Libertarians and Climate Denial

Dogmatic libertarians are predominately climate deniers, they are willing to deny that human beings are directly causing an increasing of the global average temperature through greenhouse gas emissions. The evidence in favour of climate change is clear. Multiple readings of temperatures all over the world show a trend that temperatures are increasing when taking as a global average. The vast majority of those who deny anthropogenic global warming acknowledge that the global climate is warming. When we analyse the principles of what could cause such an increase, the only satisfactory explanation is that it is caused by human endeavour. Alternative explanations, such as our location in the one of the arms of the Milky Way leads to increase in stellar particles bombarding our atmosphere and a more active Sun, just aren’t consistent with the observable evidence we would expect to see if those explanations were in fact true.

Now why are libertarians all too willing to deny climate change? One obvious reason is that many partisan bodies that promote libertarians are reliant on funding from companies and families, in particular the Koch brothers, who have vested interested in promoting denial of climate change. The Koch Brothers are in the oil and gas industries. If our economies are to become carbon-free, then the oil and gas industries are going to have to either find ways to dig for oil, extract gas and modify other production methods used so greenhouse gases aren’t emitted at all; or they will have to go out of business. The latter is an obvious threat to the business interests and it is also the most likely to be one that has to occur to ensure our economies become carbon-free.

This reason though is unsatisfactory as it portrays the vast majority of libertarians as automatons who lack any will to think for themselves, I doubt many libertarians are in fact like that even though some most certainly are. Instead other reasons must exist. These other reasons are to be found within the ideology of libertarianism itself and also, partly, the psychology of those willing to accept it. There are two main reasons why libertarians don’t accept climate change.

First, those who promote solutions to it press the need for large intervention from the state to influence the market, and individuals, to build technologies that will allow us to become carbon-free but also to manipulate, influence and even coerce people to behave in a manner that makes the reduction of greenhouse emissions plausible. In other words, solving climate change means contradicting the principles of libertarianism. Libertarians are unwilling to acknowledge that their philosophy is either wrong, or needs significant amending to accommodate such action. So instead climate change gets rejected rather than libertarians. This is evidenced by the number of conspiracies stipulating that climate change is a myth used to justify further infringement in the liberties of individuals.

However, a new branch of libertarianism has formed which in fact believe that through libertarian ideals, humans can mitigate global warming to the level necessary to ensure a climate catastrophe doesn’t occur. This branch of libertarianism certainly doesn’t reject climate change, instead it opts for the virtuous approach of trying to show how libertarians means can produce green ends. Green libertarianism is ultimately flawed because its essentially saying that spontaneous order can spontaneously produce an order that will see a carbon-free economy in the time frame that scientists have laid out. The trouble is that if this order is spontaneous, there is no reason to think it will happen in the time frame the scientific community has laid out to mitigate warming to the 2°C target laid out by governments and scientists. Of coarse it could happen, but then again probably not. Mitigating climate change requires planning on such a scale that the apparatus of the state must be used to mobilise resources in sufficient quantity and quality in the specified amount of time, particularly if the private sector is incapable of administering the costs of this.

Second, libertarians are fiercely individualistic to the point that only individual concerns matter. What I mean by this is that everything in life is looked through an individualistic lens for the most part. Moderate libertarians and libertarian socialists will rightfully deny this claim, but they are not the target of this criticism in particular.

Essentially libertarians are adherents to methodological individualism. Methodological individualism analyses events and structures in terms of the individuals that exist within the given events and structure under study. Analysing the climate, on the other hand, ignores any focus on the individual because the actions of any one given individual is irrelevant to the climate system as a whole. Climatologists are increasingly open to treating the climate as an example of a chaotic and complex system, while acknowledging that it’s at the collective level, both nationally and transnationally, that we begin seeing humans exert a significant influence on the climate.

Naturally the scientific study of the climate at the methodological level contradicts the methodology libertarians use to analyse things. This makes libertarianism ill-suited to tackling climate change morally. Methodological individualism treats injustices happening, essentially directly, towards specific individuals. So a libertarian has no problem acknowledging that setting a fire in your garden would be wrong if there was a good risk that the fire would lead to the destruction of another persons property. There is a simple causal link between one set of individuals and another. The causal link is essential in the libertarian analysis to determine who is morally responsible for what, when and how.

In complex systems it is not always clear whether such links exist and if they do it may be very convoluted compared to the example just given. This not only makes it harder to assign responsibility to specific individuals, but it may be impossible to do in a way that would satisfy methodological individualists. In complex systems emergent phenomena can to come to arise, a methodological individualist would ask how can we say an individual is responsible for such occurrences?

This question raises an important issue which gets to the heart of why libertarianism, morally, is simply inadequate. A libertarian should answer this question, however the answer to the question will be no, not as a result of a matter of principle, but because the methodology used by libertarians lacks the power to assign truth values to moral propositions to certain situations. Libertarians become climate deniers, not necessarily as the scientific level, but at the moral level. They ultimately don’t think it is the individuals concern to tackle the issue because you can’t assign responsibility to specific individuals, because they don’t matter as such in the climate models. To avoid confusion, it’s important to distinguish from what I’ve just said and a libertarian saying that individuals don’t have any responsibility to look after the environment. The libertarian may very well say it, but due to the limitations of methodological individualism, they are incapable of expressing what ought to be done to actually ensure the environment is looked after at higher levels of social organisation, i.e. collections of individuals, etc. The libertarian, though, can say that an individual ought to do X to ensure the environment is secure, assuming the act is voluntary of coarse, when we can draw a picture of the causal chain of events to determine who is responsible for what.

The point of the last paragraph is that libertarianism is inadequate as a moral theory because it doesn’t have sufficient explanatory and normative power to determine whether something is right or wrong. Basically everything we’d want a moral philosophy to do, i.e. prescribe normative statements to any scenario that warrants them, libertarianism can’t.

Gareth Mawer
I consider myself a left libertarian committed to promoting the philosophy of liberty, even though I do not always support proposals that are normally considered libertarian. Georgism and mutualism have had profound influences over my beliefs, though I'm not afraid to digress from them were necessary. My mains interests are politics, economics and philosophy.