Global warming and the death of libertarian ideology

APSmith, of Energize America, is an extremely knowledgeable and thoughtful individual well worth listening to and pondering. This discussion reflects what he sees as a driving motivation for denying reality and global warming denial.  This relates to my efforts to explore the motivating factors behind ‘irrational skepticism’ (term referring to those whose skepticism is not honest, not open to suasion by evidence) and climate denial.  A Siegel

Over on Dot Earth, Andy Revkin posted a blog entry on the need to make decisions in the face of uncertainty. As usual, it inspired the “denialist” forces to come out in full attack mode. Actually, this was far from the worst instance there recently. But one of the commenters wondered “why the vitriol”? Read on for my thoughts…

Yes, what “inspires such vitriol”? Why do people who seem to know so little feel compelled to speak out so much and so strongly?

They have accused those of us who accept the scientific consensus of being in a state of “fanatical madness”, of being “alarmists” whose goal is “burdening our capitalist economy, which they detest.” (I find a certain irony in accusing presenters of the raw facts of being “alarmists” seeking to destroy capitalism as we know it!) We practice “ideology based science”, we spout “nonsense” or provide “hysterical fear mongering”, we are not scientists but “high priests” trying to make everybody else feel “guilt”. What we are doing will end up with “people paying a lot more for energy when they could have been using that money to buy food.” We are about to squander “financial and human resources”, causing “inaction on real world problems like clean water”, etc. and end up with the world’s poor condemned to “truly brutish and short lives with no way to [...] stop or reverse their suffering. ” And those are just from comments on this one blog entry!

So, yes there is a lot of vitriol from one side here, and it’s very hard to understand. Is the motivating factor really such deep concern for the suffering of the world’s poor? Have all of you supported government programs to improve, say, clean water, health, or education in developing nations? I certainly support those things and find it hard to believe that diverting 1% of world GDP to solving the climate/energy problem will prevent us from doing all that other good stuff too. In fact, I fundamentally believe, as the late Richard Smalley did, that solving the energy problem for the world solves just about every other problem too.

So, what is the real source of the vitriol? Usually such forceful language comes only when foundational beliefs are being threatened in some fundamental way. What foundational belief does anthropogenic global warming threaten? There is at least one, rather central to US political discourse for a long time: whether such a thing as a “public good” exists, or whether all good is encompassed in private action.

Now this may seem odd as a foundational belief – “public goods” are rather universally understood in economics, and the “tragedy of the commons” and related game-theory discussions of, for example, the archetypal “Prisoner’s Dilemma”, show quite clearly that there are situations where cooperative action produces a better outcome for all than seeking individual selfish advantage. Nevertheless, these common understandings seem to have been suppressed in recent American discourse, particularly through the spouting of so-called “libertarian” dogma. “Greed is good”, the market is always right, economic growth is the only thing that matters… you’ve all heard it, some of you probably believe it.

And to some extent it’s true – the wisdom of markets driven by individual selfish action is a real thing. But that does not mean that there is no such thing as a public good, or a public commons that can be damaged through that same individual selfish action. Both need to be taken into account, and both should be through wise government: the founders of the US did a splendid job of balancing the necessary regulatory apparatus of governance with the freedoms that bring human nature’s great capacities to bear in the most effective way.

But what does this all have to do with global warming? Unlike almost any other “commons” problem, CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions spread almost uniformly throughout the atmosphere, and thus affect in common every person in every nation around the world. The “commons” here is global, but the action that harms it is still individual: billions of individuals making separate decisions on travel, heating or cooling, and the purchasing that drives manufacturing and all the other uses of energy – each one of these adds to the CO2 problem. Individual selfish action, the natural “market”, sees absolutely no direct negative consequence. But the negative consequences are there, spread around to us all.

And the only way we will actually solve this problem is globally; just as it is to each individual’s advantage to keep emitting as much CO2 as they please, so it is essentially to the advantage of every nation of the world, looking at only its own benefit, and not the costs to others. Those who bring the vitriol to bear seem to understand this – I believe this is what they fear: we have a problem that will only be solved by cooperation on a global scale. This flies in the face of their belief in individual selfish action as the root of all good. And so they do whatever they can to deny that this problem exists at all, or to deny that there is any way for it to be solved.

But there is a way: global cooperation is far from impossible, in fact it has been done a number of times in the past. There are a few “commons” out there already that have been equitably shared among the nations through international agencies: the frequency spectrum, for instance, and associated geosynchronous satellite locations, by the ITU. The international treaties that eliminated ozone-destroying chemicals are a more familiar example (but another in which the science was attacked with similar vitriol!) World agreements on trade, property, and patents underpin much of the “free market” system we so love. The United Nations itself is an example of global cooperation in its formation, and in many of the programs it manages.

I don’t see a lot of hysteria on my side of this problem. I see a lot of serious-minded people saying we need to put our shoulders to the wheel, find a way to cooperate on a global scale, and switch to new forms of energy production and improved efficiency, most of which can be done with little or no economic cost. As somebody has been saying recently, “we can solve it”. But it has to be “we”, not 7 billion “I’s” doing their own thing. And I think that’s what has many of those writing here so fired up.

Public goods and the global commons do exist. Deal with it.

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12 responses to “Global warming and the death of libertarian ideology

  1. Absolutely fantastic article – thank you for taking a logical, intelligent approach to the issue.

    It upsets me to no end to know that as a society we are still caught up in all this debating.

    We are wasting precious time while we need to focus on solutions.

  2. Mark Landsbaum

    Logical? Intelligent?

