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Monday, December 28, 2009

Climate Reality Bites the Libertarians

Political Opinion and Commentary for the Progressive Internet


Climate Reality Bites the Libertarians

Ernest Partridge, Co-Editor
The Crisis Papers.

ome of my best friends are libertarians.

We read each others’ papers, we exchange ideas by e-mail, and we invite each other to participate in our seminars and conferences.

On numerous occasions, my libertarian friends have treated me with generosity and respect. I’ve found them to be personable and tolerant of my progressive opinions.

And also unyielding in their convictions.

My libertarian friends, I have discovered, are like the kindly Catholic bishop, who will patiently listen to your heresies, all the while never budging an iota from his absolute faith in the authority of the Pontiff, the truth of the dogma of the immaculate conception, and the sinfulness of birth control.

Likewise, the typical libertarian is steadfast in his beliefs,*

  • that “there is no such thing as a public” (Ayn Rand) – that (so-called) “society” is nothing more than an aggregation of individuals. It follows that there is no such thing as “the public interest,” “social problems,” or “victims of society.”

  • that the profit motive combined with human ingenuity (Julian Simon’s “ultimate resource”) is the primary engine of human progress and the solution to any problems that might arise from industrial civilization.

  • that a free market, unconstrained by government regulation, will always produce better results than centrally planned, “collectivized” public enterprises. (“Market Absolutism”)

  • that private ownership of natural resources and institutions is always preferable to public ownership: “Whenever we find an approach to the extension of private property rights in these areas, we find superior results." (Robert J. Smith)

  • that the fundamental and exclusive human rights are to life, liberty, and property, and that governments have no legitimate function other than the protection of these individual rights. Accordingly, taxation for any other purposes, such as public education, welfare, promotion of the arts, national parks, or the protection of the environment, is theft.

To yield these principles is to abandon libertarianism itself.

Accordingly, like Ptolemy’s fixed earth around which the sun, the planets, the stars, and the entire universe circulate, these core libertarian dogmas are eternally fixed, and neither, history, practical experience, and occasionally not even science and logic, can be allowed to budge them.

Thus the inevitable collision between libertarianism and climate science over global warming.

This “collision” may be found in the pronouncements and publications of such “conservative” think tanks as The Heritage Foundation, The American Enterprise Institute, The Cato Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Never mind that the two thousand scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), along with the vast majority of qualified scientists of The American Association for the Advancement of Science, The National Academy of Sciences (NAS), The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, etc.. all affirm the reality of global warming.

My libertarian friends have never offered me a plausible explanation as to how, if they are right, the overwhelming majority of so many accredited scientists could be so wrong, or what might motivate them to persist in their alleged “errors”.

Secular libertarians are not noted for their rejection of established scientific opinion. They do not, for example, dispute evolution or modern medical science, and in fact their faith in the capacity of applied science (spurred on, of course, by private “competitive enterprise”) to solve any and all pending resource shortages and environmental crises exceeds that of most scientists.

But when it comes to climate science many libertarians treat the results of extensive and lavishly funded research of qualified experts with a skepticism that rivals Bob Jones University’s dismissal of Charles Darwin.

Why is this so?

It is so because, like Biblical literalism vs. modern biology and structural geology, the fundamental tenets of libertarianism are flatly incompatible with a scientific understanding of the causes of, and the remedies for, global warming. A libertarian who was somehow convinced of these causes and remedies would almost certainly have to give up his or her libertarianism. To be sure, one might maintain one’s insistence upon the privacy rights and the sanctity of individual autonomy, in which case the libertarian might then become a progressive.

Of course, the libertarian, if convinced at last of the validity of the IPCC findings, would have to admit that Al Gore is right, after all. That concession, while painful, would be superficial. Much graver recantations would be in order, involving not personalities but basic libertarian principles.

Regarding the causes of the climate crisis: The overwhelming scientific consensus is that global warming is “anthropogenic;” i.e., caused by human activity, which means largely by industrial activity. The primary chemical culprit is carbon dioxide, released by the consumption of fossil fuels: coal, natural gas, and petroleum. CO2 build-up is a giant-size example of what economists call an “externality:” a effect of economic transactions on unconsenting “third parties.” And externalities are the No.1 nemeses of libertarianism: : the compelling justification, time and again, for the regulation and intervention of private enterprise by governments, acting in “the public interest” – which is to say, in behalf of all those unconsenting “third parties.” In this case, those "third parties" are nothing less than all of mankind today and in all succeeding future generations.

With the onset of the industrial revolution, some three hundred years ago, wood fuel and human and animal labor were replaced first with coal and later with petroleum. The advantages of this transition were enormous and therefore irresistible. The effects of this transition upon the global climate (i.e., the “externalities”) were unknown, and until very recently, unknowable. But now, at last, we know.

Simply put, global warming is the by-product of the unconstrained “free market” that is celebrated by the libertarians. Also, let us not forget, it is the by-product of the command economies of the Soviet Union and China, whose governments were as unconcerned about externalities as any of the capitalists.

The industrial revolution, while it has caused untold misery among the working classes, has also brought about incalculable advantages: advances in medicine that have more than doubled the human life span, ease of communication and transportation, material abundance, and an explosion of scientific knowledge and technological capacity. Seated at this computer, with instant access to multiple libraries of information, having just enjoyed a meal of salmon from Alaska, oranges from Florida and avocados from Chile, and hale and hardy past my biblically allotted three-score and ten years, I should be ungrateful indeed if I were to disparage the bounties of industrialization.

But all this does not mean that mankind, upon releasing the fossil energy accumulated through millions of years, was not therefore obliged to study, forecast, and act upon the consequences of that release.

Those consequences fall not simply upon isolated, enterprising individuals, they fall upon a global collective entity – a “public,” a “society,” the existence of which, let us recall, the libertarians refuse to acknowledge. And they also fall upon future generations, who do not vote and do not participate in today’s markets. Moreover, that study, forecasting, and action, by their very collective nature, can not be done by individual entrepreneurs and private corporations, for “where’s the profit in it?”

No, the task of responding appropriately to the gathering climate emergency must fall upon non-economic entities, acting in behalf of mankind at large. Such entities are called “governments.”

Well, those governments have responded, in internal agencies such as the NAS, NCAR, NOAA, and in the United Nations agency, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Add to these, non-profit non-governmental organizations, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The response of the libertarians to this informed consensus is denial. But how could it be otherwise? Accepting the conclusions of IPCC and the virtually unanimous opinion of climate scientists throughout the world would entail the conclusion that unconstrained market forces, privatization, and moral atomism have brought human civilization to the brink of unspeakable catastrophe.

Regarding the remedies to the climate crisis: Don’t look to private enterprise for a solution to global warming. The fundamental responsibility of the private corporation is to protect investments and ensure the survival of the enterprise. If science won’t serve the corporate interests, then public relations will have to do the job. Case in point: the tobacco industry. So too, “global warming skepticism,” lavishly funded by the coal and petroleum industries. In both cases, the “science” is reversed and therefore fatally compromised, as the corporate order is given: “these are our ‘conclusions,’ now it's your job to come up with some ‘evidence’ to support them.”

Individual self-interest, the libertarians tell us, is the engine of progress. And it is both spontaneous and sufficient. No need for governments to “plan” or interfere; just leave progress to the benevolent “invisible hand” of the marketplace.

Tragically, those with eyes to see, can see where that approach has led us. Those who cannot see, should look at the satellite photos of the Arctic ice cap, the Antarctic ice shelves, and then learn from the trained eyes of the scientists who have measured the CO2 levels at Mauna Loa, who have examined the Greenland and Antarctic ice cores, who have measured the declining volume of the Greenland ice shield, etc.

All these researches have been sponsored and funded by governments.

Quasi-market solutions, such as carbon trading, while not totally useless, have proven at last to be too little and too late.

And so, some enlightened economists have finally if reluctantly come to the forced conclusion that only a massive, international government effort can avert the looming global catastrophe.

In a New York Times article, published just two days ago, Andrew C. Revkin reports a growing consensus opinion that

What is needed ... is the development of radically advanced low-carbon technologies, which ... will only come about with greatly increased spending by determined governments on what has so far been an anemic commitment to research and development. A Manhattan-like Project, so to speak....

In an article in the journal Nature last week, researchers concerned with the economics, politics, and science of climate also argued that technology policy, not emissions policy, must dominate.

“Policy” means guidance “from the top.” No place for an “invisible hand” of the market here. “A Manhattan-like Project” means government funding and administration today, just as it did sixty-five years ago at Oak Ridge, Hanford and Los Alamos. Exxon-Mobil won’t do it. Why should they? They are flourishing quite well, thank you very much, in the “awl bidness.” Global warming is a public emergency, requiring a public response.

“Market forces” are not irrelevant to this vast undertaking. Tax incentives and competition for government contracts can stimulate incentive, innovation, and enterprise. For example, windfall profit taxes could be levied on the oil companies, with the proceeds directed back at them earmarked for alternative energy research and development. But market forces, thus utilized, are subordinated to public policy. And the libertarians will have none of it.

It is this uncompromising market absolutism that disqualifies the libertarians from a seat at the table where climate control and remediation policy is to be deliberated.

And so, we arrive at last at the logical crux of the libertarian’s denial of global warming: If the retrospective and prospective conclusions of the IPCC and other scientific bodies are essentially correct, then the core principles of libertarianism are practically unworkable and morally untenable in modern industrial society. The logically valid implication must be that if the fundamental libertarian doctrine is to be maintained, then the multi-million dollar findings of thousands of expert scientists must be summarily rejected. (QED: Modus tolens, for you logic students).

There is an equally valid response for the libertarians: Accept the scientific consensus and abandon your dogmas. (QED: Modus ponens).

C’mon, my libertarian friends, give it up and join the rest of humanity in our common struggle to save the planet for human habitation. I promise, you’ll feel good about it once you’ve taken the plunge.

Copyright by Ernest Partridge

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