NB, I am not Davy.

The Earth on Fire

A common claim made against libertarians is that they “deny” global warming because it would require state powers to deal with it. This is quite a telling assertion and reveals as much, if not more, about statists as it does about libertarians.

What the statists are basically saying with this accusation is that if you accept the Anthropogenic (man-made) Global Warming theory then you have got to accept that the state has to do something about it. A libertarian might simply counter-argue that statists are pushing a global warming agenda in order to claim even more power for the state.

But the statists say that the “science is settled”. So is it?

THE POLITICS

The reason that statists confidently assert that the “science is settled” in the global warming debate is because they can point to a “consensus” of scientists that agree with the theory. That is, all the ones who aren’t either idiots or funded by the oil industry or working for some right wing think-tank. The competent ones without an agenda.

Proof that they are independent comes from the fact that most are working at universities or for the UN or some other publicly funded independent body. This makes them much more reliable of course.

This is where libertarians must beg to differ. We don’t think that the government is a de-facto “independent body”. We tend to be of the opinion that governments want power and that they will be in favour of any theory which gives them more power.

The scientists involved aren’t exactly coy about what they want either. “Let there be no doubt about the conclusions of the scientific community: the threat of global warming is very real and action is needed immediately,” said Nobel laureate Henry Kendall, Chairman of the Union of Concerned Scientists (emphasis added) (source).

Government Agenda

Now, governments have the police, they have the army, they have a virtual monopoly on guns… what’s a theory of global warming going to get them?

Legitimacy. Governments always need perceived legitimacy. The only way they can get decent people to support what would otherwise be criminal acts is by appearing to simply be acting in the “public good”. For voters to be convinced of the need for a government (or a government policy) they have to believe that the government is protecting them from things which only special powers (the initiation of force) can solve. For instance:

  • An army to PROTECT us from foreign threats,
  • A police force to PROTECT us from criminal activity,
  • Financial regulations to PROTECT us from greedy bankers,
  • Social security to PROTECT us from poverty,
  • Tariffs and subsidies to PROTECT us from foreign markets,

and

  • Environmental regulation to PROTECT us from global warming and pollution.

There are many more of course, and it’s not as if all of these threats are entirely invented by the government, but the point is that these perceived or actual dangers are USED in order to LEGITIMISE their use of special powers. Statists would say of course that these threats do in fact legitimise state power, that they illustrate an actual need for the state.

Either way, governments have an agenda. They need legitimacy to function just as much as an oil company needs to be able to sell oil. If you’re going to reject the findings of scientists simply because they are funded by the oil industry then you also have to reject the findings of scientists because they are funded through the government.

That doesn’t get us very far though, so let’s have a little look at the science.

THE SCIENCE

The most damning argument made against the science of anthropogenic global warming isn’t so much that it’s wrong… more that it can’t be wrong because it can’t be right… because it isn’t actually science.

Here’s how the scientific method is supposed to work, in case you haven’t had to sit in a science class for a while. First you make a hypothesis, then you make a prediction, then you set up a test for that prediction and then you record the results.

For instance you might make the seemingly reasonable claim that a boulder weighing two tonnes is going to fall to the ground faster than one that only weighs one tonne when dropped at the same time from the same height. But the truth is they will hit the ground at the same time. Even things that appear obvious have to be tested.

The hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming is that as levels of greenhouse gases increase, temperatures will increase (it’s a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the general idea). It’s not a bad hypothesis. It makes sense. Nobody is arguing that carbon dioxide is not a greenhouse gas. Nobody is arguing that burning fossil fuels doesn’t release carbon dioxide in to the air and nobody is arguing that we haven’t burned a lot of fossil fuels since the industrial revolution. Nobody’s even arguing that temperatures haven’t been warmer as of late. So, wouldn’t it make sense that the two things are connected?

Of course it would. But what about the tests, what do they reveal?  Have predictions based on this hypothesis been correct?

Umm… well, no.