    It’s full of assumptions, and erroneous ones at that. CO2 does not cause temperatures to rise. It’s never happened outside of contrived computer models.

    Crippling the economy based on a false assumption is neither logical or intelligent. It’s suicidal.

  3. Mark

    Thank you for your visit and your false statements (on multiple levels).

    “Crippling the economy” is so distorted that it would be amusing if it weren’t so recklessly dangerous. Suicidal is not the appropriate commentary for your views rather, it is advocacy of reckless endangerment.

    And, by the way, want to talk about any of the ‘non’ Global Warming implications such as acidification of the oceans?

  4. Hi all – first thanks to A Siegel for posting this, I wasn’t really planning to have it spread beyond Dot Earth and Daily Kos where I posted it as a diary, but I did put a bit of thought into it, so glad to see more readers.

    Mark – so I’m “suicidal”? Thanks for illustrating the point! But perhaps you could go a little further and provide some references on why you believe that (1) “CO2 does not cause temperatures to rise”, how the climate models are (2) “contrived computer models”, and (3) what anything I said has to do with “crippling the economy”.

    My own references countering your claims would be:
    (1) “The Discovery of Global Warming”, by Spencer Weart, updated free online:
    (2) IPCC AR4 WG1 – chapter 8 in particular on how climate models are developed and verified:
    (3) IPCC AR4 WG3, or the Stern review that shows the economic costs of worldwide cooperation on this are far lower than the likely costs of doing nothing:


    you think the naked NUCLEAR ORB IN THE SKY has something to do with the weather?

    My puny retard denier libertarian brain can barely handle concepts like “falsifiability” and “Scientific method”. For some reason my atrophied gray matter computes your full of shit and about to swallow your foot all the way to your knee.

  6. Still doesn’t address the most evil institution of all time and it rationalization to destroy and control. That ain’t dyin any time soon, why would it’s resistance ?

    I’ll take my chance with free people and markets.
    At least it’s voluntary.

    Why ya pickin’ on the Libertarians ? They’re all busy this weekend. Pick’n a POTUS nominee.

  7. This whole debate has the false premise that we can’t do anything on global warming without a big cost. I’m associated with Recycled Energy Development, a company that cuts greenhouse emissions and energy costs at the same time. RED takes heat that would normally be vented and coverts it into electricity and steam — thereby increasing efficiency. Estimates from the EPA and DoE suggest we could cut greenhouse emissions by 20% with energy recycling. That’s slightly more than if we took every car and light truck off the road. All the while, costs would go DOWN. The only problem is that regulations give utilities a monopoly over the production of electricity, making it hard for more efficient alternatives to compete. THAT is what we should be focusing on.

  8. Wow, lots of rational arguments backed up by citations here :-) I rest my case!

  9. Hey Arthur, considering the entire scope that this debate now encompasses, and since it doesn’t appear that this Blog allows Graphs and Charts, it just doesn’t present itself as the forum for such discussions. why don’t you or anyone reading this reply, please click on one of the following links:
    Global Warming – AOL Message Boards


    Global Warming and Nature – AOL Message Boards

    Because we go at this subject each and everyday and we take no prisoners, and give no ground, and we vigorously debate every element of this Looney AGW argument.
    And you are more than welcome to stop by and simply PROVE that AGW Exists, and was caused by Mankind! That’s all we ask of you Mr Shiny Badges of the Global Warming Police!!!

    Prove it.

  10. Bukko in Melbo

    It’s like talking to members of a cult about the hypocrisy of their guru owning a fleet of Rolls Royces while he sends them out to panhandle for spare change, isn’t it, Siegel? There is something about the psychology of global warming deniers, just like there is about George Bush defenders, that makes them respond in an irrationally dogmatic way when you challenge their beliefs. It’s one of those core identity issues, that makes them react emotionally like a 3-year-old who’s asked to share her toys with a visitor. “NO — YOU CAN’T HAVE IT! IT’S MINE!”

    Keep in mind, though, that this is a mostly American phenomenon. In Australia (where my wife and I emigrated in 2005 to escape Bush) global warming is accepted as fact. (That was one of the reasons John Howard and his Liberal Party were thrown out in the 2007 Commonwealth election; because they were perceived to be out of touch with reality.) In Europe, even China, they know global warming is real. They might not be dealing with it in the most effective way in China, but they’re not trying to deny the truth.

    Eventually, even the U.S. will catch up. A majority of the thinking people are already there, but corporate forces, especially the oily and coal-d hearted ones, will struggle against it. It’s sad that the U.S., which used to be a leader in new thought, will be retarded by its greedy corporate forces.

  11. I would think that most libertarians would (or at least should) take issue with your conception of cooperation and “individual selfish advantage” as mutually exclusive. I think most libertarians would indicate to you that many “individual(s) selfish advantage(s)” are obtained by the very process of cooperation. Cooperation need not be for a single common good or set of goods.You may achieve one good from our cooperation, and I may achieve quite another. I believe most libertarians would indicate to you that cooperation ceases to exist when the force of government is put into play. Cooperation, I think, depends on the concept of voluntary action, i.e., choice. Remove choice through government action (passing a law to reduce greenhouse emissions by a certain date), and you undermine the concept of cooperation, not to mention moral responsibility. Instead of using the term cooperation, the term compliance is more accurate. so the question is…who are we to be compliant with in the quest for lower greenhouse emissions?
    I would also think that libertarians would indicate to you that there is no such thing as a “public good”, only goods for individuals, since the concept “public” is dependent upon the individuals that populate it. Remove the individuals, the group (i.e., the public) ceases to be.

  12. Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation :) Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Peripheral!!

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