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The Libertarian Climate Conundrum

Posted on 21 March 2011 by grypo

According the first principle of the Libertarian Party 2010 platform, "No individual, group, or government may initiate force against any other individual, group, or government."  This is extended to personal property in the second principle, "Property rights are entitled to the same protection as all other human rights."  

CATO, a notable Libertarian policy advising body, describes the ice melt and seal level rise problem in Chapter 45 "Global Warming and Climate Change" of the Cato Handbook for Policymakers, 7th Edition (2009), as such:

The 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC (which was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize along with Gore) projects sea-level rise of between 9 and 19 inches in the 21st century, for its ‘‘midrange’’ estimate of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.  

*(grypo's note: These projections are overly conservative, now obsolete, and under scrutiny moving forward to AR5, as RealClimate illustrates)

The chapter goes to make other popular skeptic arguments, detailed here at SkS, such as, It has stopped warming and It's not Bad.  Disregarding whether this may be the case, an adherence to basic Libertarian principles creates an ethical quandary.  And this is the problem that Jonathan Adler, noted Libertarian law professor, tries to balance in his paper, Taking Property Rights Seriously: The Case of Climate Change.  He states:

[I]t is not clear that the proper conservative or libertarian response to the threat of global warming is “do nothing.” To the contrary, this essay suggests, the consistent application of a stated commitment to property rights requires a complete rethinking of the conventional conservative and libertarian approach to climate change.

Later on, he responds to question of small changes in sea level:

[T]hose countries flooded by such an increase in sea level should not be forced to bear such costs if they are the foreseeable consequence of polluting activities by others.

Here is another example taken directly from another CATO publication, "What To Do About Climate Change", by Indur M. Goklany.

Through 2085, human well-being is likely to be highest under the richest-but-warmest (A1FI) scenario and lowest for the poorest (A2) scenario. Matters may be best in the A1FI world for some critical environmental indicators through 2100, but not necessarily for others. Either focused adaptation or broad pursuit of sustainable development would provide far greater benefits than even the deepest mitigation—and at no greater cost than that of the barely effective Kyoto Protocol.

Once again, setting aside that this argument does not assess the full range of possibilities and risk, is this really a libertarian argument?  Or is it a utilitarian one?  Is it consistent with the first two principles described by The Libertarian Party's platform?  Jonathan Adler says:

Such utilitarian analyses may be accurate, but they are not particularly responsive to the property-rights concern that underlies FME [free-market environmentalism]. Whether or not a given climate change policy would maximize net social welfare or have net positive effects on important social trends is less important than safeguarding the system of property rights upon which FME relies.

So how do Libertarians deal with the problem of climate change?  There is the possibility that particular people are ignoring the science, which, if that is the case, the IPCC and SkS are the best places to start reading.  Or there is the CATO approach of denying the existence of the upper bound effects and paying no attention to the possible risks, but even this method of cherry-picking still implies that the use of fossil fuels here will affect other persons and property elsewhere, violating the first two principles of the Libertarian platform. Furthermore, as a recent study says, adding to the already extensive literature, "populations contributing the most to greenhouse gas emissions on a per capita basis are unlikely to experience the worst impacts of climate change, satisfying the conditions for a moral hazard in climate change policies", supplying yet another dimension to the ethical problem.

What does Jonathan Adler suggest the free market environmentalists do to alleviate the issue?  One idea, he borrowed from a noted climate scientist:

A Fee-and-Dividend approach would be more transparent, less vulnerable to special interest pleading, more conducive to investment in technological innovation (because it would avoid the price volatility produced by cap-and-trade), would be easier to implement within existing trade rules (and would not require a new international agreement for this purpose), and — if implemented as Hansen suggests — be less costly to most Americans. (Emphasis mine)

Yes, a Libertarian agrees with James Hansen's free market approach to dealing with climate change.

So, as the evidence accumulates in past observations, present observations, and future predictions in accordance with theory and basic physical reality, how does the Libertarian resolve this dilemma of property rights and individual liberty?  How long can Libertarians place faith in a no consequences result from climate change?  Is there any law system in play at the moment that can deal with these issues on a global basis?  The answer is obviously, no.  

I would suggest they listen more to Jonathan Adler and less to policy handbooks from corporate funded Washington DC think tanks.  I would suggest they research real free market solutions that deal with the first principles of Libertarian thought.  Otherwise, this policy argument will move on without them.  It's time for Libertarians to get on board and bring their principles along too.