But the Earth is so big, the climate is so huge, there are so many factors to consider, how can they possibly be expected to get it right?

Well that’s exactly the point. They can’t. It’s not science. It looks like science because they have graphs and statistics and old men with beards and fancy titles and reports but it’s not science. It’s a hypothesis and a prediction (or many predictions) using fancy computer models. They use disputed computer models as their results.

Here’s another way you can tell it isn’t really science. The fact that there’s a consensus of scientists that support it. Science doesn’t work that way. If it were a proven theory then they wouldn’t be banging the drum about a consensus they’d just say what their theory was, show what their predictions were, and then show the results lining up with the predictions. Everybody would understand that.

What’s more, every scientist who used the hypothesis would have the same predictions and they’d get the same results. There would be one chart and it would show happening exactly what they said would happen. When they can do that, then it’s science. Until then it’s just a hypothesis.

Even proponents of the theory will tell you it’s not about “absolute proof” it’s about probabilities. The UN Panel on Climate Change gives percentage chances that the theory is correct. They say something like it’s 90% sure to be correct. Does that mean there’s a one in ten chance that it’s wrong? No, no, it’s not that simple. Stop being so crude, dissenters are told.

It’s not science. They have a hypothesis that appears to make sense on the surface but they can’t use it to make accurate predictions yet. And that’s because the climate is a huge, complicated system that we do not yet understand.

Here’s a little taster of how complicated and counter-intuitive some of the science actually is.

  • Carbon dioxide is only a very small percentage of what makes up the air, and it’s not even a major greenhouse gas. That is not a controversial or “libertarian” statement. In fact water vapour, which human activity has practically nothing to do with, is “the most abundant greenhouse gas”. But water vapour comes and goes quickly, whereas carbon dioxide hangs around a lot longer so even though it makes up a much smaller percentage of greenhouse gases, it is more significant as regards the overall temperature according to the theory.
  • There is a certain section of the atmosphere that should heat up first according to the official hypothesis of global warming theory.  Something which hasn’t been seen to happen but doesn’t seem to matter for some reason.
  • The Earth goes through warm periods and cold periods. We’re in a warm period right now. The reason you know that is because when you walk out your door you don’t hit a glacier. An Ice Age is a particularly cold period. But they say that right now we are in the hottest period the world has seen for a thousand years. A lot of that belief comes from a “hockey stick graph” which has been proven bogus. But, once more, that doesn’t seem to matter.
  • The Sun goes through cycles too. There are times when it’s hotter and times when it’s not so hot. Some think that might have something to do with Earth’s climate, but apparently that has very little to do with the temperature of the Earth either.
  • There is a theory that, believe it or not, cosmic rays influence the temperature of the planet because they have a lot to do with cloud formation, and we are just learning about how much effect that has on worldwide temperatures.

Now, to be perfectly frank, I have very little idea of what most of that means.  I have no idea if any of those scientists are deliberately being misleading, and what’s more I never will.  It’s too complicated for me.

But apparently the science is settled and the only reason libertarians aren’t accepting that is because they don’t want to give more power to the state.

THE SOLUTIONS

For the moment though let’s say, for sake of argument, that the anthropogenic theory of global warming is correct. Would that necessitate a (world) government to deal with it? What would have to be done to deal with it?

As with the rest of this debate, opinions differ. Proposed solutions range from personal choice (e.g. walking or bicycling instead of driving), to carbon credits and taxes, to government regulation (e.g. increased emission standards for business), to alternative energy sources (nuclear and/or renewable), to more efficient products (e.g. electric cars).  To name just a few.  Usually a range of these solutions are proposed, depending on the outlook and preferences of the person or party involved. These are just tactics though, what’s the aim?

The UK government committed itself to make sure “net UK carbon account for the year 2050 is at least 80% lower than the 1990 baseline” (Climate Change Act 2008).  However experts say we have already reached a tipping point, the logical conclusion of which is that we must reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted as soon as we can and by as much as humanly possible.

