Pigliucci on the libertarian denial of climate change

Massimo Pigliucci wonders why libertarians, on average, deny climate change at a higher rate than others. I’ve had my disagreements with Pigliucci in the past, in which I’ve been mostly irritated by his strong assertions about economics, despite his apparent ignorance of the economic calculation problem and the positive-sum nature of trade.

Despite our disagreements, I think Pigliucci is correct here.  It is, frankly, embarrassing that libertarians have a higher propensity to deny the existence of anthropogenic global warming.  Libertarianism is rightly a tool to assess policy, but the fact that the correlation coefficient isn’t 0 shows some kind of bias within the libertarian movement.

It’s easy to react against the bad policy proposals in which the marginal costs far exceed the marginal benefits, but to dismiss the scientific theory with a huge body of evidence is a dangerous and unfocused overreaction, and a clear indicator of bias.

Sure, most environmentalism has always been a leftist issue.  Instead of rationally considering free-market environmentalism, leftists propose that we grant government ever more authority in planning.  Libertarians reacting against that kind of religious faith in the power of government shouldn’t react by denying the scientific evidence of anthropogenic global warming.  The scientific process is the rational alternative to both irrational faith in government, and irrational religious faith.  To dismiss the scientific consensus in the name of rationally rejecting misinformation is nonsensical.

When considering what governments should do about global warming, we need to assess a few premises.  I once heard in person Lee Doren spell out something similar to these.

  1. Global warming is occurring.
  2. It is caused by human activity.
  3. It is technologically possible to stop it.
  4. It is feasible to solve the international prisoner’s dilemma.
  5. It is worth stopping; the marginal benefits of any particular policy should equal the marginal costs.

The toolkit of economics is ill-equipped to assess 1, 2, or 3.  Environmental scientists can inform us about those.  Economics, and by extension, consequentialist libertarianism, should focus on making sure that 4 and 5 are true for any policy proposals.  Any individualist deontologists denying the existence of global warming so as to avoid admitting of practical collective solutions of are just being irrational.

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4 Responses to Pigliucci on the libertarian denial of climate change

  1. Jonathan says:

    You skipped one in your list: “1.5. It is catastrophic.” I’m a global warming “denier”, and it’s the leap from “the Earth is getting warmer” to “the seas will boil and roast us all” that I don’t accept. Pretty much every other post on Warren Meyer’s Climate Skeptic website addresses this.

    For example, see his recent answers to an interview with Esquire Middle East:
    http://www.climate-skeptic.com/2010/05/my-interview-on-climate-with-esquire-middle-east.html

    • Seth Goldin says:

      I believe the question of whether or not it is catastrophic is incorporated into the fifth premise. Even if it is catastrophic, it is theoretically possible that we would want the government to undertake massive action, to minimize costs. We should make our decisions rationally and at the margin.

      • Seth Goldin says:

        I should add that for as informed as I am by the discipline of public choice, I tend not to trust government in allocating resources efficiently.

  2. Mr. Fantastic says:

    I think that’s a great analysis, Seth.

    I’m fully aware that there are many, many “crazy” libertarians out in the world, and we are often all painted with that brush (for example, “of course heroine should be legal; I see no reason why we shouldn’t allow a businessman to sell heroine in candy and cigarette dispensers…”). Fortunately–perhaps, arrogantly–I think our circle of libertarian friends are actually pretty well adjusted and ‘normal.’ We’re pragmatic, and more likely to be overheard discussing It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia at a party than wonky dribble.

    Yet, I often have to cringe when someone dismisses out of hand environmental issues. I think your post gets at the heart of the issue–we should’t confuse distrust of the MEANS of solving an issue with wether that issue is actually a problem or not.

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