"He's a snake in the grass, I tell ya guys; he may look dumb but that's just a disguise; he's a mastermind in the ways of espionage." Charlie Daniels, "Uneasy Rider" Overlooked by those warmed by climate rhetoric ("alarmist" or "denialist") - the fact that our most important commons have NO property rights rules - TT's Lost in Tokyo

Overlooked by those warmed by climate rhetoric ("alarmist" or "denialist") - the fact that our most important commons have NO property rights rules

Roger Pielke, Jr., a political scientist who rather persistently blames politically naive climate scientists for the very natural fact that there is a politicized debate over climate policy,  posted last week at his Prometheus website a guest commentary by Michael Zimmerman, Professor and Director, Center for the Humanities and Arts at the University of Colorado.  Zimmerman's post, "Coal Trains, Death Camps, and Recent Anti-Modernism," which only recently came to my attention, apparently addressed politically-oriented remarks and actions by climate scientist Jim Hansen.  "Apparently", I say, because the essay itself has been taken down by the author in light of factual errors and other criticism made of it, both at Prometheus and around the blogosphere (which sometimes does not lap so strongly at my distant shores).

But having finally been drawn toward Roger's site by the fuss and taking a look through comments, I felt compelled to make a few comments, despite my inability to read the actual post.  I felt particularly struck by the commonness of a refrain we are hearing from various pundits who prefer to question the good will or sanity of environmentalists over the harder work of engaging in a good faith examination and discussion of the underlying institutional problem of ALL "environmental" disputes:  namely, a lack of property rights and/or a means to enforce them. 

We can see this not only in George Will's recent piece about sea ice, but also in the ongoing series of posts by the supposedly "free market" libertarian Rob Bradley and his co-bloggers at MasterResource.

With that as background, here is what I posted at Roger's (emphasis added):

I’m sorry I missed the fun; did anyone happen to archive Mr. Zimmerman’s work, apparently so flawed that it required a withdrawal rather than an update or two?

Roger, I note the criticisms of you and Mr. Zimmerman at Things Break, and have to say I agree with them: http://thingsbreak.wordpress.com/2009/03/03/honest-broker-at-prometheus-attacks-hansen-over-claim-he-never-makes/. Perhaps Mr. Zimmerman has never carefully read the man whom he attacks in his piece, but you have, and it’s crystal clear that Hansen has ALWAYS been talking about coal’s relationship to species extinctions, not coal’s impact on humans. I’m surprised that you would post such an obvious misreading of Hansen.

I think I can agree with tomfid and Len Ornstein without the benefit of reading Zimmerman’s piece. It’s clear that we have no ability to instantly replace coal, but it’s also clear that even without the climate change issue, coal is not even now bearing its environmental costs - witness the roughly $1 billion TVA flyash spill, the 25,000 or so annual deaths that the American Lung Assn attributes to coal, etc - w/o even getting to China and India. Investors make profits, while losses are shifted to others. There’s hardly anything conservative or socially beneficial in that business model.

It’s also very clear that, far from wanting to return to a golden age, environmentalists (largely a well-to-do/wealthy slice of America) have quite legitimate concerns about the future, and about our uncontrolled, widespread and large-scale experiments with our planet. Find me someone ranting about “Malthusians” or somesuch, and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t understand - or refuses to acknowledge - the difference between wealth-creating markets based on private property / contracts protected by law, and the tragedy of the commons situations that result when there are NO property rights (atmosphere, oceans) or when the pressures of markets swamp indigenous hunter-gather community rules.

Just look at how the oceans are being trashed and strip-mined of fish, for an alternate example. It is a first order priority of mankind to grapple with the problem of managing our commons, before we irreversibly impoverish them. For the atmosphere, the handwriting has long been on the wall, though those who profit by externalizing risks have done a pretty good job of scribbling all over it.

Of course, while on the one hand the "skeptics" manage to so completely ignore their supposedly much greater understanding of markets, on the other hand, we hear very little talk about markets from most of the enviro pundits.   Even if scientists have a right to be worried, that doesn't really tell us what we should do. 

So what's the deal?  Here's a perfect opportunity for skeptics to educate the supposedly market ignorant, but they refuse, preferring to focus instead on why concerned scientists must be wrong, how concerns about climate have become a matter of an irrational "religious" faith, or that those raising their concerns are "misanthropes" or worse.

Both sides, it seems, prefer to fight - and to see themselves as right and the "others" as evil - rather than to reason. 

While we should not regret that we cannot really constrain human nature very well, at least Austrians (a breed of libertarian-linked economists, for any visitors not already familiar with these pages or the great LvMI organization that hosts them) ought to be paying attention to the inadequate institutional framework that is not only poisoning the political atmosphere, but posing risks to important globally and regionally shared open-access commons like the atmosphere and oceans (which are probably are in much more immediate and grave threat than the climate).  And they also ought to recognize that there are important economic interests that profit from the current institutional framework and have quite deliberately encouraged the current culture war.

(One such economically interested party, Exxon, has recently stopped funding one culture war outfit, Rob Bradley's climate "skeptic" shop - "MasterResource" - which remains dedicated to trumpeting relentlessly pro-coal talking points - e.g., civilization will collapse if we try to substitute nuclear, gas or other technologies for coal, or try to make coal investors pay for the climate and other environmental risks that they shift to society as a whole!)


Published Thu, Mar 12 2009 9:16 PM by TokyoTom


# Strange But True III: In which your intrepid reporter bravely discusses "tragedy of the commons" and "property" with corrupted climate scientists and AGW co-religionists!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009 11:16 AM by TT`s Lost in Tokyo

[some snark in the title] Further to my prior posts , here is the full list of my comments over at the

# re: Overlooked by those warmed by climate rhetoric ("alarmist" or "denialist") - the fact that our most important commons have NO property rights rules

Wednesday, September 9, 2009 2:50 AM by TokyoTom

This post was quoted here: