Is it Possible to be a Libertarian Global Warming Alarmist?

The responsibilities of government, according to a LGWA (Libertarian Global Warming Alarmist):

1. National Defense
2. Enforcement of laws against initiation of force
3. Enforcement of contracts
4. Prevent people from emitting too much carbon dioxide

I'm all for market-provided voluntary carbon reduction schemes, but can someone explain to me how one could imagine any sort of minimalist government that's capable of doing anything meaningful about carbon dioxide emissions? When your negative externality is supposedly affecting the entire planet, what does one expect any sort of non-tyrannical government (if such a thing is even possible) to do about it?

In my humble opinion, if we really are due for a warm spell, regardless of whether human beings are the cause, the best thing for governments to do is to get out of the way and let everyone get richer so they afford to adapt. If government tries to "do something" I fear we will end up both poorer and warmer, starving and drowning with new diseases and without enough wealth to be able to protect ourselves. Of course, I'm skeptical of anthropogenic global warming theories in the first place, but that doesn't mean I'm not hedging my bets. I would give the same response if I were convinced of the Worst Case Scenario. Government can only make it worse.

Update: The comments just remind me how great it is that I'm an anarcho-capitalist and not a minarchist.

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can someone explain to me

can someone explain to me how one could imagine any sort of minimalist government that’s capable of doing anything meaningful about carbon dioxide emissions?

Sure, the same way one can imagine that a minimalist government can run a national defense, or a police/judicial force to protect you against criminals. That is, they tax you, and spend the money on state agents who enforce the rules.

If it's a justification for the policy you want, just consider that pollution is aggression, and CO2 is pollution, and it falls into place.

If you're concerned strictly about government size, consider that most people don't emit that much C02 on their own. Rather, they use power in a variety of forms which could be relatively easily policed for emissions. That is you could tax carbon at the most concentrated chokepoints - as oil, as coal, etc.

imagine any sort of

imagine any sort of minimalist government that’s capable of doing anything meaningful

This is the key libertarian question. The "about CO2 emissions" is unnecessary to make it a difficult question - it applies equally well to national defense, enforcemnt of contract, other forms of waste dumping, and any other "legitimate" reason you can name for concentrating the use of force into a subset of a society.

Why are you skeptical of

Why are you skeptical of anthropogenic global warming? I think the clincher for me in favor of global warming was after the satellite and radiosonde data was corrected and ended up confirming the surface warming data, and was then augmented by the 2003 _Science_ survey of the peer-reviewed literature from 1993-2003 (which found 928 papers explicitly or implicitly supporting anthropogenic global warming, and 0 contradicting it), and most recently by the Skeptics Society "Environmental Wars" conference, at which the only explicit skeptics of anthropogenic global warming were John Stossel (who didn't listen to any of the other speakers) and a few audience members who argued about it during the breaks. (I wrote a brief comment about the conference, from which I link to live-blogged comments from Jonathan Adler and "desmogblog.")

The conference presentations from Tapio Schneider and Donald Prothero (taking a much longer-term view) did a solid job of making the case, in my opinion.

Leonard: I think you're on a

Leonard: I think you're on a very slippery slope that makes it even less possible for a minarchist government like you envision to remain minimal for very long.

Is *any* form of pollution aggression? Greenhouse gases have global reach. Is it *my* government's responsibility to protect the rest of the planet from my actions? Perhaps we should just chalk it up to national aggression and let the rest of the other governments try to deal with it militarily. The US is waging war against the whole world by pumping out CO2, and let them just try and stop us. MUHUHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAHHHHHH!

I really don't care how much of this crap science you throw in my face. Try to drag me out my car and I'll still shoot you.

Oh sure. You can have

Oh sure. You can have libertarians for closed borders, libertarians for outlawing suicide, libertarians for anti-discrimination law, libertarians for a bundle of over a thousand legal benefits and privileges for marriage, libertarians for taxing breast enhancement, so why not this?

