertarian’s
denial of global warming: If the retrospective and prospective conclusions
of the IPCC and other scientific bodies are essentially correct, then the
core principles of libertarianism are practically unworkable and morally
untenable in modern industrial society. The logically valid implication must be that if
the fundamental libertarian doctrine is to be maintained, then the multi-million
dollar findings of thousands of expert scientists must be summarily
rejected. (QED: Modus tolens, for you logic students).
There is an equally valid response for the libertarians: Accept the
scientific consensus and abandon your dogmas. (QED: Modus ponens).
C’mon, my libertarian friends, give it up and join the rest of humanity in
our common struggle to save the planet for human habitation. I promise,
you’ll feel good about it once you’ve taken the plunge.
*For an extended exposition and critique of
these beliefs, see my
A Dim View of Libertarianism,
#This accusation of
corporate corruption of science is extensively and definitively
supported by Oreskes and Conway's book,
Merchants of Doubt, (Bloomsbury Press, 2010). Highly
2008 by Ernest Partridge