“Climate Change” – An Austro-Libertarian Analysis
By Duncan Whitmore
In my most recent essay posted on this blog, we noted that the COVID-19 hysteria is giving way to a ramping up of climate alarmism of the kind on full display at the recent United Nations Climate Conference in Glasgow (“COP26”). (Or at least it was until the so-called “Omicron” variant ignited a fresh wave of viral panic).
Needless to say, like most of those who value prosperity and freedom, I do not waiver from the view that the trumpeted calls for “action” to abate human-induced climate change (once known as “global warming”) are scarcely concerned with protecting the planet as such; rather, they are little more than a ruse to expand state control over industry and lifestyle choices, a convenient excuse that has become more prominent since the economic case for such expansion died along with Soviet communism. In a handful of previous essays, I have outlined both the fundamental misanthropy of the environmental movement and the epistemological errors of what passes for “The Science”, in addition to demolishing the underlying, Malthusian myth that human overpopulation is driving us to the brink of disaster.
However, much of what else could be said with regards to the facts of climate change has been said elsewhere, and in a way better than what I could reproduce here. Thus, to do something different, we will look not at whether human-induced climate change (through carbon dioxide emissions or whatever) is happening. Instead, let us take as our starting point the notion that is, indeed, happening – in other words, for the sake of argument, let us concede absolutely every climate related disaster for which eco-fanatics claim human industry and prosperity is responsible. Is there anything within libertarian theory that would grant anyone the right to curb industry and private decision making in the manner in which states are seeking to do?
Let us start by outlining a few key assumptions:
- Climate change is happening;
- Such change 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 the product of the actions of all humans in concert, although specific countries and particular industries may exhibit greater contributions owing to a higher level of industrialisation;
- The effects of the phenomenon are not perceptible at any particular moment in time. Unlike with, say, a stabbing, in which cause and consequence and contemporaneous, the cause of climate change is gradual and cumulative, with actual effects becoming noticeable only after a long period of time – much like the way in which the sea erodes a rock face. However, just as erosion by the sea can cause a cliff to come crashing down, the final results could be catastrophic.
It is these last two assumptions that are often cited as justifications 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 address the phenomenon. Rather, climate change is one, vast negative externality of human behaviour, sowing the seeds of our own doom with each step of economic and industrial progress. This circumstance we will deal with later. First of all it is important for us to understand precisely in whom any “right” to prevent climate change from happening could be vested.
Rights and Obligations
The Earth and all of the wonderful things it contains – the trees, the sky, the land, the oceans, and so on – are all unconscious entities that have no desires, no feelings, no choices and no purposeful actions to bring about preferred ends. “Mother Nature” may be an apt and vivid representation of the world and of all of its natural gifts, but she is a mere metaphor. There is no conscious entity that can possess any “right” to be preserved, nor owed the obligation to be preserved in a specified state. Any talk, therefore, of continued acts of industrialisation, pollution and resulting climate change as being a “betrayal” of the planet is complete nonsense when it is elevated beyond the level of mere rhetoric to the point of enshrining in legislation a literal “duty” to the Earth. Ascribing rights to the planet, or to any part of it, 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 – arise only between morally responsible beings, i.e. those beings that are endowed with the ability to choose their actions from an array of options. 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 enforced by human beings against other human beings.
This reality is often camouflaged by the notion that the Earth has some kind of inherent beauty or a universal, 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 (in some more extreme versions of this view) should be killed in order to protect and defend the intrinsic magnificence of nature.
All of this is nonsense. For one thing, it is little more than a variation on the notion that “society” or the “nation” is more important than the individual, and that individuals may be sacrificed for the “greater good”. As false as it is, at least that traditional conception has at least some plausible connection to the welfare of actual people. But to paint the Earth as an entirely separate being that has needs for some kind of welfare disconnected from that of human beings is especially ridiculous. The planet has been through many different modes of being throughout its approximately six billion years of existence. Whether it is better existing as a green land of lush 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 measured on a scale designed by humans. Thus, climate change cannot be said to be “harming” or “destroying” the planet; it is only changing it from one form into another. A thinking, desiring and choosing human being is required 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 measurable only by criteria that are devised by human reason. If humans are inducing climate change the effect of this is solely upon the beliefs and 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, not one that is between humans and the planet.