Chapter 45 "Global Warming and Climate Change" of the Cato Handbook for Policymakers, 7th Edition, 2009

Taking Property Rights Seriously: The Case of Climate Change, Jonathan Adler 2009

Geographic disparities and moral hazards in the predicted impacts of climate change on human populations, J. Samson et al. 2011

What To Do About Climate Change, Indur M. Goklany 2008

Further reading for libertarians on climate change policy:

Tokyo Tom "Towards a productive libertarian approach on climate, energy and environmental issues"  

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Comments 51 to 80 out of 80:

  1. alan_marshall #51 Thanks for the links. In the reading, there is this implied assumption that the rich consume more fuel and the poor less, when I am sure there are many cases where it is just the other way around in part because it is precisely those with more means who can invest in improving energy efficiency. And as far as the other idea, you do explain the target, but have not addressed the consequence in terms of the comparative global energy requirements.
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  2. Thanks for your reference and link, grypo, and thanks for bringing attention to your post at my blog! 1. Here is what I posted in response to you: By popular demand, more meta-thoughts on climate confusion - TT's Lost in Tokyo 2. I also posted the following excerpts of related discussions on Dr. Judith Curry's "Libertarianism and the environment" thread: In response to 'heretic' Dr. Curry, more on my annoying, ( -snip- ) open-mindness on climate issues - TT's Lost in Tokyo
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    Moderator Response: [DB] Inflammatory bit snipped. Hot-linked URL.
  3. Thanks for dropping by TTom. I'm just going to post you main thoughts here because there is no link there to get back to your comment. From here: "my chief comment would be that you and the 'libertarians' you discuss have all missed that the status quo favors massive corporations whose very status is suspect from a libertarian standpoint: they are creatures of government that could not exist without govt in their present form, and that embody moral hazard via the govt grant of limited liability to shareholders. Cato and other vocal 'libertarian' organizations are in fact corporate fronts and won't bite the hand that feeds them, and thus avoid delving too deeply when they defend a 'free market' that is predominated by organizations that are not controlled by shareholders or communities and that are dedicated to extracting gains irregardless of costs that others may be forced to bear." You explained that bit much better than I.
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  4. Not true, Poptech. You're referring to the market system as described by economic modes that rely on private property relations. Markets (and market solutions) can easily work within other modes, including those where the government has a hand in regulating the markets such that they perform optimally. A completely free market under private property relations would perform so inefficiently that people (having had the experience of government regulation in theory if not in practice) would demand some form of social regulation. The libertarian support of capitalism is one of the more bizarre philosophical moves of the last few centuries. Why encourage the concentration of real (economic) power in the hands of a small group of people who don't have your interests in mind? In other words, what's the difference between a government and a business run under the capitalist model? At least a democratic government has the ostensible job of serving the people (i.e. worrying about all that externalizing). The driving value of the business under capitalism is the generation of capital (i.e. finding ways to externalize and drive up profits). I remember a free market theorist, speaking in the documentary The Corporation, making the claim that if he could, he would turn air into a commodity (subject to the private property system).
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  5. Poptech said... "any "solution" involving government fiat has nothing to do with markets and thus is impossible for it to be a "market-solution"." You're a little slim on your macroeconomics there, Poptech. You might go back are read a little Keynes. Government is very much involved in economics. The governments uses a wide variety of tools to modify desirable market behaviors. Interest rates, tax incentives, money supply, etc. If you take the government completely out of economics then the market literally becomes the government. And I think that is exactly what Libertarians want. Especially very large and powerful corporations. The term is: Plutocracy. The problem is that Libertarians rely on the mistaken idea from the Chicago School that markets are inherently rational. The last decade should tell anyone that they are decidedly not so. Even in their best Milton Freedman-esk attempt to prove it (the Greenspan years) the Fed still had to modify the market through interest rate adjustments. Don't forget Greenspan's word after the collapse. "We underestimated banks ability to police themselves."
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  6. Poptech... I realize there is more than one macroeconomic theory. Do not underestimate my knowledge in this area. I know about the Austrian School and Mises. And the Chicago School and Keynesianism. You are mincing words with a broad axe. The point being, Libertarianism today is a guise for setting up a Plutocratic state. Most who profess to believe in Libertarian values do not even have a concept of what they are asking for. This is quite well evidenced through the article here. So, in a way you are correct. No one is talking about true Libertarian ideals, any more than Communism ever had that much to do with Marxism. My problem with Libertarians is, like Communism, it will never be applied as defined and will never work. It's a recipe for economic collapse.
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  7. Poptech... You have a complete and total concept of what will lead to economic disaster. And Hong Kong? How much time do you spend in HK, Andrew? I spend a lot of time there. I speak Cantonese. My wife is Chinese. How you come to the conclusion that HK is some bastion of Libertarianism it totally beyond me. Do you think that, you know, just maybe HK has prospered because it has been the gateway city to the economic development in Shenzhen and the entire Pearl River Valley? (Dong guan, Guangzhou, etc.) You remember? The "economic development zone" set up by the (ahem) Communist Chinese Government.
