Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A libertarian approach to climate change

This is a topic I've been pondering about for quite some time. Climate change, should it indeed be mainly caused by human emissions, challenges conventional libertarian doctrine and forces us to think in terms not directly related to life and property. Homesteading the atmosphere is hardly possible, and attributing "fair shares" would require a literal shutdown of privacy to be enforced, aside from the practical difficulties it bears.

So, what is to be done about climate change, granted that human emissions do have as much impact on it as is generally presumed?

First of all, to record a change, one must choose a starting point. Problems begin to arise here: which state of climate is to be considered the starting point that is to be maintained? If human emissions like carbon dioxide or methane are indeed a major driver behind climate change, then any point in the history of human civilization will show us a distorted, mutated state of climate. Even in a completely de-industrialized society of hunters and gatherers, emissions from human activities like breathing or stool will alter the world's climate. If the goal is to return to a state of climate completely untouched by human activity, then the only proper solution is to annihilate the human species. Any ethics that concerns itself with the arrangement of human affairs cannot support such a conclusion.

Thus, our first observation is that human activity alters the climate, no matter how sophisticated or simple the pursued lifestyle is. Any struggle against climate change must therefore limit itself to achieve gradual changes, no total abolition of human-caused distortion.

Which leads us to the question of justice. Every state of climate favors and disadvantages certain regions. One might guess that a warmer climate will defreeze certain areas around the poles, making them available for homesteading and productive use, while on the other hand causing some islands to be swallowed by the sea. Vice versa for a cooler climate, of course. As I've pointed out above, we need to determine a certain point in climate history that ought to be conserved as "good" or "fair", but in the presence of human activity, such a choice must be purely arbitrary.

Why, for example, should we aspire to conserve the climate of 1999 when in 2009 property distribution might already have adapted to new climate conditions? Wouldn't that victimize 2009 property owners for the benefit of 1999 property owners? Even if 2009 property owners benefitted at the expense of 1999 property owners in the first place, the same would also be true for 1999 POs compared to 1989 POs, 1989 POs compared to 1979 POs and so on. Again, any arrangement as to which state of climate ought to be preferred must be purely despotic.

Unfortunately, this distinction is never actually made when the issue of climate change is being discussed, at least I haven't noticed it. Part of the blame goes to environmentalist ideology which claims that more human activity, i.e. more human emissions and thus more climate change, means more harm. This is false. Changes in our global environment abet certain areas while at the same time victimizing others. Environmentalists attempt to find an "equilibrium" state of climate which grants the same amount of advantage to every party involved, and by doing so engage in the same Sisyphonian endeavor that has been plaguing economics since almost 200 years: the desire to centrally manage a volatile, highly complicated and spontaneous order, the commitment to do good by force. Has it ever really worked out?

Of course, this theory doesn't invalidate generally established rules on property and pollution. Neighborhood pollution is an avoidable nuisance and should be treated as such. Climate change is not avoidable and must therefore be subjected to more appropriate treatment.

Talking about treatment, there are ways to influence human emissions and thus, to an extent, maybe even climate change itself. Obviously, changing one's own living habits is the straightforward way to start, but discriminating carefully to promote "eco-friendly behavior" will also set incentives to pursue a more desirable lifestyle. Note that "more desirable" is a subjective choice, since, again, different states of climate bear different results concerning winners and losers.

One reason why we shouldn't leave it to government to discriminate is its inability to react to new discoveries. Take, for example, this "Dust to Dust" study on car energy consumption. As it turns out, hybrid cars consume a lot more energy than previously assumed due to costly production and recycling processes and comparably low durability, at least according to this source. On the other hand, small-size trucks appear on the eco-friendly end of the scale for their simple setup, fairly low repair rates and relatively high "life expectancy". Unsurprisingly, this discovery received little to no attention in the mainstream media. Some people tried to refute it, which is good. Struggle of ideas, thesis-antithesis-synthesis and so on. Government can't accomplish that; government says "so be it" and goes on to receive the money. Little room for innovation is granted.

While not regarding this as a final analysis of the topic, I would certainly urge governments to stop politicizing climate change. It is out of their reach, and every attempt to "preserve justice" by collecting more taxes or creating more regulations will only add to the existing arbitrariness.

More thoughts to come in the future, hopefully.


venkat said...

thank u for your detailed approach one day or other your dream will be fulfilled .All the citizens as well as planners and executors will plan to control at least some part of globe for climate changes to compensate the situation .

venkat said...

thank u for your detailed approach one day or other your dream will be fulfilled .All the citizens as well as planners and executors will plan to control at least some part of globe for climate changes to compensate the situation .

Sphairon said...

Thank you. I hope that citizens as well as elected officials act reasonably in their desire to control the damages of a changing climate and do not abuse the issue for their personal gain.