For the same reason, neither do future generations possess any right to enforce climate stability. Just as much as unconscious and lifeless matter cannot possess rights and responsibilities, neither can hypothetical and non-existent persons. From the point of view of wider morality, it may, of course, be a very good thing for us to bequeath to our descendants a world that is in a particular condition, but this too would be a judgment of existing humans, not of their unborn children and grandchildren. Any right claimed to configure the world in a certain way is always a right held by currently living people that must be enforced against other, currently living people.
There is, therefore, no special body of rights and obligations that emerges solely because of climate change, and all discussion of the legally 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 that climate change reduces to being a problem of the aggression of one person (or set of persons) against others: if the “climate changing” actions of person A on his property A1 causes damage on property B1 that is owned by person B, then person A is liable. It seems, therefore, that our only remaining choice is between the “minarchist” approach of permitting the state to bring person A to justice (in the same way a night watchman state should respond to all other property invasions) and the “anarchist” approach of leaving the problem to free market security services.
Unfortunately this approach is unlikely to be adequate for a critical reason we mentioned earlier: there is neither an identifiable victim of aggression nor an identifiable aggressor. Rather, 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. Thus, neither a minarchist government nor an anarchist, private justice agency could ever bring anyone to trial.
Have we therefore stumbled across a devastating loophole in libertarian theory that could allow manmade catastrophes to continue unabated? If so, are we defenceless against the statists who assert that the strong hand of positive, state intervention is the only vehicle sufficient to prevent the disastrous results of a changing climate?
This circumstance, however, requires no capitulation on our part. Instead, we must undertake a deeper investigation into the nature of the problem of climate change in order to see whether it justifies any kind of interpersonal regulation at all. To this we shall now turn.
Humans and Nature
A human, in all of his endeavours, faces two, external 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 – the condition 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 configurations that would allow them to meet a wide range of ends would take centuries of toil and capital accumulation, an endeavour that did not significantly get off the ground until around the year 1800. Natural phenomena such as the variability of the weather and the cycle of the seasons serve only to make this task more difficult.
But whatever nature throws at us 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 possesses no choice over 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 it is, by understanding its reality, and by then learning to act with it symbiotically. For instance, 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 fashion a bucket without holes because otherwise water would leak out to the ground; knives are made sharp because a blunt object would fail to exert enough pressure to slice through meat or vegetables; we fertilise the soil in the winter, sow the seeds in the spring, and tend to the ripening of the crops in the summer before finally harvesting 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, these problems can be overcome with increasing ability. For instance, artificial heating and sunlight can, to a degree, resolve the problem of restricting crop production to the seasonal cycle. Still, this is possible only because we have learnt about the nature of energy and electricity, phenomena we can only ever harness in a way that is compatible with that 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 reach highly 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 and to bring more of that provision into the circle of usable goods.
The way in which we approach other humans, on the other hand, is very different. Humans do not merely exist in the universe as dead, unconscious matter whose actions are the result only of physical laws, chemical reactions or prior momentum. Rather they possess choice motivated by desire leading, in turn, to concrete actions. These actions are, of course, constrained by nature – no human can, for instance, choose to fly like a bird, or grasp an object that is twenty feet away. But they are not otherwise determined by nature. The way in which an individual should interact with the available goods around him can be debated, challenged, reasoned with, and altered at will. Therefore, in contrast with the behaviour of unconscious matter, the substance of a human’s action does not have to be taken as a given. Indeed it 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 inevitable outcome 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 repeat a prior action. 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 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 in their virgin state for a human to meet all of his needs without the intervention of labour; thus, choices must be made to resolve conflicts between ends that are held dear. Other humans compound this by desiring for themselves the use of resources that you want at any one time.
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 it has given to the farthest possible extent towards the best possible ends. Conflicts arising between humans, however, are resolved ultimately by social rules, rules that deem it appropriate for a human to act in a certain way so as to avoid conflict with another.1 The strongest of these rules are laws, which may be enforced physically, in contrast to mere customs, manners, traditions and so on, which must be enforced by only non-physical means. 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. Resolving this clash of individual wills, at its most fundamental level, is the task of political philosophy, the libertarian answer to which is summarised as self-ownership and private property. (And, of course, within this sphere of self-ownership and private property, apparent conflicts can be turned into advantages. By understanding and serving (instead of fighting) other people’s needs, we can persuade them to serve our needs in return, a process which extends the division of labour and results in the attainment of more goods by everyone.)