Sean, dude, I was just

Sean, dude, I was just answering your question. I see danger in vanilla minarchism, much less minarchism empowered with radical antipollutionist memes. I'm an anarchist.

My answer to global warming? Well, do nothing until we're pretty sure it's really doing what we think. Then, if it's still deemed a big problem... spreading dissolved iron in the doldrums of the Pacific. Or whatever other means of capturing and sequestering carbon the market hits upon as the cheapest.

Steve, This would be a good

Steve,

This would be a good place to start.

Sean, You've missed a key

Sean,

You've missed a key point about minimalist government: the establishment of what, precisely, is the purview of government. A minimal state provides or guarantees only those goods which are within the scope of its legitimate power; other formulations merely create arbitrary boundaries. As such, your attempt to create a problem fails rather rapidly: if preventing global warming were a duty of government, then it must prevent global warming. Injecting other value schemes is completely irrelevant.

As to anarcho-capitalism, one wonders how, given the history of the evolution of law, this system is truly possible.

Matt, That was an excellent

Matt,

That was an excellent article, many thanks. I find it interesting, however, that Friedman scarcely touched on the role of communities in creating law. To what extent the stable common law he references in his Shasta County example requires a demographically stable (and proximous) community has gone unexplored. Moreover, he seems to ignore the fact that the value of agreement with any party is determined at least in part on the relative force that party can bring to bear (imagine, if you will, that your neighbor in Shasta County was bedridden). Whether you could... congeal a peace isn't yet clear. Muddying the question further, the case studies cited all occur in an environment where outside legal force will be applied otherwise (consider that open conflict in Shasta County would provoke a response from California). Thus it is questionable to what extent the common law rests on the threat of (possibly indiscriminate) external pressure.

Considering the above concern, it seems plausible to argue that full-scale warfare was never a significant risk in the commonly cited examples of private law. However, within the context of fully private law (where no external legal actor exists), full-scale conflict is a plausibility. Even failing that, encounters with rival legal codes would still be problematic. In both cases, concentrating customers geographically makes sense: the customers will have fewer dealings with rival legal codes and they will be easier to defend in the event that negotiations stall and fail. How such a process differs in its essential features from the creation of nation-states isn't clear to me.

I've also largely ignored the justice question because I do not think it necessarily matters in the main. Principles of justice might be common features of all codes (indeed, if they are vague enough, they would likely be the Schelling Points). If not, there are open questions, but I've not ever doubted the need to use non-legislative legal codes to provide better coverages in gray or morally indifferent areas.

I think Cowen has Friedman

I think Cowen has Friedman over a barrel here, Friedman’s points are weak. While it’s true that it would be in the interests of all parties to undercut a cartel, it is also true that it is in their interest not to be targeted by it. Thus there are two scenarios implied: (1) the cartel expands by consuming its neighbors or (2) the cartel is opposed by another cartel of equal or greater size. Note the use of or. Experience with wars between nations seems to back this up: alliance networks like NATO will form in response to larger powers deemed a threat, they will also consume (by coup or more overt means) smaller players to keep them out of the rival network.

One major difference is the ability of customers to Exit easily and costlessly. Citizens of smaller NATO countries did not have this option. If my protector wanted to expand by consuming neighbors, I'd call up a different protector; I don't want to pay for an expensive war. I believe the "democratic peace" theorists have some empirical evidence to back this up. Citizens in democracies can "exit" via periodic elections and war is less likely between two democracies.

"Alarmist"? Does that

"Alarmist"? Does that include anyone who thinks global warming is real and caused, to some substantial extent, by human action?

I don't think there's a libertarian solution to global warming, and unfortunately, there is no libertarian solution to protect the world's great coastal cities from rising seas.

But it does give us a great opportunity to examine the way that energy and government have been joined at the hip, to tragic results. It should also give us an opportunity to explan how energy usage, sprawl, and pollution have gone hand-in-glove with extensive government planning and subsidies.