The extreme environmentalists on this issue have at least got one thing right: that what has been proposed in the mainstream is not anywhere near enough to solve the problem.

If you’re serious about global warming, if you think the science is correct and the predictions made by the scientists involved are likely to be correct, then you have to be serious about what the solution has got to be as well.

Total economic meltdown.

Economic activity is the enemy.  Economic activity requires energy and (beyond nuclear energy and the tiny percentage that makes up renewable energy) that means burning fossil fuels.  This needs to stop.  Period.  The 2008 financial crisis was not bad, it was timely.   We are talking about the very survival of the human race here as well as quite a few other species.  We may already be too late.  If we don’t do whatever is necessary now then our planet will soon become uninhabitable.  This is a war and has to be treated as such.  If we fail in this, we’re quite simply going to be dead.

Therefore we should produce only what we absolutely need to survive. Food, water, medicine, shelter. The basics, nothing more. We need to shut down as many carbon-emitting power plants as possible, all unnecessary factories, we have to ground all airplanes and leave cars idle by the side of the road, we need to burn as little fossil fuel as possible.

We have to face the fact that it might be necessary to go back to a pre-industrial way of life.  Which, unfortunately, would almost certainly mean a pre-industrial population as well.

A state, of course, could make all of this happen.

A state could shut down all economic activity if it had to.  A state could put a 100% tax on carbon emissions, making it completely impractical for anyone to burn fossil fuels anymore.  A state could make it illegal to drive a car or turn on a light.  Of course nobody is actually advocating that but that’s just because they are not taking global warming seriously enough, they are not taking it through to its logical conclusion.  An 80% reduction in carbon emission by 2050 simply won’t be enough, it all has to stop.  Right Now.

Nobody wants to say this because it’s not nice to think that billions of people are going to have to die all over the world for the human race as a whole to survive.  But global warming is the biggest threat the world has ever seen and we can’t be an appeaser like Chamberlain, we need to be a warrior like Churchill.  There is no negotiating with the laws of physics.

And a state could do it.  A state could nationalise every industry if it had to.  A state could ground airplanes and blockade docks to prevent all carbon-emitting travel.  A state can do anything in the name of the public good.  A state could save the world.  All they need is perceived legitimacy.

How Would it Work in a Libertarian Society?

In a libertarian society that would not be possible. A single entity couldn’t get a whole industry to shut down, it couldn’t make all economic activity come to a halt.  What would happen instead?

Well, first proponents of the theory would have to try to get the word out, they would have to try to convince other people that the way they have been consuming goods is destroying the planet. They would have to try to convince everyone to stop driving, to stop flying, to stop watching television, to stop buying things (including food) from abroad, and generally to not stop using energy unless it comes from a renewable source.  They could use any dirty propaganda trick in the book in order to achieve this if they wanted to.  They could even tell people that a “consensus” of scientists agreed with their theory and that anyone who questioned the science was a “denier” just as bad as holocaust deniers.

And then individuals would have to decide for themselves what they believed and how they wanted to respond.

If everyone agreed and was completely committed to this, refusing to buy food from abroad even if there was no other food available, if they decided to stop doing anything which caused any greenhouse gases to be released in to the atmosphere, then the human race would be saved.  Yes, people would still die of starvation but they would do so willingly, a conscious decision to act in the greater good.

Or let’s say that people wouldn’t be quite so selfless.  Let’s say that not everyone would be willing to die for the cause, that they would do everything necessary to survive, but nothing more.  Then the ingenuity of the free market would go to work in this new direction. We wouldn’t need a state to order factories to shut down, we wouldn’t even need benevolent business owners to comply voluntarily, the factories would shut down because people wouldn’t be buying what they were producing anymore.