This difference between resolving conflicts with nature on the one hand and with humans on the other can be illustrated with the kinds of security measure that we employ to protect our property. When protecting oneself from phenomena of nature, the method employed must be technically sufficient to repel the particular force. A roof, for instance, has to be absolutely watertight if rain is to be prevented from leaking in; it cannot be made mostly or partly watertight in the hope that the rain will “decide” to go elsewhere. When protecting oneself from other humans, however, this isn’t necessarily the case. The measures we employ do not need to be physically sufficient to prevent a human from breaking and entering; rather, they simply have to be enough to persuade him that doing so is not worthwhile, and that he should choose to turn away. Most door locks can be picked, windows can be smashed, while one could simply walk past a CCTV camera, but the existence of these things usually serves as a good enough deterrent against any urge to commit crime. In short, such methods recognise that human action is determined by an assessment of costs and benefits, not just physical capability.2
This is also the effect of social rules. All such rules will have an enforcement mechanism to act as a deterrent in the event they are threatened (physical force when it comes to legal rights, and ostracism or boycott when it comes to the observance of morals, customs and manners). Actual enforcement, however, is a rarity reserved for the handful of aberrations who still proceed to rape, murder or steal. Everyone else chooses to avoid breaking the particular rules, seeing them as a guide to inform their behaviour rather than as technically impenetrable barriers. A major reason for this will be the benefits to be gained from peaceful, social co-operation instead of endless conflict, but so too is the weight of our consciences and sense of justice an enhancing factor. An amoralist may decide not to murder or steal solely because of material calculation: the risk of loss from being apprehended and prosecuted outweighs what he could gain from any criminal act. However, many of us – probably even most of us – would observe rules against murder and theft even if they were devoid of significant enforcement. If there was no penalty for these atrocities then their incidence would obviously rise, but many people would still abstain from participating in such acts on account of their inherently abominable nature.3
Incidentally, this ability to reason between what is good, what is bad, and what is valuable marks the gulf between humans and animals. To some extent, conflicts with the highest functioning of animals can be resolved in a way similar to the resolution of conflicts with humans. For instance, in order to get a horse to move, it is not always necessary to compel it physically; rather, we can offer it, say, a carrot which will incentivise it to exercise control over its muscles in a manner we desire, or we can train it to obey certain hand gestures. Furthermore, the application of such incentives will have varying rates of success in much the same way as we cannot categorically say that a human will respond uniformly to a given incentive on different occasions. However, incentives such as carrots for horses are ultimately utilising the horse’s basic instincts and urges; they are not a product of reasoning between good choices and bad choices. For the horse, the offer of a carrot (or a hand gesture) is a signal or prompt to behave in a certain way, not a social rule the value of which has been comprehended. Thus, any method we use in order to “persuade” a horse to do what we want it to do is ultimately exploiting an aspect of that horse’s nature, and is entirely different from the human realm of thinking, choosing and acting.
How, therefore, should libertarians fit the problem of human-induced climate change into this framework? Should we regard it as a conflict that arises out of inter-personal human interaction, in which case it should be subject to legal regulation? 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 as a whole are responsible for climate change (and any damage it could cause) in a factual, causative sense, climate change falls within the purview of interpersonal human conduct, and so should be regulated by law. For libertarians, this would mean that we need to examine the phenomenon of climate change to see if causes a property violation. However, what we shall argue here is that simply because purposeful human activity causes a deleterious effect – even one that is physically invasive – is not sufficient for determining whether such activity can be subject to legal regulation.
Property, Aggression and Victims
If a person makes some part of the Earth – whether it be land, wood, water, an apple, or whatever – the object of his action, it is because he has recognised it as scarce and, therefore, valuable. The result of his action is to divert the object from one state to an alternative state in which it fulfils a valuable end (a process we refer to as “production”). For instance, if he homesteads land, it may be diverted to the growing of crops or the construction of a house; if he gathers water, it is directed towards satisfying his thirst. No other human expressed such a preference, for if he had then this other human would have already homesteaded the good by making it their object of his action first.
For instance, if John gathers firewood so that he can keep himself warm, this is because he prefers the satisfaction of that need, while recognising the ability of the firewood to fulfil it. If another person, Simon, comes along and attempts to make the same firewood the object of his (Simon’s) action, then the result of this is to divert that firewood away from servicing John’s need to stay warm towards servicing an end of Simon. Here, we would say that Simon’s conduct is aggressive because there has been a physical intervention into goods homesteaded by John that is specifically attributable to the chosen and purposeful action of Simon, an intervention which deprives John of using his property as he sees fit.
There are three key elements in this situation:
- A specific, scarce good;
- An identifiable human (John) who has diverted the good to a certain end;
- Another identifiable human (Simon) who has chosen to divert the goods to another end (or, such diversion away from John’s end is the product of Simon’s culpable negligence).
If any one of these elements was to be missing then any talk of a property violation or of “aggressive behaviour” becomes meaningless. If there was no good in existence, or if a good was not scarce (such as breathable air) then there would be nothing over which to conflict; if John did not exist then, similarly, there could be no conflict as the good would be ownerless upon Simon’s arrival; and finally, if Simon did not exist then obviously there would be no interference at all for there to be a problem. Or, further, if Simon’s intervention was carried out not by him but, say, by an act of nature, then laws could not apply as they could not regulate unthinking, unconscious objects.
With climate change, we do not have just one of these elements missing – rather, it is, at least, arguable that all three are marked by their absence.
First, it is not clear that there are any identifiable goods that are physically interfered with as a result of climate change. The climate itself is not a physical good, nor has anyone exerted any legitimate property right over the entire the atmosphere. Thus, simply changing the climate is not, directly, a property violation.
Climate change could indirectly reduce the desirability of particular property holdings. For instance, a warmer, sunnier climate may make holiday homes more desirable and, hence, more valuable compared to a colder, wetter one. But how should this effect be categorised? Is the climate that surrounds your house something which, if changed, could make a physical intervention to that house? Or is it something that simply provides varying external benefits and burdens to the house which will affect its value? In other words, is climate change akin to a wrecking ball which could demolish the property, or is it more like the closing of a local supermarket which might reduce the value of your house without actually interfering with it?
Obviously, doom-mongering politicians like to depict climate change as the former, but it is such a vague and malleable concept that this isn’t necessarily so. Clearly a hurricane would cause untold, physical damage to a property, while rising sea levels are a purported threat to coastal/low-lying properties. But even significant changes to more regular features of the climate – rainfall, sunshine and temperature – may make no appreciable, physical intervention at all while, at the same time, enhancing or reducing the desirability of a given property.
If the latter is the case then a “good” climate is tantamount to being something that provides an external benefit to property, while a “bad” climate may reduce that benefit without intervening, physically, with the property itself. If this is true then, under libertarian principles, other people cannot be prevented from undertaking actions that withdraw that external benefit to your property, nor can they be forced to continue actions that positively deliver that benefit. For instance, if your local supermarket decided to close (with their owners and managers choosing to devote their efforts elsewhere), we could not suggest that you should have a violently enforceable right to effectively enslave them so as to keep the store open. Or, to take another example, say that your neighbour’s pretty front garden enhances the value of your house; which kind of libertarian would grant you the right to force that neighbour to toil with his wheelbarrow and spade so as to maintain that value?
Second, there are not necessarily any identifiable individuals who own property that has suffered physical intervention by climate change. Most of the present alarmism is based on hypotheses of future effects rather than any actual damage or imminent threats (even though we are always told that we are on the edge of the climate precipice). Where there are particular activists, such as Greta Thunberg, they tend to point only to vague and holistic concepts such as the theft of their “dreams”, not to any specific property that they own.
Of course, much of the reason for this is that people (probably rightly) are sceptical of the notion that there is a firm, causal connection between human, industrial activity and identifiable harm, via climate change, to their property and lifestyles. But let us grant the climate change narrative its best possible case by assuming that such causal links are, indeed, proven beyond reasonable doubt. Even if this was so, a human choice in favour of a certain end always entails the loss of an alternative. Even the pursuit of justice is itself a costly affair which will consume time and resources, and, so, is only ever pursued when the loss incurred is felt to be worthwhile.4 There is no reason for assuming that the loss from climate change will clear this bar. People (especially those in developing countries) may well prefer to bear the risk of climate damage if it means that a more rapid rate of industrialisation and economic progress can be achieved. Indeed, they may well be content to leave harm from climate change as something to be confronted with more and better technology as and when it occurs rather than sacrifice gains today. Unless and until a significant number of actual victims pointing to physical damage to real property step forward we simply do not know. If people do not perceive that any interference from climate change is a significant enough intrusion into their property to warrant sacrificing other ends then there is no case to answer.5
Instead of actual victims, most of the alarm has come not from individual property owners but from governments, their sponsored scientists, activists, and environmentalists who demand action, supposedly on our behalf. Given the abysmal record of states in protecting property from all other kinds of manmade threat we must be extremely suspicious as to why they are such enthusiastic champions of the need to confront 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 harmful effects are not that of the action of any identifiable individual human (or identifiable set of humans) but are the consequence of the purposeful activity of multiple humans, all of whom are acting independently but in such a way as to cause cumulative effects upon the climate. This fact has actually been stated most starkly (and most absurdly) during COP26 – that it is not even the entirety of Britons alive today who are deemed responsible, but our long dead ancestors for having launched the Industrial Revolution.
It is this aspect in particular that is the key to unravelling any notion that climate change can be considered an aggressive act. A requirement of legal responsibility, and thus, the regulation of an action according to laws, is an individual consciousness that chooses that action. One, single human possesses this consciousness, and this enables him to become legally responsible for actions that are taken even when he chooses to act as part of an identifiable group of individuals. All humans together, however, possess no individual consciousness that can be held legally responsible for its actions. Humans as a whole, as opposed to single humans, are not an individual, sentient, or conscious being.
Thus, in their collective, humans are not 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 total human activity, he must treat and deal with them as phenomena of nature that must be dealt with as they are, and not as those of an individual being whose choices and actions are subject to influence. 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 developing countries. Simply because people are forcibly “united” by their government or state identity does not mean that their individually chosen actions, or actions chosen in concert with other individuals, can be held legally responsible for the totality of harm alleged.
Furthermore, there would an enormous problem with causation and proportionality. An individual should be held responsible only for the harm that he causes and only to the extent that he caused it. How would we know whether the carbon dioxide emissions of one particular person (or one specific company) caused a change in the climate that affected another person’s property? We can, of course, attempt to measure net contribution to carbon dioxide emissions and, no doubt, some dystopian monitoring tools to achieve this are in the pipeline. But even if we were to assume that this would be achievable for each of the world’s seven billion people (and the previous contributions of long dead persons were deducted), net contribution itself doesn’t prove a causal connection to any appreciable harm. For each and every one of us, our contributions are miniscule, and so adding or subtracting any one person’s emissions is unlikely to make any difference. Shooting (or choosing not to shoot) at a person will do nothing if someone else has already shot him dead.
Attempts could be made to “resolve” this problem through the crooked employment of analogies with existing legal problems. One of these is joint enterprise. If, say, a gang of five people decides to rob a bank, the mastermind may stay back at HQ while the other four carry out the actual robbery. In no sense would we say that the mastermind should be let off simply because the physical act of aggression was perpetrated by his four co-conspirators. Instead, the entire enterprise, from planning to execution, is considered to be one, long act of aggression for which all five are jointly liable for the whole (at least insofar as the extent of the aggression executed did not exceed that which was planned). Similarly, in contract killings, the purchaser of an assassin’s services is as guilty as the hit man. So when it comes to climate change, aren’t we all as culpable as the players in these situations on account of our contributions?
The answer must be no, as there is no conscious agreement between all of the Earth’s citizens to carry out climate changing activities. The market as a whole is the product of millions of bilateral agreements for trade and exchange, but it is not itself one, giant contract which either deliberately or negligently pollutes the environment. Climate change is an incidental by-product of the sum of these independent acts and agreements.
Another possible analogy is with multiple, sufficient causes of aggression. For instance, assume that five, independent shooters fire their weapons in concert at a victim; a single bullet from any one of them is enough to inflict death, but we do not know precisely whose bullet was responsible. As the action of each of the shooters is enough to cause an appreciable level of harm, we hold every shooter responsible even though we cannot prove precise causation from the actions of any of them.
Clearly, with climate change, if you were to stop emitting carbon dioxide the appreciable harm to the climate would still happen anyway from everyone else’s contributions. But, in contrast to a situation with multiple sufficient causes, if all other people in the world stopped their emissions but you, alone, carried on, your miniscule emissions would have no appreciable effect upon the climate. Thus, there are no multiple, sufficient causes, just many millions of individual actions the cumulative weight of which cause a climate changing effect.6
Another problem is the fact that if humans as a whole are deemed to be responsible for climate change then many of the alleged perpetrators will also be the alleged victims. Indeed, if the consequences of climate change are as disastrous as we are told they will be, then those in developing countries may well be denied the benefits of future prosperity as a result of climate calamities. But those who will suffer the greatest loss of actual, existing wealth and the steepest decline from their present standard of living will be those in rich countries. Indeed, most of London will supposedly to be underwater as a result of rising sea levels. If so, wouldn’t this punishment serve to offset any culpability?
