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Centre-right environmentalism is often perceived as being more centrist than rightwing. Indeed, a willingness to dismiss the science on climate change (or, failing that, the economic case for doing anything about it) has emerged as an ideological litmus test – especially in America.

But according to a fascinating piece by David Roberts for Vox, things are beginning to change:

“To the casual observer, the American right can appear an undifferentiated wall of denial and obstructionism on climate change, but behind the scenes there are signs of movement. A growing number of conservative leaders and intellectuals have come to terms with climate science and begun casting about for solutions. Led mainly by libertarians and libertarian-leaning economists, they’ve begun to coalesce behind a carbon tax, which they consider the most market-friendly of the available alternatives.”

Roberts interviews one of the leading figures in this movement:

“Jerry Taylor, a longtime veteran of the libertarian think tank Cato Institute who recently founded his own libertarian organization, the Niskanen Center, is a vocal proponent of this perspective. About five or six years ago, he says, he was convinced by a series of discussions, mainly with other right-leaning thinkers, that he was wrong on climate policy. His position ‘fundamentally switched.’”

Several factors contributed to Taylor’s change of mind. He mentions the accumulating weight of scientific evidence, but ultimately it was an issue of principle, articulated by a law professor, that caused him to think again:

“Libertarians tend to compare the cost side of climate change [mitigation] to the benefits. They say, when [person or company] A harms [person or company] B, if the gains to A are greater than the harms to B, then fare thee well. No! If you believe in property rights and individual liberty, it simply does not matter if aggression from A gains more than is lost by the victim.

“I just never thought of it that way. And I thought he was exactly right. So that was the first thing that changed for me.”

Another important argument concerns the nature of the risks created by climate change and the rational response to those risks:

“…the issues associated with climate change are not that different from the risk issues we deal with in the financial markets every day. We know there’s a risk — we don’t know how big the risk is, we’re not entirely sure about all of the parameters, but we know it’s there. And we know it’s a low-probability, high-impact risk. So what do we do about that in our financial markets? Well, if it’s a nondiversifiable risk, we know that people pay plenty of money to avoid it.”

Much of the economic debate over climate policy revolves around the likeliest impacts of a given emissions scenario, but in doing so it misses the point:

“…it’s not the most likely outcome that counts here. Nobody would manage risk based on the most likely outcome in a world of great uncertainty. If that were the case, we’d have all our money in equities. No one would spend money on anything else. But we don’t act that way.”

To look at it another way, the most likely scenario is that your house won’t burn down – but you still need fire insurance.

One doesn’t have to agree with everything that the green libertarians say to welcome their participation in this debate. Indeed, if the free market right had spent more time contributing to climate policy instead of obstructing it, we’d probably have made more progress by now – and at a lower cost.

12 comments for: The libertarian case for action on climate change

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