Human-induced climate change (formerly known as “global warming”) is, currently, a mainstream political topic that free market advocates frequently wade into, and rightfully so. When government threatens to use this excuse to expand its level of control both nationally and internationally, lovers of liberty cannot help but be drawn into defending their cause against this onslaught.

Nevertheless it is submitted that too much effort is directed at tackling the issue of whether human-induced climate change (through carbon dioxide emissions or whatever) is happening, and that there are insufficient attempts at clarifying precisely what, if anything, should be done under the assumption that it is happening. While it is interesting to debate the truth of the science and the motivation of the parties involved (especially the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)), we must submit that it is not within our capacity as political philosophers to tackle the conclusions of the natural scientists (although when it comes to the climate there is an arguable epistemological case against drawing too many incisive conclusions from such research, plus against the assumption that, if climate change is happening, it would necessarily lead to “catastrophic” or even unfavourable results, or that such results could not be adapted to). Rather, the more interesting question for libertarians is the extent to which (if any) social rules and political philosophy apply to a phenomenon such as climate change.

Let us start by outlining a few key assumptions:

  • Climate change is happening;
  • It is induced by purposeful human activity and, specifically, by net carbon dioxide emissions;
  • The phenomenon cannot be attributed to any identifiable individual or group of individuals; rather it is only the action of all humans in concert, although specific areas of the Earth and particular industries may exhibit greater contributions owing to the level of their industrialisation;
  • The phenomenon neither perceptibly nor directly harms any individual or property at any particular moment in time. The effects are gradual and cumulative, causing changes that might only be measurable (let alone noticeable) after a long period of time.

It is these last two facts that are often cited as the necessity for government intervention – that as no one individual suffers any sudden, appreciable cost from climate change that can be traced back to the action of another identifiable human being, it is alleged that neither the free market pricing, profit and loss system, nor traditional tort law, can control the phenomenon. Rather, climate change is one vast negative externality of human behaviour, in which we are slowly but surely sowing the seeds of our own doom with each step of economic and industrial progress. This allegation we will come to later. First of all it is important for us to understand precisely in whom the “right” to prevent climate change from happening is vested.

Rights and Obligations

The Earth and the matter it contains – the trees, the sky, the land, the oceans, the birds, the bees and so on – are all unconscious entities that have no desires, no feelings, no choices and no rational actions to bring about preferred ends. “Mother Nature” and the providence she brings may be an apt and vivid representation of the world and of all of its natural gifts, but it must be realised that she is only a metaphor. There is no conscious entity that can possess any “right” to be preserved, nor owed the obligation to be preserved. Any talk, therefore, of climate change being a “betrayal” of the planet and continued acts of industrialisation and pollution as somehow being “treasonous” are complete nonsense. Ascribing rights to the Earth is as ridiculous as ascribing it obligations – a pool of water, for instance, is not regarded as a murderer when someone drowns in it. Rather, these elements – rights and obligations – only arise between morally responsible beings, i.e. those beings that are endowed with moral choice. Any rights and obligations that arise as a result of climate change are, therefore, strictly between humans and not between humans and the planet. Even if the Earth did have “rights” in any meaningful sense, they would still have to be executed and enforced by human beings against other human beings.

For the same reason neither do “future generations” possess any right to enforce climate stability. Just as much as unconscious and lifeless matter, unborn or hypothetical persons cannot possess rights and responsibilities. One may judge it a very good thing to bequeath to our descendants a legacy of the world in a particular state but, again, this would be a judgment of existing humans and not of their unborn children and grandchildren. The right claimed is, once more, of those currently living people who wish to see the world continue in a certain state for their heirs.

Related to this aspect is the view that the Earth has some kind of inherent beauty or a universal and almost omnipotent splendour that transcends the existence of human beings. Far from co-existing with the Earth in a symbiotic relationship, humans are seen as a cancerous scourge that is destroying the planet’s innate and immovable qualities, a scourge that may (in some more extreme versions of this view) permissibly be killed in order to protect and defend the intrinsic magnificence of nature. All of this is nonsense. The Earth has been through many different modes of being throughout its approximately six billion years of existence. Whether it is better existing as a green and lush land of forestry, as a dead and lifeless cinder orbiting the sun, or covered in sea, ice, volcanoes, or whatever else, is a judgment that is made by humans. Absent any human there is no state in which the Earth can be that could be said to better or worse, beautiful or ugly, harsh or gentle, and so on. Even relatively more objective criteria such as whether it is “warm” or “cold” are judged against the temperature that is most comfortable for human existence. Climate change is not “harming” or “destroying” the planet. It is only changing it from one form into another. It requires a thinking, desiring and choosing human being to determine whether the form the Earth is in (or that to which it is being changed) is preferable. If this particular epoch of the Earth’s existence is especially and inherently satisfying, appealing, and worthy of preservation then this is a human judgment that is not measurable by any universal criteria. If humans are inducing climate change the effect of this is solely upon the preferences of other humans – and not upon the non-existent soul of the Earth. The question of climate change is therefore an interpersonal human matter, and not one that is between humans and the planet.

