Libertarians and Climate Change

Brad Plummer writes about an attempt by the Cato Institute to present a case that climate change is not a problem. As usual their conclusions were based upon their biases:

Now this is amusing: The Cato Institute recently got 100 Ph.D.s to sign one of those “skeptic” letters sneering at the science behind climate change, complete with a short footnoted statement about how there’s no warming, the models suck, blah blah. They ran it as an ad in the Times, the Post, etc. So the climate scientists at Real Climate took a closer look at Cato’s footnotes and noticed that none of the papers the think tank cites support their conclusions. The ad’s method boils down to: “Ignore the facts you don’t dispute, pick some others that are ambiguous and imply that, because they are subject to some debate, we therefore know nothing.”

This comes as no surprise. Libertarians have a hard time if they admit to a problem which the market alone might not be able to fix, and therefore many of them will deny the existence of such problems. The Bellows describes this as an Existential Crisis for Libertarianism:

…confronted by a problem demanding solutions inimical to libertarian beliefs, libertarians were faced with the choice of reneging on their beliefs or turning their back on science. Tellingly, they chose the latter. One might think that’s a rather drastic decision, given the role scientific endeavors have played in delivering the material prosperity so dear to the hearts of the libertarian world, and one would be right.

A belief system that cannot grapple with the fundamental reality of a situation is, quite simply, not a belief system worth having. If I were a part of a movement that demanded I not get out of the way of oncoming cars, and that challenged the conclusion of the fields of physics and biology that an impact between the car and my person would leave my person badly damaged, I would begin to suspect that this movement was maybe full of crazy people with very bad ideas. I suspect most people, and perhaps nearly all people would arrive at this conclusion. And if that movement couldn’t come up with a better way to approach the problem of the oncoming car, well, it would eventually find itself abandoned, destroyed by the insistent encroachment of reality.

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14 Comments

  1. 1
    Green Globe says:

    Libertarians and Climate Change – Liberal Values – Defending …: Now this is amusing: The Cato Institute recent.. http://tinyurl.com/c4wdqa

  2. 2
    Eclectic Radical says:

    We’re dealing with a form of Romanticism here. Though classical liberalism was originally built on empiricism, that foundation of empiricism has begun to around as conservatives and libertarians are unable to change their views based on empirical evidence. Conservatives fall deeper and deeper into Rand’s despised ‘argument from tradition’ and ‘argument from faith’, while libertarians are attached to a great sentiment in the best (or worst) Romantic tradition. Like good Romantics, they put the great sentiment over empirical evidence.

    One can argue very forcefully that classical liberalism is being rejected in favor of the very philosophy to which it is most opposed by its most outspoken defenders.

  3. 3
    Eclectic Radical says:

    ‘that foundation of empiricism has begun to erode’

    Suddenly, I can’t type.

  4. 4
    b-psycho says:

    Of course Cato is going to deny global warming, that’s part of their niche.  They’re the think tank that corporate apologists point at to support their conclusions, meanwhile the stuff where they disagree with the Right (the frequent articles against the “war on drugs” and the militarization of local police forces, for example)  just gets ignored because there’s no money in it.

    Any actual, reasonable libertarian would admit the problem is real, and still be free to disagree on the solution.  One little acknowledged strain of libertarian thought believes that taxation, as long as it exists, should be placed entirely on land & natural resource use instead of on labor.

  5. 5
    Green Globe says:

    Libertarians and Climate Change – Liberal Values – Defending …: Now this is amusing: The Cato Institute recent.. http://tinyurl.com/c4wdqa

  6. 6
    Fritz says:

    There really is a difference between the questions “Are human activities large enough to influence global state?” and “How trustworthy are climate models?”.    I think that the former is true but that my answer to the latter is “not very”.   And, unfortunately, computer models are much easier to tweak (post facto) to make appear to match evolving reality (but still with no reliable predictive power) than any theory other than pre-Copernican epicycles or modern string theory.

    That being said, well, yeah.  If human survival depends on full non-market control of production then that is a rather clear existential challenge to a philosophy rooted in individual decision-making.  I don’t know how to get around that.

    There is irrationality on both sides, though.  I have read the learned opinion of “We are past the tipping point.  Nothing we can do now can stop runaway global warming.  Cutting back CO2 will not work.  But we must cut back anyways!”.  Um, why?

    Maybe fusion will save the day.  But we still will run out of fish.

  7. 7
    Eclectic Radical says:

    I will be honest, I still find Freeman Dyson’s argument most compelling, even if it alienates me from the green fringe…

    Climate change is real and something must be done… but disease, poverty, war, and famine are for more immediate threats to human survival that must be addressed before we can obsess about the environment to the exclusion of all else.

  8. 8
    Fritz says:

    BTW — I’m reading Lomborg’s _Cool It_.  Looks like it will be an interesting (and quick) read.

  9. 9
    Fritz says:

    Quick update — I finished _Cool It_.  Very thought provoking and a refreshingly non-hysterical look at what has become a painfully loud topic.  I highly recommend the book.

  10. 10
    Christopher Skyi says:

    Psychopolitik — I don’t think Cato or another of the other typically maligned dissenting voices (e.g., Global Climate Coalition) deny the well-known observation that the climate is warming.

    The real debate is pinning down the cause the effect argument, e.g, is modern industrial life 100% responsible or something less, and what are the other possible  factors (e.g., CO2, the sun, natural variation) and how do they interact? 

    Beyond that, the uncertainty about what’s the best thing to do goes way way up, e.g., draconian cap & trade, hold CO2 emissions down to 1990 (or whatever)  levels, do nothing and let the current treads of energy efficient innovation continue to counteract negative human environmental impact?  Here the debate is wide open, as it should be given the level of uncertainty in each possible solution.

    Cato’s position on climate change is similar to their position on Iraq: yes, Iraq and WMD were seen as real issues and a problem, then and going forward, but they, unlike the Bush Admin, never saw it as an immediate crisis that spelled the end of the known world unless drastic action was taken immediately.   Instead,  they thought the government’s response to 911 was as headlong panicked rush to a quick and drastic solution they and we would soon regret. And they were correct to take this position — Iraq is somewhat stable now, but Afghanistan is a mess and Pakistan is growing threat. One wonders if  “cooler heads” had prevailed in the Bush Admin, would the middle east, Afghanistan and Pakistan be in better shape than they are today? I think the answer is yes.

  11. 11
    Christopher Skyi says:

    I think Freeman Dyson typifies the “rational dissenter,” i.e., he reminds us that rational men can, do, and often should, disagree.
    I’m cutting and pasting this from his Wikipedia entry:
    Dyson agrees that anthropogenic global warming exists, and has written


    One of the main causes of warming is the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere resulting from our burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal and natural gas.[19]

    However, he has argued that existing simulation models of climate fail to account for some important factors, and hence the results will contain too much error to reliably predict future trends.


    The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics, and they do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields and farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world we live in…[19]


    As a scientist I do not have much faith in predictions. Science is organized unpredictability. The best scientists like to arrange things in an experiment to be as unpredictable as possible, and then they do the experiment to see what will happen. You might say that if something is predictable then it is not science. When I make predictions, I am not speaking as a scientist. I am speaking as a story-teller, and my predictions are science-fiction rather than science.[19]

    He is among signatories of a letter to the UN criticizing the IPCC [1]. The letter includes the statements “The average rate of warming of 0.1 to 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade recorded by satellites during the late 20th century falls within known natural rates of warming and cooling over the last 10,000 years” and “there has been no net global warming since 1998”. Both statements have been criticized as inconsistent with the data.[20][21]
    He has also argued against the ostracization of scientists whose views depart from the acknowledged mainstream of scientific opinion on climate change, stating that heretics have historically been an important force in driving scientific progress.


    heretics who question the dogmas are needed… I am proud to be a heretic. The world always needs heretics to challenge the prevailing orthodoxies.[19]

    He also believes that directing money towards fighting global poverty and providing medical aid will bring greater benefits to society than attempting to combat climate change.


    They take away money and attention from other problems that are much more urgent and important. Poverty, infectious diseases,…[22]

  12. 12
    Fritz says:

    Fundamentally, unless there is really solid evidence that either Greenland or the main Antarctic ice sheets are going to melt away in the next hundred years, there are vastly more important things to spend money on than CO2 reduction. 

    In other cool ecological reading, I read a small piece in New Scientist that indicates that coastal forests are the key to changing rain patterns and Australia may have gone from forested to arid because the aboriginal population burned the coastal forests thousands of years ago.  And that replanting a coastal strip of forests can suck moist air inland and reverse the desertification process.

  13. 13
    Christopher Skyi says:

    Of interest: Are Green jobs really Greener (in the economic sense), or do those jobs just look Greener?  This from the economist:

    “As all the studies discussed suggest, some ways of creating jobs—or fighting global warming, for that matter—are cheaper than others.”

    http://www.economist.com/finance/displayStory.cfm?story_id=13404568&source=hptextfeature

  14. 14
    Eclectic Radical says:

    At the risk of having my far left credentials revoked by the environmental lobby, much of ‘green industry’ is not very green at all. Hydrogen fuel cells still require the burning of fossil or nuclear fuels to create the fuel cell, they are a means of storage and transmission rather than a direct source of energy. Electric and hybrid car batteries make use of toxic chemicals and produce dangerous industrial waste in their manufacture. Geothermal power plants run the risk of creating seismic disruptions, and are still a LONG way from being perfected. The only truly ‘green’ systems of energy generation (solar, wind, and water power) are already in wide use but are much less efficient (solar and wind) or have their own impact on the environment (water).

    I do believe something needs to be done, and I don’t disagree that something can be done. However, it needs to be done without hysteria or desperation. Panic causes mistakes.

    The best way to manage the problem, resource conservation, has been thrown out the window by nearly everyone as we continue to ratchet up consumerism.

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