Would there be death, starvation? There shouldn’t be. The essentials would soar in price of course.  They should.  That discourages hoarding. It also means that entrepreneurs would see a profit to be made in food, in shelter, in the essentials and there would soon be more suppliers, more competition, and the prices would come down again. There would be an adjustment. Not completely painless of course, but the free market responds to what people want. Consumers are king in an anarcho-capitalist society.

But what if global warming, or some other planet-destroying theory is right and people don’t listen? What if they carried on as usual? Then the world would come to an end.

Does this mean we really should have a state?  Does this give a moral justification for the initiation of force?

Initiation of force…

Now, you might say that the people releasing the carbon dioxide in to the air are initiating force because they are ruining your planet, making it uninhabitable for you.  And, in a libertarian society, if you can prove that, then you will have a legal case. If you can prove that a factory half way around the Earth is making the temperature in your house go up and that is harmful to you, you will be able to prosecute them criminally. Or if you’re a farmer and you can prove that specific factories are causing the temperature to rise meaning that you can’t grow food anymore then you’ll have a case to be heard.

Oh, something like that can’t be proved?

Okay. Then the science isn’t settled. It’s not an objective fact. And if it’s not an objective fact, if it’s only an opinion, then in a libertarian society the full force of the law will not be behind you.

You’re still free to try to convince as many people as you can to stop the practices that you think are leading to the problems but if people are too stupid or unwilling to listen, if they’re too stuck in their ways, then yes you are going to fail. And yes, the world may come to an end. If that’s what happens though the reason is going to be because people were too stupid, too cowardly, too inert to take the necessary actions to save themselves.

But if that’s what people are really like, why are they going to elect a government that is going to force them to do what they are unwilling to do voluntarily?

In other words, if you are making an argument that a government is necessary because it forces people to do things they wouldn’t do voluntarily then are you not, in fact, arguing in favour of a totalitarian state?

The truth is, the issue of global warming does not justify a state any more than any other issue that statists claim give the state legitimacy.  Libertarians can concede the science if they wish and still fight the statist solutions on moral and practical grounds, as we do with every other issue.

So why do we tend to question the science of global warming, and not just the proposed solutions?

A MESSAGE TO STATISTS

The reason is because we can.

Statists, as long as you are going to use “science” to bolster more power for the state, libertarians have got to fight it whether it is true or not.

Yes, whether it is true or not.

Now, is this an admission that libertarians “know” the science to be correct and are just fighting it as a political tactic?  Absolutely not. I’ve already given a host of, to me, perfectly valid reasons to question the theory.

But in a way the claim made against libertarians probably contains a half truth.  We don’t care that much about the science because we’re looking behind that to what happens if the science is accepted.

For example, if you show someone a piece of paper that says 2+2=5 and tell them that if they AGREE they’re going to be tortured and killed, they’re probably NOT going to agree.  Clearly it’s wrong anyway, but the point is that’s not WHY they’re not agreeing.  If you showed them a piece of paper that said 2+2=4 and told them, again, if they agreed they’d be tortured and killed, they probably wouldn’t agree with that either even though it is true.  The numbers don’t matter at that point, in fact for many people the emotion is going to blur the numbers to the extent that they can’t tell what’s right or wrong anyway (which goes for the person with the gun too).

And it’s not as if climate science is that simple to begin with.

This is the situation we face.  If libertarians don’t fight global warming “science” then you are going to use it as another reason for government action, another reason to point guns at everyone.  You’ve made that abundently clear.

If you want to have a reasoned scientific debate you have to remove the gun from behind the science. Ideally you should stop name-calling as well but you really have to put the guns down.  Otherwise we’re going to do whatever we can to keep that piece of paper between your gun and our head.

It’s up to scientists to debate science and it’s up to each individual to choose which scientist they want to believe; which theory, if any, they wish to adhere to. People can believe that a chariot pulls the Sun across the sky if they like, they should have that freedom. But put the guns down and there’ll be a chance for a reasoned debate. Until you do, it’s not science. It’s not science when there’s a gun behind it. It’s not science, it’s assault.

-Chris Paddock