There is, therefore, no special body of rights and obligations that emerges solely because of climate change, and all discussion of the morally permissible means to deal with climate change must engage with the question of the rights and obligations of existing humans to prevent it. If, then, we take this approach, it appears at first blush that the problem of climate change may reduce to being simply one of the aggression of one person (or set of persons) against another. If the actions of person A on his property A1 causes damage on property B1 that is owned by person B then person A is liable. Can our discussion of how this harm can be prevented simply be the stock one of whether government should wade in and do so or whether the free market should? Unfortunately this approach is not likely to be adequate for the very reason we mentioned earlier. There is no one identifiable victim of aggression and there is no one identifiable perpetrator. It is the action of all humans in concert that is causing these changes to the climate that have allegedly deleterious consequences upon all human beings. Surely only the strong hand of the government is sufficient to prevent its disastrous results? A response to this, however, requires not capitulation and surrender, but rather, a deeper investigation by political philosophers (and libertarians in particular) into the nature of the problem of climate change in order to see whether the circumstances justify any interpersonal regulation at all. To this we shall now turn.

Humans and Nature

A human, in all of his endeavours, faces two sources of difficulty in the world – the state of nature on the one hand and the actions of his fellow humans on the other. Nature, that is, the world in which a human finds the environment around him, can be a harsh benefactor. When humans first trod on the virgin soil of the Earth, the availability of materials, water, and foodstuffs may have been plentiful and abundant in a raw and unbridled state. However, harnessing those resources and transforming them into arrays that would allow them to meet a wide range of ends would take centuries of toil and capital accumulation, something that did not significantly get off the ground until the beginning of the latest two centuries’ of human existence. Furthermore, natural phenomena such as the variability of the weather and the cycle of the seasons serve only to make this task more difficult. Nevertheless, whatever nature throws at man is something that, in the first instance, has to be taken as a given. Whatever configuration of elements nature provides to humans, whether it is good or bad, gentle or harsh, safe or dangerous, plentiful or mean, has to be dealt with as it is found. Only subsequent human action, in relation to what nature has provided, can bring about a change in the situation. Nature does not possess any choice in how it presents itself; it is simply under the orders of the laws of physics to do that which results. One could not, for example, “reason” with the ground to start growing crops, or shout at the clouds to provoke a rainfall. All of the problems that nature throws at humans, therefore, can only be overcome by taking nature as a given, by understanding its reality and by then learning to act with it symbiotically. We manufacture a hammer head out of metal and not out of sponge because metal is hard and will force a nail into a wall. We make a bucket without holes because otherwise water would leak out to the ground. We make knives sharp because a blunt object would not exert enough pressure to slice through meat or bread. We fertilise the soil in the winter, sow the seeds in the spring, tend to the ripening of the crops in the summer, and finally harvest in the autumn. In all of these cases we are acting in accordance with what nature has given us in order to meet our ends. It is true, of course, that as we progress we can overcome some of these problems with greater ability. Artificial heating and sunlight can, to a degree, overcome the problem of restricting crop production to the seasonal cycle. But still, this is only possible because we have learnt about the nature of energy and electricity, and we have still had to harness these in a way that is compatible with their nature. We do not click our fingers to make electricity appear; rather we have to generate it, lay cables to transport it to a heating or lighting outlet, and back again to complete the circuit. So even when we get to very advanced stages of production, capital accumulation and technological insight, we are always acting in accordance with what nature gives us. We cannot change this fact of existence. Our only option is to understand more incisively how we can use whatever nature provides.

