Justice and Climate Change: Toward a Libertarian Analysis

By Shahar, Dan C. | Independent Review, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Justice and Climate Change: Toward a Libertarian Analysis


Shahar, Dan C., Independent Review


As a group, libertarians have not dent well with the prospect of anthropogenic global climate change. As most parts of the world scramble to find "solutions" to what they anticipate will be a serious problem for human civilization, libertarians have often brushed the issue aside by denying that climate change is real or, if it is real, that humans have caused it (Dolan 2006, 445-46). This position is problematic in several ways. Perhaps the most obvious is that the move to dismiss the problem relies heavily on minority views among the climate science community that may turn out to be incorrect (Dolan 2006, 450). It must be stressed that whatever case can be made in favor of questioning our ability to know the precise truth about climate change and to predict future states of the climate system, we must be careful in claiming that climate change is not happening, that humans are not causing it, or that it will not continue into the future to a significant degree (Gardiner 2004, 567). The mechanisms by which anthropogenic climate change might be occurring are firmly established; those by which it might not be occurring are surrounded by controversy and uncertainty.

A more serious problem with the libertarian habit of questioning the scientific basis for concern about climate change is that it does not indicate what position libertarians would endorse if climate change were known to be happening (Dolan 2006, 450). We have no compelling reason to believe that anthropogenic climate change or a substantively similar phenomenon cannot happen. Accordingly, it seems extremely reasonable to ask what libertarians would say about such a phenomenon if they knew that it was occurring now.

In this article, I take the first steps to identifying the kind of answer for which we should be looking. For the sake of this discussion, I assume that the mainstream scientific perspective (embodied in the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC) is uncontestable. If that assumption proves to be mistaken, my analysis will be seen to have been based on flawed premises. Accordingly, the reader should keep in mind that any conclusions drawn here depend on the degree to which this fundamental assumption is correct.

Market Failures and Government Inefficacy

Mainstream discussions have typically portrayed global climate change as the product of the free market's systemic failure to bring about desirable environmental, economic, and social outcomes. The IPCC instantiates this view in its Second Assessment Report, noting that any individual contributor to climate change faces a different set of costs and benefits than are imposed on the whole of society as the result of his actions, and so individuals acting in their own interests may lack incentives to do what is best for society as a whole (Goldemberg et al. 1996, 21, 28).

To illustrate this idea, we might notice that for most individuals the personal benefits of, say, driving a car instead of taking the bus more than outweigh any costs that they will ever incur personally from their insignificant individual contributions to climate change. Accordingly, it will be in their personal interests to drive their car instead of taking the bus. But having a large number of extra cars on the road results in additional greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. As Garrett Hardin famously wrote, "we are locked into a system of 'fouling our own nest,' so long as we behave only as independent, rational, free enterprisers" (1968, 1245). The IPCC authors agree, characterizing contributions to global climate change as international externalities and the integrity of the global climate system as an international public good (Goldemberg et al. 1996, 21).

Mitigating global climate change requires the sacrifice of certain interests, and individuals' actions toward mitigation would be rendered insignificant if others did not take similar efforts. …

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