- Josh

Steve, Friedman explores the

Steve,

Friedman explores the Shasta County example in more detail here. It's doubtful that the threat of external pressure really played much of a role at all, since in many cases the ranchers don't even seem to understand what the law actually is. Regarding clashes between rival legal codes & such, DDF responded to some of those criticisms made by Tyler Cowen here.

As you know, however, I agree that there is no "essential" difference between states and firms -- it's mainly differences of scale -- but competition is what makes all the difference.

Josh, "I don’t think

Josh,

"I don’t think there’s a libertarian solution to global warming"

I disagree. Economic growth is much underrated as a coping strategy.

Matt, I think Cowen has

Matt,

I think Cowen has Friedman over a barrel here, Friedman's points are weak. While it's true that it would be in the interests of all parties to undercut a cartel, it is also true that it is in their interest not to be targeted by it. Thus there are two scenarios implied: (1) the cartel expands by consuming its neighbors or (2) the cartel is opposed by another cartel of equal or greater size. Note the use of or. Experience with wars between nations seems to back this up: alliance networks like NATO will form in response to larger powers deemed a threat, they will also consume (by coup or more overt means) smaller players to keep them out of the rival network.

I did, however, find Friedman's dismissal of the idea of a network rather fanciful, just because there's no central authority doesn't mean that the network does not function as one. Consider that there is no central authority for a democracy either: it's really just a cafe for various powers to argue it out as opposed to mobilize their troops for war. I think this point was driven home in the last days of the Roman republic when the former forum "protesters" were made into private armies.

Matt, That depends, of

Matt,

That depends, of course, on the losses. Economic growth might not be a good coping strategy for many if they happen to lose their homes. After all, a former dream that becomes impossible at nearly any price is a mighty cost.

Matt, As an addendum to my

Matt,

As an addendum to my earlier comment:

I've not yet read the Shasta County article. However, my point is not that a confusion of properties would irk California, but that if the situation were to degrade to something like a small scale civil war, the intervention of the government would be inevitable.

As to anarcho-capitalism,

As to anarcho-capitalism, one wonders how, given the history of the evolution of law, this system is truly possible.

What about the evolution of the Law Merchant?

As to whether it's truly possible, one only has to look at the world around us. There plenty of groups of "men with guns", and they're not all fighting each other all the time. Sometimes they fight; other times they don't. The question then becomes the probability of fighting when there are many more groups of "men with guns". There's no easy answer IMO, one way or the other.

Jonathan, I agree, easy exit

Jonathan,

I agree, easy exit is the relevant difference that makes such legal diversity preferable. Exit will only encourage the legal diversity, however, and the cost benefits of defending customers in a coherent territory will remain. But this just gets to the basic point: you would likely have no different protector. In all likelihood the benefits of coherent legal territory will be great enough that having you expelled will be the least-cost solution for you, the current protector, and any competing firm.

Ultimately, the fundamental dynamics of states would remain.

Jonathan, What about the

Jonathan,

What about the evolution of the Law Merchant?

My apologies for the multitude of replies, I hadn't even given thought to replying to multiple things all at once.

The evolution of the Law Merchant pretty well proves my point, though it is only partial (as it dealt with commercial interests only): it became a system of law that is identifiable as such, it was consistent, coherent, and provided a status quo. It was not subject to the later part of the criticism solely because the Law Merchant worked beside a system of states independent of it--ie military authority was held by others.

I agree, easy exit is the

I agree, easy exit is the relevant difference that makes such legal diversity preferable. Exit will only encourage the legal diversity, however, and the cost benefits of defending customers in a coherent territory will remain. But this just gets to the basic point: you would likely have no different protector. In all likelihood the benefits of coherent legal territory will be great enough that having you expelled will be the least-cost solution for you, the current protector, and any competing firm.

Ultimately, the fundamental dynamics of states would remain.

I'm not sure I agree with the point that I think you're making: that it's much more likely that customers will "move" rather than protectors because of a tendency to geographically 'coalesce', so to speak. That may be true; I don't know. It's an empirical question. Ancient Iceland didn't 'coalesce' for over 300 years. But then again, Ancient Iceland had a common law. It remains to be seen whether the modern world could behave in the same manner given the proper institutions.