Humans, on the other hand, are very different. Humans do not merely exist in the universe as dead, unconscious matter whose actions are only the result of physical laws or chemical reactions. Rather they possess choice, choice that is, in turn, motivated by desire and leads to concrete actions. As a result these choices can be debated, challenged, reasoned with, and altered at will. The substance of a human’s action, therefore, in contrast with the substance of the actions of unconscious matter, do not have to be taken as a given. Indeed they cannot be taken as a given because there simply is nothing to be taken as it is – every action is the result of a new choice and a new decision, not merely a repetition of what has happened before. Even the decision to repeat a previous action – like driving down the same road to work every morning – is a new decision to carry on doing something that was done before. Although it may be estimated with a varying degrees of probability, there is nothing that is ultimately and categorically predictable about the substance of a human’s action to the total exclusion of an alternative, and any hypothesis concerning what a particular human will do at a particular time and place is a personal judgment based on empathetic understanding.

Both of these factors – nature on the one hand, and fellow humans on the other – are sources of the overriding and predominant concern of human existence – scarcity and the conflicts that arise from scarcity. Nature does not produce enough resources for a human to meet all of his needs without the intervention of labour – choices must be made to resolve conflicts between ends that are held dear. Other humans compound this by desiring the use of resources that could meet your ends. The resolution of conflicts from each source of scarcity requires a bifurcated approach. Conflicts arising from nature can be resolved only by gaining a greater understanding of that nature in order to use what is has given to the furthest possible extent. Conflicts arising between humans, however, are resolved by social rules that derive from morality and how these rules deem it appropriate for a human to act in order to avoid conflict with another. The strongest of these rules are laws, those which may be enforced violently, as opposed to mere custom, manners, traditions and so on. It is with these strong rules to which the standard libertarian approach is non-aggression, self-ownership and private property. It is individual humans who have values, choices and desires; it is individuals who conflict over the ends to which the scarce means available must be devoted. It is therefore individuals who determine when there is a clash of values that needs to be resolved. It is the clash of individual wills that marks the realm of political philosophy separate from the realm of nature.

How, therefore, does human-induced climate change fit into this framework? Is it a conflict that arises out of inter-personal human interaction, in which case it is subject to social rules? Or is it more akin to an act of nature that must be dealt with as and when it arises? It is almost universally assumed that because humans are responsible for climate change in a strict, causative sense, that this automatically brings it within the purview of interpersonal human conduct and should be regulated by social rules. However, what we shall argue here is that simply because human purposeful activity causes an effect does not mean that social rules arise to control that effect. A person, X, makes an external piece of matter, some part of the Earth – whether it be land, wood, water, or whatever – the object of his action because he has recognised it as being scarce and therefore valuable. The result of his action is to transform – i.e. produce – the object (or “good”) from servicing one end to serving another. No other human expressed such a preference as if they had they would have already “homesteaded” the matter, or good, by making it their object of their action first. A human turns this piece of material into servicing a particular need because he prefers that need and the state of being of the good that will meet that need. If another person, Y, comes along and attempts to make the same good the object of his (Y’s) action then the result of this is to divert it away from X’s ends towards Y’s ends. Y’s conduct is, here, subject to the regulation of social rules because X identifies a violent intervention to his property that is attributable to the chosen and purposeful action of Y. There are three key elements in this situation:

  • Goods;
  • An identifiable human (X) who has diverted the goods to a certain end;
  • An identifiable human (Y) who has chosen, deliberately, to divert the goods to another end.

Take away any one of these elements and any talk of social rules becomes meaningless. First, it should be obvious that if there were no goods then there would be nothing to conflict over and social rules would serve no purpose. Secondly, if X did not exist or was not identifiable then there would be no conflict as the good would be ownerless upon Y’s arrived. And finally, if did not exist, or if the intervention of Y was not carried out by a human but, say, by an act of nature then social rules would serve no purpose as they cannot regulate unthinking and unconscious objects.