When attention is turned to the matter, it is not at all surprising that humans would exert some kind of collective side effect upon the Earth that is irreducible to the purposeful behaviour of any single one of them. Larger quantities of anything generally have effects that are either imperceptible or negligible when smaller units are considered. For instance, groups of humans have been known to create seismic activity when they jump up and down at the same time. Several billion people are always walking upon the Earth; thus far this has not created any noticeable problem. However, if we started to see minor tremors that led to the appearance of cracks in buildings as a result of 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? Or should we just to accept the phenomena like an effect of nature and ensure it is accounted for in building design? Indeed, this is our general attitude to the matter of low level pollution. Over a period of years, exhaust fumes from many thousands of cars will cause dirt and grime to accumulate on urban buildings, but cleaning this away simply has to be absorbed as a cost of owning a building in such a setting.
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 individual, 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 to the extent that he 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 – it should be taken as a given, with its reality understood as deeply as we possible so we can then learn to act with it symbiotically. Obviously, however, phenomena resulting from total human activity and those resulting from nature are still different in one key respect: if nature presents us with a problem we have the option of destroying the source of that problem so long as such destruction does not invade someone else’s property. For instance, weed killer, mouse traps, and rat poison are all designed to eliminate unmitigated pests. Clearly we do not have that option with problems emanating from total human activity; those affected by climate change could not, for example, launch a nuclear missile at the most heavily polluting populations of the Earth so as to curb their carbon dioxide emissions. Thus, any solution to the problem must involve accommodating the existence of the source.
We should, however, mention that there is also the possibility of being able to use climate change as an opportunity or as a resource in ways that, at present, we are not able to consider. Although, for the purposes of this essay, we have assumed that the effects of climate change will be universally bad, there is no reason to assume that it will be devoid of 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.
Alert readers may have noted with all of this a parallel with the problem of viruses – that, as we argued before, infectious diseases should be regarded “not as the product of the actions of individual persons but as a phenomenon of nature which happens to use general human interaction in order to proliferate.” Thus, in just the same way that climate change grants nobody the right to physically curb the activities of other people, the existence of viruses and pathogens provides no justification for governments to regulate social interaction through lockdowns, distancing, mask wearing and vaccine passports.
We should, of course, note 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 live their lives. They are quite welcome to restrict their own emissions and to persuade others to do so. However, as in the pursuit of all other values, they should do so peacefully and voluntarily and not muster the violent hand of the state to enforce it for them at the expense of those who do not share that view.
Indeed, in principle, none of what we have said means that climate change would be totally excluded from the realm of social regulation – customs, conventions and wider morality could evolve to condemn behaviour that contributes to the problem. There is nothing, for instance, to stop people from demanding that their goods be produced in a “green” or “environmentally friendly” way and condemning the polluting behaviour of others.
However, we should also point out that this is unlikely to get very far when most of that behaviour – such as driving cars – is regarded as normal and there is no appreciable harm to anyone. If climate changing actions are un-extraordinary and already generally accepted then trying to mould behaviour towards tackling the problem is likely to be the preserve of a handful of zealots (which is more or less the case). The farthest it would probably go is the demand for large, identifiable emitters such as heavy industry to switch to leaner, greener forms of energy use. Empirically, however, waste products from a production process are usually an indication of inefficiency which, if resolved, would lead to higher profits. Thus, there are already inbuilt incentives to reduce the kinds of emission which are alleged to cause climate change or other forms of pollution. Given all of this, most people are unlikely to adopt behaviours specifically for the purpose of preventing climate change.
Finally, it is obvious that very little of our analysis is likely to persuade hardcore environmentalists who are dedicated, unconditionally, to the climate change narrative. It may, however, resonate with those who are reluctant to question “The Science” of climate change but nevertheless are sceptical of invoking state intervention to tackle the problem. If we can show these people that climate change does not automatically mean state control over industry and our lives, then we may encourage a greater degree of conviction in resisting state climate mandates.
