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What if?

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rixross Posted: Wed, Nov 19 2008 1:01 PM

Now I am not one to believe the hype in Global Warming, and man's destruction of our great mother earth, but for the sake of argument, let's assume that Al Gore's notion of global warming were correct, and CO2 emission's will bring about the downfall of mankind.

If that were the case, what would be the austrian solution to this problem? Rothbard is a proponent of allowing those harmed by pollution's effects to sue in court. Good idea, but I think it would be very hard in a practical sense. How would people prove that they were being harmed by a certain companies pollutants, and how would a correct assessment of damages be made?


The best solution that our congress can come up with is the dreaded carbon tax, which I know will be hamper competition since smaller companies will have trouble paying the tax, and it will also greatly increase energy costs. This is atleast a somewhat market based solution (to a problem that does not exist of course, but again for arguments sake lets pretend it does), so what other solutions may work better?

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Sphairon replied on Wed, Nov 19 2008 1:04 PM

This topic has been haunting me for quite a while. I'm not quite satisfied with my conclusions, but I put them on my blog a while ago. Warning: wall of text.

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.

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The reference point question drives me nuts, too.  Since the planet has been through more than one cooling and warming period, chances are that the annual mean temperatures are exactly the same as they were at some point in history.  And why does it matter, anyhow? 

I think the global climate change discussion can only be discussed in terms of direct consequences of pollution, and I agree that there is the problem of externalities.  I don't think there is a perfect way to solve the problem.  The key to Rothbard's analysis is that the market solution is AT LEAST AS GOOD, IF NOT BETTER than the government solution, and it doesn't require any guns.  So, government involvement in polluting industries, at least in the US, has generally led to MORE pollution and less legal recourse for those affected.  How does it help me if some big company pays a fine to the EPA?  They pay the fine, then I can't sue them.  Great.

"Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. ... Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

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dsimo04 replied on Wed, Nov 19 2008 2:11 PM



Very well written and reasoned.  I agree with you regarding the complexity and necessity of treating the argument delicately, as the distinctions and points you raise are rarely considered. 

I've been thinking about this issue also, especially pertaining to the complaints made by TokyoTom and the poster on mises blog known as "Person" regarding homesteading the atmosphere.  I think they fundamentally misunderstand Mises, and the Austrian conception of regarding something as pertaining to action.  It cannot be forced, as in, "there it is guys, go get it or you can't continue producing!"  That aside, Person's point regarding carbon credits (forced homesteading) being closer to reality than the traditional libertarian position and current market situation, which would be no credits, and thus, in these times, no price for emissions is interesting.  However, I think there are errors in his analysis.  He may be correct pragmatically, but I think he still agrees that free price formation would be the most efficient.  How does starting at the price set on "fake property" get us to free price formation?  How does he even know that that particular good is what the free market would create.  And so, how does he know that this is closer to the free market solution than having nothing?  In that way, I think the carbon credit solution is obviously not a market solution, since it's starting point is the creation of "fake goods".

If we go by homesteading, the air and atmosphere is obviously owned by someone.  But who?  People have been breathing for milennia.  But other creatures also breath.  Plants emit oxygen rather than co2.  Do they have a share of ownership?  Given the existence of everything at this moment, no matter who owns the atmosphere, every individual, every company, heavy pollutant or not, at least owns an easement of some sort through the atmosphere to continue their actions.  Any particular time one picks, the existing emitters rightly have easements.  So, if they have easements, then they are liable for any damage proven to be their fault.  And so we wind up right back where we started don't we?

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Stephen replied on Wed, Nov 19 2008 3:29 PM

If that were the case, what would be the austrian solution to this problem? Rothbard is a proponent of allowing those harmed by pollution's effects to sue in court. Good idea, but I think it would be very hard in a practical sense. How would people prove that they were being harmed by a certain companies pollutants, and how would a correct assessment of damages be made?

I don't see the problem. If Al Gore is really right, someone should be able to prove it. Until than, we should to assume CO2 producers are innocent. If a causal relationship between CO2 production and damage of one's property can be established and proven in a court of law, damages awarded should depend on the specifics of each case.

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rixross replied on Wed, Nov 19 2008 11:04 PM

We were assuming that Al Gore was right (impossible I know but we'll give it a chance for the sake of argument) , and the damage would be on a global scale.

How would anyone be able to individually determine who caused what damage?

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