Sensible Answers to Tough Questions, part 2: The Environment
Global warming is now widely accepted as a fact within the scientific
community. What is not yet accepted is the extent to which the planet
will warm and the impact that it will have. What will Libertarians do
about this issue?
Ruwart: When our weather reporter’s can’t get tomorrow’s temperature
right, it’s difficult to believe that global warming can be
predicted, isn’t it? (This sentence should be told lightly, as a
joke, to elicit agreement.)
As you mentioned, we really don’t know what the effect of global
warming might be. High temperatures and CO2 stimulate crop and other
plant growth, so global wamring could actually be good for us. Any
action we take has to be based on the facts, and we just don’t have
In a libertarian society, if a chemical such as CFC caused a problem,
victims could sue the manufacturer for damages. The high cost of
restitution would be apssed on to CFC consumers, driving up the
price. People would turn to cheaper alternatives and CFC production
would be automatically curailed.
People could sue before actual harm was done, so long as they could
convince a judge or jury that CFCs actually posed a threat.
Phillies: Research on climate and climate change represents an
enormous effort by thousands of people. Vast computer facilities
exist primarily to study climate change. Billions of dollars are
spent to deploy specialized earth satellites and other scientific
instruments to study our atmosphere. Polar expeditions set forth, at
significant risk to the lives of participants, to examine arctic ice
What about the question “When our weather reporter’s can’t get
tomorrow’s temperature right, it’s difficult to believe that global
warming can be predicted, isn’t it?” For almost all academic
scientists, the reward of scientific research is almost entirely the
personal satisfaction of untangling a scientific puzzle. If there
were no hope of predicting climate accurately, wouldn’t real
scientists have noticed, and transferred their work elsewhere?
The answer, of course, is that it is actually almost infinitely
easier to predict climate than it is to predict the weather. Why?
It’s actually very simple. To predict climate, you only need to
predict odds accurately, and it’s much easier to predict odds than to
predict results. If I roll a quality Las Vegas die, the odds are very
exactly one in six that I will roll a “two”. If I roll that die 600
times, I will roll “two” a hundred or so times. If you try to predict
whether you will roll a “two” on your very next roll, well, that’s a
lot harder, isn’t it? For the same reason, predicting climate is a
lot easier than predicting weather.
In dealing with pollution, litigation can make sense if there is a
single source that does a lot of damage to specifically identifiable
people. If the local power company decides to save money on disposing
of clinker ash by dumping ten tons of it on my front lawn, the
responsible party is identifiable, the repair costs are identifiable,
and the responsible party’s pockets are deep enough to support
In the global warming case, the responsible parties are everyone
mining or using any fossil fuel or any process that vents methane
into the air, the persons damaged include almost everyone, and the
cost of assessing responsibility is astronomical. You have around the
world several billion damaged parties, each with different facts of
their cases requiring separate adjudication, against a similar number
of differenced defendants. That’s trillions or potential lawsuits.
Where do you find the lawyers? Furthermore, for most of the injured
parties, money is not the issue. They don’t want money, they want an
ozone layer. For this sort of diffuse case, the
litigation-restitution approach is completely unworkable.
How do we deal with global pollution? (page 30)
Ruwart: Thankfully, most pollution does more local than international
damage, thereby discouraging polluters. For example, governments try
to prevent Chernobyl-type accidents because their local population is
put at greater risk than the international community. The country that
polluted the oceans enough to cause global damage, for example, would
destroy its own fishing first. The country that polluted its own air
enough to disturb other nations would asphyxiate its own population
in the process. Thus, global pollution is a highly unlikely event.
Phillies: While our understanding of atmospheric chemistry and its
effects on meteorology has advanced considerably in the last decade,
it remains clear that individual countries have created and are
creating global atmospheric pollution.
A simple example of global atmospheric pollution is supplied by the
chlorofluorocarbons, substances that are nearly inert and harmless on
the ground. These safe, harmless materials were once manufactured all
around the world. When transported to the stratosphere and brought in
contact with stratospheric ice crystals, these substances had a
catastrophic effect on the ozone layer near the poles. The effect is
only now coming under control, as a result of rigorous planet-wide
treaty restrictions on CFC production.
Similarly, there is massive evidence that the current global changes
in climate are being driven in considerable part by man-made releases
of carbon dioxide and methane. The huge increases in energy
consumption in China, India, and Russia lead to matching increases in
production of carbon dioxide. Fortunately, there is appreciable
evidence that natural law will do what legislative law has not,
namely the supplies of oil and coal will be exhausted before
atmospheric carbon dioxide reaches levels vastly higher than those
In the atmosphere, levels of carbon dioxide and methane are
essentially never harmful to local populations. However, rising ocean
levels are causing property protection questions along the coast. An
increase of a foot or two in sea level is really bad if your home
started a foot or two above sea level.
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