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  8. Lest we forget... All property in HK is owned by, yes, the HK government. In HK you can only lease your property from the government. How does that jibe with Libertarian ideology?
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  9. PT: "... an irrefutable direct correlation" You link to a Heritage Foundation graph of GDP per capita vs. 'economic freedom score', whatever that is. Your 'irrefutable correlation' boasts an R^2 of 0.45; hardly proof of anything other than the existence of dots on a page. But based on prior PT discussions, I'm assuming you didn't actually look at the graph before linking to it.
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  10. Poptech... HK is not part of the SEZ. It just happens to be the "gateway" to the SEZ. You may note that Shenzhen (on the HK border) has grown from a small fishing village into a metropolis of nearly 10 million since the SEZ was established. And that's not even counting the growth of the other cities included in the SEZ. THAT has driven the prosperity of HK. HK would have prospered regardless of what form of government was established there. The feather in your cap has nothing to do with Libertarianism.
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  11. Remember the old saying. "Location, location, location."
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  12. PT#66: No, I believe that your idea of 'irrefutable' is about as well-defined as your idea of 'skeptical'. We've already seen (on another, never-to-be-mentioned thread) how you re-define words to fit your needs.
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  13. Poptech at 05:46 AM , whatever other advantages HK enjoyed, the low, flat rate of tax was the most inspired. Whilst taxpayers in high taxing countries expended time and energy to reduce their tax liability, it was more advantageous in HK to expend that time and energy to increase their tax liability.
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  14. Poptech @ 71... Again, Milton Freedman is ascribing to economics what is more likely a function of location. Go take a look at the economic performance of Singapore. Vastly different economic system and yet almost identical economic performance. You may not realize it yet but lots of people are rethinking much of what Friedman put forth and looking back again at Keynes.
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  15. Poptech @ 69... Hong Kong, since the turnover to China, has been called an SAR. Special Administrative Region. The areas inside China close to HK, coastal Guangdong province, is called the SEZ, a Special Economic (development) Zone. Those are the accepted terms.
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  16. Poptech... The market doesn't seem to share your interpretation of "interventionist Keynesian policies."
    The Dow Jones average since Obama took office
    And isn't interesting how applying the same laissez faire policies in the US have translated into falling real incomes for Americans over the past couple of decades while enriching an ever thinning class of ultra wealthy.
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    Moderator Response: [DB] Annotated graphic.
  17. Poptech @ 79... That's right. It looks to me like Milton Friedman's ideas have not panned out so well over the past 30 years. @80... And the job losses are not a function of Obama's policies they were a direct result of the policies of the previous administration.
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  18. Poptech @ 82... There's not an economist in the world that would agree with you on any of the points you're making. Do you somehow think that Obama came into office and just started willy-nilly stimulating the economy for no apparent reason? Do you not remember the economy was in an all out free fall about the time of the election? What is it about Libertarianism that makes your memory so limited? Oh yeah... I almost forgot. We're in the Poptech alternate universe.
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  19. I've run into a number of Libertarians who live in this same alternate universe where they believe if the administration had just done nothing everything would have been just fine. Problem is, everyone who knows anything at all about macroeconomics knows that utter foolishness. (Don't forget, Bernanke is a conservative... read his comments on Friedman.)
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  20. "No effort was made in this post to actually get feedback from real libertarians to the proposition presented. Instead a poor attempt was made to distort libertarian principles to push an agenda." This thread is about the debate inside libertarianism and which actions are more appropriate to the first two libertarian principle according to the Libertarian Party preamble. I have presented at least two libertarians who disagree with the political mainstream thought within the movement, and say that those principles are not being adhered to. Jonathan Adler describes CATO's ideas as utilitarian, not libertarian, and says they disregard property rights. He has several suggestions both in that paper and on his website that he thinks would aim the movement in the proper direction. Tokyo says about CATO, "Cato and other vocal 'libertarian' organizations are in fact corporate fronts and won't bite the hand that feeds them, and thus avoid delving too deeply when they defend a 'free market' that is predominated by organizations that are not controlled by shareholders or communities and that are dedicated to extracting gains irregardless of costs that others may be forced to bear." So, do you agree with those libertarians, or do you agree with CATO's approach, and if so, please tell us how to satisfy libertarian principles. If there are ideas that have not been mentioned that you think should be, please detail those. Rothbard says, on page 153, "Air pollution, consisting of noxious odors, smoke, or other visible matter, definitely constitutes an invasive interference. These particles can be seen, smelled, or touched, and should therefore constitute invasion per se, except in the case of homesteaded air pollution easements. (Damages beyond the simple invasion would, of course, call for further liability.) Air pollution, however, of gases or articles that are invisible or undetectable by the senses should not constitute aggression per se, because being insensible they do not interfere with the owner's possession or use. They take on the status of invisible radio waves or radiation, unless they are proven to be harmful, and until this proof and the causal connection from aggressor to victim can be established beyond a reasonable doubt." The 2nd link downplays the effects of climate change and makes utilitarian arguments. These are covered in the post and are at the crux of Adler's arguments. Perhaps you can be more specific as to how those arguments made by Rothbard and Capella satisfy the most important libertarian principles.
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  21. Poptech says that there is no debate, and the premise for his argument is that the people making it are not libertarians. Another premise of that premise is that there are only one group of people who can call themselves libertarians and regard maximizing individual liberty as high value. Another premise must be that only libertarians that Poptech believes are libertarians can make arguments about libertarians, or else "no debate". This premise needs a lot of citation, not personal beliefs I'm afraid this argument PT is making fails on several levels.
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  22. PT.... Denominator?
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  23. Sheesh, this is why I hate about political posts. "Comments" is now full of garbage about American politics with nothing whatever relevant to climate. Who cares who wrecked their economy - except more wrecking might improve climate. Surely there are other places for American political tribes to argue with each other?
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  24. Muoncounter, May I suggest that, if you're making a political argument, you do so in a separate comment rather than under the guise of "moderator". It tends to make it seem less like you're arguing for the site as a whole. Just a suggestion. Overall, though, I agree with Scaddenp.
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  25. Americans are funny. "Libertarianism" elsewere is a branch of COMMUNISM ("Libertarian Communism", a.k.a. Anarchism). How the far right hijacked a term associated with the fartest extremes of the socialist left is still a mistery to me. So far, Obama has not done a good work, but not because did an intervention in the economy, but but because that intervention was too LITTLE by far! He should have wiped out all the Las-Vegas-Casinos like crowd out of the banking system, nationalizing the whole finacial system and put the speculators that destroyed the US and Europe economy (thanks to the non-regulation of Mr. George Bush) on trial, demanding they to PAY for all the damage they done. On the climate front, the nationalization of General Motors and intervention in Chrisler should have been used to make an U-turn and make a series of 4-Year Plans for the Auto Industry to improve efficiency and switch to hybrids and electric vehicles, and shutting down the production of SUVs and similar monsters. The plans should have been strictly enforced by the government adiministration (after all, if you buy a company, you should administate it, or not?) But instead Obama choose to make enormous bailouts to the bankrupt financial-industrial complex while leaving the same people that lead the nation to disaster still in office, continuing to do the same irresponsible speculation that caused the crisis in the first place. Obama lost the opportunity to change the terminally ill economy of the USA. The people that caused the crisis are still there, and the bailouts that avoided a second Great Depression also saved the anti-people crowd (the financial speculators) from self-destruction. Some people dislike regulation. Maybe they like poisoned river streams, breath choking smoke, food and oil prices skyrocketing, and banks taking the homes of the people ... Regulations would have prevented the 2007-2011 crisis. Now, without a massive government intervention in the economy, the seeds are still there for a second economic collapse.
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  26. From Peru, "Americans are funny. "Libertarianism" elsewere is a branch of COMMUNISM ("Libertarian Communism", a.k.a. Anarchism). How the far right hijacked a term associated with the fartest extremes of the socialist left is still a mistery to me." Yes, political labels evolve. This is no revelation. Both "liberal" and "conservative" also had very different meanings historically than they do in modern American politics. They still do have different meanings in other parts of the world. "Libertarian" was co-opted by the right in the early 20th century to distinguish themselves from the statists that co-opted the term "liberal".
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  27. RobertS, Saying that American liberalism emerged from the machinations of "statists" is ahistorical. Liberalism was the product of the anti-communist American left which hoped to avert the violent revolution of Leninism through social reforms, including limitations on government power through expansion of civil liberties. Claiming right libertarians are "freedum luvin'", while accusing everyone else of authoritarianism is nothing more than a shibboleth to proclaim your tribal affiliation.
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  28. "Claiming right libertarians are "freedum luvin'", while accusing everyone else of authoritarianism..." I don't believe I made either of those claims. Perhaps you're confusing me with someone else? Or perhaps you're confused as to what "statism" means? It certainly doesn't mean authoritarianism. I also think your understanding of history is a little fuzzy. Modern American Liberalism can be traced back to people like Ward (i.e. pre-Russian Revolution) and Herbert Croly who combined facets of classical liberal theory with progressivism. In general they supported government-intervention and central-planning to effect social and economic equity (i.e. a form of statism). I might be wrong, but I don't think this is particularly controversial, and was never meant to be derisive.
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  29. Grypo/moderators, I thank you for the link to my blog at the bottom of your post, but note that the link has changed as I migrated hosts. The current link to the referenced post is:

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  30. Broken Link to Adler.  

    New link at

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