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1Theoretically, people could choose live to an atomistic existence and fight each other in the same way that they have to fight hostile aspects of nature. If this was true, conflicts would be resolved solely by the physical superiority of one of the parties. But the fact that the very vast majority of people wish to unlock the benefits of social co-operation (or otherwise find the least costly ways of avoiding conflict) renders this possibility negligible. Incidentally, this is one reason why a state of non-violence can be seen as a presupposition of the endeavour to create social rules rather than as a product of them, but that is another matter.
We should mention also that the fact of human choice and action is itself an aspect of nature. Thus, laws governing the formal qualities of choice and action – such as the laws of economics – are as true as any of the laws of physics or chemistry, and must be taken for what they are. However, it is the substance of human action – the actual choices that are made – that is, at least with our current level of scientific accomplishment, irreducible to further determinants, thus warranting our bifurcated approach to nature on the one hand and to humans on the other.
2Thus, the more valuable the protected property then the greater the needed deterrent and, hence, the more elaborate the security measures. There is an obvious reason why bullion vaults need concrete walls and steel doors while a child’s piggy bank does not.
3Statists too recognise this quality of human beings, which is why they spend so much time disseminating statist ideology. It is a mistake to believe that states rule with force alone, as if all that is required of a ruler is to have more guns than everyone else. Given that net state beneficiaries are always in the minority, no state can survive unless it achieves a very high degree of voluntary co-operation from within its bureaucracy, enforcement arms and a majority of the general public. Intimidation and bribery can achieve much in this regard; indeed, the function of pervasive propaganda is not just to persuade but to overwhelm the citizen into thinking that the state must be so big and powerful that any prospect of opposition would be a lost cause. Ultimately, however, the position of a ruler is secure only if he can instil the notion that his rule is legitimate – that it is good, right and proper to choose to follow his edicts, and to stand aside when he hangs those who refuse to comply. At best, this may be grudging and tolerated with reluctance – passive acceptance rather than active enthusiasm. At the most grotesque, people may even come to love and celebrate their servitude, persecuting dissenters with venomous hatred – something which, incidentally, can be achieved far more effectively by the adoration of democracy than in any explicitly authoritarian state. Actual force, once again, will be necessary only to deal with the handful of miscreants who refuse to play ball.
Thus, statist political philosophies are often mere tools of persuasion and subjugation rather than genuine forays into the realm of interpersonal ethics. Indeed, if you have ever wondered why many statist arguments – even when peddled by distinguished theoreticians – seem superficial, inconsistent, laced with emotive appeal and easily rebutted by rational scrutiny, it’s because they only have to appeal to the lowest common denominator of the masses. The ruler has already decided for himself that he is right, and so doesn’t feel the need to conclusively prove his argument to anyone; his only priority is to cajole people into playing along.
4Few of us, for instance, are likely to launch a criminal investigation if we suspect someone has stolen a penny.
5A likely statist retort to this last point is to suggest that there may well be people out there who believe themselves to be (potential) victims of climate change, but they are numerous and scattered with an inability to organise themselves into an effective economic or political movement. No doubt, we could also say that this would be exacerbated by the so-called “free rider” problem and the supposed issue of “non-rivalrous consumption” – both classic excuses used by public goods advocates to show how goods that allegedly benefit “everyone” (such as national defence) would be under-produced by the private sector because of “perverse” incentives upon individuals. In our case, if each of us will benefit from other people’s actions to prevent climate change, and if we can all just enjoy those benefits without affecting the benefit to anyone else, then what incentive upon us, as individuals, is there to take any action ourselves?
However, none of these problems shows that there are any victims of climate change. The organisation of victims into a single movement is itself a cost which consumes real resources. This cost does not go away simply because it is borne by the state; instead, it is simply paid for through taxes. If people are not willing to bear this cost voluntarily to combat climate change then it shows that they believe there are more urgent ends to which their resources could be better directed, ends of which they would be deprived if the state was to prioritise tackling climate change. When it comes to free riders, whether someone “benefits” can be evidenced only through demonstrated preference; without this, there is no way in which to distinguish a free rider from someone who simply doesn’t care about climate change prevention and, therefore, no reason to expect him to pay for it. Finally, non-rivalrous consumption is not a barrier to action; if people feel that climate change is a grave enough threat to their property then they will take that action regardless of the incidental benefits to other people. If they take no action, or live in the hope that other people take action that will benefit them, then taking the risk is, for them, preferable to spending their own resources.
6For more detailed explanations of joint enterprises and multiple sufficient causes, see our previous essay on wrongs in a libertarian legal system.