Reason Roundtable

Global Warming: Keeping Property Rights at the Forefront

Looking for solutions that would least empower the government - and least threaten property rights

“Consider the source” is not a bad starting point when evaluating a new theory. Unfortunately, when it comes to global warming, that is where free market advocates had largely become stuck. Until recently, they had concentrated their efforts predominantly on debunking the science of climate change. Given the questionable agenda of some environmental alarmists over the years, they were confident that the scientific case for human-induced global warming would sooner or later be exposed as false.

This strategy had worked to refute previous eco-myths about the impending ice age, cancer-causing high-tension wires, overpopulation, and resource depletion. But global warming seems to have more staying power among scientists, forcing even some prominent skeptics to come around in recent years.

One would have to assume bad faith or naivety on the part of too many scientists to maintain that global warming is just junk science at this stage.

That said, there are plenty of scientific uncertainties surrounding the issue including, of course, whether the warming will indeed be catastrophic. The earth has warmed about 1.33 degrees Fahrenheit in the last century. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the premier agency studying the issue, has projected an additional warming between 2 to 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the next 25 years. But temperatures have remained essentially static over the last 10 years – and at least one credible study recently predicted a slight cooling over the next 10 years. Thus there is every reason for skeptics to continue to raise questions about the science of global warming.

But ultimately libertarians and other advocates of free markets ought to have no ideological predisposition regarding the scientific outcome. They cannot treat the earth’s thermostat as an enemy of freedom. Indeed, regardless of whether climate change eventually turns out to be real or not, the libertarian goal ought to be to ensure the protection and advancement of freedom – and all its attendant institutions: free markets, limited government and property rights. These rights enhance human welfare by allowing individual choice and experimentation and creating an incentive for individual entrepreneurship and economic growth. But more: they are both the base of – and bulwark for – all other rights. They have normative value quite apart from their utilitarian value.

To that end, libertarian scholars in recent years have begun exploring the possibility of property rights-based solutions to global warming – should science conclusively show it to be a major problem. But the difficulty with such solutions is that they would require the privatization of the global commons – dividing the global air-shed among the planet’s inhabitants, letting them tend to their own little piece of space as they see fit. It is not obvious how one would accomplish that. Given that a pure property rights solution to global warming is elusive, libertarians have also started examining other solutions that would least empower the government – and least threaten property rights.

But the government is not the only threat to property rights. A just property rights regime protects property owners from nuisance and trespass – or the activities of their fellow human beings as well. Under long-standing common law principles, courts have routinely ordered polluters to either stop — or compensate for — odors, emissions or noises that damage others’ property or prevent its “quite enjoyment.”

Those interested in protecting property rights in an age of anthropogenic global warming must therefore consider these questions: Should people or countries that have contributed most to the warming compensate individuals in affected areas? This would impose a cost on the emitters, perhaps even forcing them to divert resources from building cars, developing drugs, and producing consumer goods. But does a normative – as opposed to utilitarian – understanding of property rights require one to accept these costs, even if it means a net diminution in general welfare? Or perhaps these costs make any cure or redress for global warming worse than the disease?

These are the questions that our latest Reason Roundtable considers.

Jonathan Adler, Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Business Law & Regulation at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law, acknowledges all the practical difficulties involved in determining what kind of restitution one country might owe another for its greenhouse gas emissions. But that is no reason to ignore the issue altogether, he insists. “If the land of a farmer in Bangladesh is flooded, due in measurable and provable part to human-induced climate change,” he asks, “why would he be any less entitled to redress than a farmer who has his land flooded by his neighbor’s land-use changes.”

But Indur Goklany, himself a stalwart in the free market environmentalism movement and the author of The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, notes that global warming is different from typical land-use conflicts among property owners. Greenhouse gas-generating activities of Western countries haven’t had merely negative consequences for poor, coastal countries likely to bear the brunt of global warming, but positive ones as well. That in itself weakens the case for restitution. But, even more fundamentally, he notes, no one is innocent when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. “These emissions are the effluvia of humanity’s common quest for survival and well being,” he observes. Hence how can any person or country have the moral standing to demand compensation from another, even under a normative regime of property rights?