With climate change, we do not have just one of these elements missing – rather, all three are marked by their absence. First, it is not clear that there are any identifiable goods that are violently interfered with. In other words, is the climate that surrounds a property considered a part of that property (or something that, if changed, can make a violent, physical intervention to that property) or is it something that simply provides varying external benefits and burdens to property which will affect their relative values, in the same way that a conveniently located school might enhance the desirability of nearby houses? Whereas a hurricane would clearly cause untold physical damage and havoc to a property, changes in rainfall, sunshine and temperature may make no appreciable physical intervention at all while, at the same time, enhancing or reducing its desirability. If so, then good weather is tantamount to being something that provides an external benefit to property without intervening, physically, with the property itself. If this is true then other people cannot be forced to continue providing external benefits to your property, nor can they be prevented from carrying out actions that will stop them. If the school decides to close, its owners and managers choosing to devote their efforts elsewhere, and this affects the desirability of your property, few would suggest that you should have a violently enforceable right to enslave them and keep the school open. Or, if my pretty garden enhances the value of your property, should you have the right to force me get out my wheelbarrow and spade? Secondly, there are not necessarily any identifiable individuals that own property that has suffered physical intervention by climate change. Thus far most of the alarmism is only based on hypotheses of future effects and, furthermore, has come not from individual property owners but from governments, their sponsored scientists, activists, environmentalists and political groups. Indeed, given the abysmal record of governments in protecting property from all other kinds of manmade threat we must be extremely suspicious as to why they so enthusiastically champion their own resolution of this one. Finally, and, perhaps, most importantly, climate change is caused not by any one individual but by the action of all humans together. The effect is not caused by the action of any identifiable individual human or identifiable set of humans but is the consequence of the purposeful activity of multiple humans acting independently. A requirement of moral responsibility, and thus, the regulation of an action according to social rules is the individual consciousness that chooses that action. One, single human possesses this consciousness, and this enables him to become morally responsible for actions that are taken even when he chooses to act as part of a group of individuals. All humans together, however, do not possess any individual consciousness that can be held morally responsible for its actions. Humans as a whole, as opposed to individually, are not an individual, sentient, or conscious being. In their collective they are not, therefore, divisible from nature but must, very much, be taken to be a part of it. This is not intended to make the genealogical point that, along with the vegetation and animals, we are all part of the same rock orbiting the sun. Rather, as any one human approaches and considers phenomena arising from humans acting altogether, he must treat and deal with them as phenomena of nature and not as those of an individual being. This still applies even where the groups can be localised – for example, heavily industrialised countries such as the United States will churn out more net carbon dioxide emissions than third world countries (which are often alleged to bear much of the burden of climate change). Simply because people are forcibly “united” by their government or state identity does not mean that their individually chosen action, or action chosen in concert with other individuals, can be held morally responsible for the harm alleged. But even if it did there would still be an enormous problem with causation and proportionality. It is just that an individual should be held responsible only for the harm that he causes and only to the extent that he caused it. How do we know whether a person’s or company’s carbon dioxide emissions caused a change in climate that affected another person’s property and if we do know, then how much? We can, of course, measure net contribution to carbon dioxide emissions. But what if the harm would have happened anyway from everyone else’s contributions and neither the addition nor subtraction of this one person’s emissions would have made any difference?

Indeed, it is not at all surprising that humans would exert some kind of collective side effect upon the Earth that is not reducible to the purposeful behaviour of any single one of them. Larger quantities of anything generally have effects that are either unperceivable or negligible when smaller quantities are considered. Groups of humans have been known to create seismic activity when they jump up and down at the same time1. Millions, if not, several billion people are always walking upon the Earth at the same time. Thus far this has not created any noticeable problem. However, if we suddenly started to see minor tremors causing cracks to appear in buildings from all of those “selfish, profit-seeking” humans walking everywhere, would the most sensible response be to call upon government to regulate how many paces everyone can take in a day, and when? Or should we just to accept the phenomena like an effect of nature and ensure it is accounted for in building design?

Conclusion

Summing up the above argument, therefore, we may conclude that where the purposeful activity of all human beings but of no individual human being, or identifiable group of the same who are purposefully acting in concert, creates certain effects then these effects must be regarded as akin to effects of nature and not of an individually, morally responsible being. The collective “humans” possesses no individual moral responsibility that can be held to account by social rules. Simply because something is induced by the actions of all humans does not mean that any one of the humans is responsible and can be penalised by another human.

The appropriate response to human induced climate change, therefore, is the same response to all of the other problems that nature throws at us – by taking it as a given, understanding its reality as deeply as we can and then learning to act with it symbiotically. This may allow us not only to avoid it but to also, perhaps, use it as an opportunity, as a resource, in ways that, at present, we are not able to consider. Even at the moment it appears far from certain that the effects of climate change will be universally bad and will not have mitigating or even beneficial results. Indeed, those who are so concerned about how we leave the world for our descendants might want to consider whether it is just for us to deny them these possibilities. Nevertheless we should end by saying that none of this means that people should not, individually, act to preserve the climate as it is by restricting net carbon dioxide emissions if that is how they wish to proceed. They are quite welcome to restrict their own emissions and to persuade others to do so. But, as in the pursuit of all other values, they should do so peacefully and voluntarily and not muster the violent hand of the government to enforce it for them at the expense of those who do not share that view.

View the video version of this post.

1One recent example is when Seattle Seahawks fans jumped up and down in celebration during a game on December 2nd 2013: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-25205548.

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