Regardless, what's important to me is legal diversity and easy Exit, regardless of what form that takes, whether it's the customers that move or the protectors that move. I'm an anarchist, but I've maintained that a better description is that I'm in favor of polycentric law. Give me a world full of Singapores, Hong Kongs, and Vatican Citys over one full of Chinas, USAs, and Italys.

Josh, capitalist societies

Josh, capitalist societies crank out a lot of concentrated wealth. If CO2 release from fossil fuels is really the problem that many people think it is, eventually some Gates sized fortune will be focused on the problem. There's two ways to address the problem. One is to stop releasing C02. But that has severe problems; 6 billion people's lives depend on cheap energy. Another is to find ways to absorb and sequester C02.

For example, there's a very low-tech method I know of to do this: forests. Once we completely forest the planet, then we start chopping forests down and burying them to sequester the carbon. I've seen somewhere the idea that there are vast "iron deserts" in the ocean, where the limiting factor on biomass productivity is not sunlight, but iron. If that is true, then you could sequester a lot of C02 by inducing algae blooms using human-distributed iron spread into the water. One big advantage to the ocean is that carbon sequestration happens naturally when algae die and sink into the deeps.

In any case, it would be quite possible to use the free market to find the cheapest possible ways to sequester iron. An x-prize style deal. First team to sequester, say, 1000 tons of carbon wins $10000, or whatever. Maybe the cheapest method would be to build a huge machine that grabs atmospheric C02 and compresses it into nanotubes. Who knows?

In fact I wonder if someone like you might score a cool 100 million off the Gates Foundation by writing a grant to study solutions for sequestering C02.

Put more succinctly, the libertarian solution to global warming is voluntary charitable atmospheric engineering.

I'm not particularly

I'm not particularly knowledgeable about the law but it seems like civil lawsuits could provide a libertarian solution to global warming. If people can show that they have actually been harmed by global warming, then they can just sue the large CO2 emitters and get some compensation. That would raise the cost of emitting CO2 from 0 to somewhere in the neighborhood of the costs it imposes and therefore create the incentive to move to other energy sources and invest in carbon sequestering technology.

Sean, Yes you can be a

Sean,

Yes you can be a libertarian and a global warming alarmist. You do not have to rely on the government to take care of things, you can do it yourself. As a consumer, you can take public transportation, ride your bike, get a hybrid car, use solar power etc. As a producer/philanthropist, you could help create and sell technologies that could change the world. As a shareholder, assuming you are a big shareholder or can sway others, you could wage proxy fights with management (interestingly, Exxon gets this fight every year and wins). Over time, these little things can add up.

Matt McIntosh, “I don’t

Matt McIntosh,

“I don’t think there’s a libertarian solution to global warming”

I disagree. Economic growth is much underrated as a coping strategy.

There's nothing particularly libertarian about economic growth.

Leonard,

There are several problems with your idea.

The first is cost. Projects big enough to stop or greatly slow global warming will have to be mammoth, far larger than any private group(s) will put together.

The second is indemnity. When you're talking about "charitable atmospheric engineering", you're talking about a private group taking it on themselves to alter the climate of Earth. If that group screws up, there is no way they could afford to restitute those damaged by their climate screw-up. No agent in his right mind would insure that. Governments would either have to pick up the tab or immunise them from suit.

The third is government interference. The nations that stand to gain the most from global warming are politically, militarily, and economically powerful. I can't think of any two countries that would benefit more than Russia and Canada. Projects to stop global warming are likely to run afoul of these G-8 countries, and Russia, for all its problems, is not likely to back down from a chance at more ice-free ports and a productive Siberia.

- Josh

Wild Pegasus- Its not that

Wild Pegasus-

Its not that economic growth is libertarian, its that libertarians are in favor of growth v. redistribution, and for the expanding and greater spontaneous orders supported by such growth, and the concomitant increase in creativity, know-how, and social resiliance.

Josh, while I agree that

Josh, while I agree that charitable atmospheric engineering would have to be mammoth, it's not out of the range even of current charity. In the US alone, charitable giving from foundations easily tops $10 billion/year, which is one estimate of how much it would take to neutralize as much C02 as we burn. The Gates foundation, alone, gives over $1 billion/year.

(Other estimates of the cost to neutralize fossil fuel burning range much higher. On the other hand, reforestation is cheap, and the advance of technology may revolutionize the carbon-capture price.)

Of course, for an atmospheric engineering project to draw a large amount of charitable giving, people would have to be convinced that global warming really is a serious problem, a higher priority than, for example, spending money on "global health", which is what the Gates foundation does. If the oceans start rising a foot per year or something, maybe people would get alarmed. But if they just go up a millimeter per year or whatever, I think AIDS in Africa is going to continue to look like a much bigger problem to most people.

It's also worth reiterating the fact that capitalism creates ever-larger fortunes. In the future, there will eventually be enough money controlled by charity such that $10b is there for relatively unimportant projects.

As for indemnity, well, you're right, that could be a problem. They'd have to find a tolerant country to operate out of. But wait, were we not assuming a libertarian nation? Well, there you go. How exactly do you imagine a charity would be stopped from this work, short of warfare? Somehow I don't see Russia going to war over this, but maybe I am less cynical than you are.

In any case, to return to the real world, it's most likely that long before the private capital for this sort of thing would exist as a charity, nation-states would induce it into existence piecemeal. They'll do it by creating markets in carbon credits. Eventually some consortium of the "losers" of global warming will decide to go whole hog, and lay taxes to run a state program for it.

"The first is cost. Projects

"The first is cost. Projects big enough to stop or greatly slow global warming will have to be mammoth, far larger than any private group(s) will put together."

At the Skeptics Society conference, Gregory Benford talked about mitigation technologies. One of his proposals, UVB-blocking dust, he estimated could be deployed in an experiment for about $100M, and on a permanent basis for about $1B/year--well within the reach of a few *individuals* (like Gates) to fund. His other proposals for carbon sequestration and a giant solar deflecting lens were much more expensive, but he also suggested some low-hanging fruit like whitening roofs and blacktops in cities and developing cloud production technology, especially over the oceans. (There's a podcast interview with Benford here.

Patri, Given that one gets

Patri,

Given that one gets pretty much the same planet whatever their individual choices are regarding riding a bicycle or taking public transportation (and thus further empowering the government IMO), I think you run into similar problems there to expecting people to become informed voters.

Of course, regarding developing new technologies or convincing other people that it's a good field to go into, or even that they should do the things in the previous paragraph, you are correct.

I think that if someone wants to be publicly alarmist about global warming they should probably try to propose libertarian solutions at the same time, because merely convincing the average person that global warming is real and happening is probably going to get them running to the government.

Here's my minimal solution:

Here's my minimal solution: treat the atmosphere like water. If I have a stream running through my property, anything other than water dumped upstream then that act is in effect a violation of my property.

Now apply that to the air. If my neighbor dumps massive amounts of CO2, dirt, and ash into the air above my land then that's a violation of my property. I should have legal recourse to prevent such dumping or be compensated to allow such dumping. Then it moves onto the next neighbor, but hopefully we're looking at a class action lawsuit.

Leonard: I pretty much agree

Leonard: I pretty much agree with your solution, particularly since I think there's a reasonable chance we'll suddenly start finding a whole lot more oil in the near future. I have no doubt that if the government stays out of the way the market will provide a solution.

The problem is likely to be

The problem is likely to be China and India, who hardly qualify as "neighbors." Also, the cost to you of my spewing CO2 is incredibly small. If transaction costs were zero, fine, but they're not zero.

Ultimately, the only thing that seems likely to work is social pressure. Eventually it will probably become socially unacceptable to burn fossil fuels without also paying someone to pull that CO2 back out of the atmosphere.

Of course, our great great grandkids may be cursing us from their igloos.