People who call themselves “Environmentalists” today come in two stripes. The core of the Green movement is mostly opposed to the free market and snatch at most any straw to limit technology, prevent the human use of resources, and retard economic growth. Then there are the majority, who just want to live healthy lives and not suffer from pollution or other environmental disasters, and suspect man may be making disasters possible. The Environmentalist core is anti-human and anti-civilization. The ordinary environmentalists are not. And many people have mixed premises on this issue.
What are the global warming hypotheses?
One issue environmentalists agitate for strongly is intervention in the market to restrict the production of carbon dioxide, methane, and other gasses that could contribute to global warming. Objectivists and free-marketeers have been suspicious of these claims, noting that there always seems to be some chorus demanding, for pseudo-scientific reasons, that industrial civilization be rejected and that the government should have more power.
But it is a logical fallacy to reject a claim based on its provenance. Currently, worries about anthropogenic climate change involve a variety of factual and normative claims. Essentially, some of these claims relate to climate: that a rise in “greenhouse gasses” causes a rise in mean global temperatures; and that rising temperatures will have various effects, including big changes in growing seasons, big changes in water availability on land, and sharply rising sea levels. Further, some of these claims relate to values: that a rise in mean temperatures would harm human life, destroying wealth and threatening the ecology on which we depend for food and oxygen.
None of the claims above directly contradict any essential principle of Objectivism. So the Objectivist approach to them should be based on core commitments to objectivity and ethical egoism. We should ask: What are the facts? And what are the implications of those facts for human life?
The solution is private property rights.
Now there are some claims about global warming that Objectivism would reject on their face. Mostly these are moral claims that wildlife or “the environment” vaguely construed have value in themselves. They don’t: claiming that they do is the moral error Ayn Rand called “intrinsicism,” holding that things just have value, full stop, without relating them to human life and happiness.
What’s plausible about global warming?
The atmosphere of the Earth is a resource we all use: we breathe it, we burn it. We depend on it for rainfall to hydrate our crops. It provides our crops with all its gasses, and it provides water we need. We depend on it to moderate the huge swings in heat energy from the sun between day and night and, in temperate zones, between winter and summer.
If we change the mix of gasses, we could imbalance some of these patterns and processes. Frozen Mars and roasting Venus show that atmospheres can become inimical to life.
And the atmosphere is an unowned commons. Most of the time, we are able to treat it as a public good, meaning a good that everyone can enjoy without harming anyone else’s ability to use it. But when it gets smoky or otherwise polluted, when it gets full of aircraft, then it is better understood as a commons, a good we can’t be prevented from using, but that, when we use it, we reduce the quantity available for others. The fish in the sea were a public good to primitive man: he couldn’t catch them all. But now we have the ability to exhaust whole ocean fisheries: the collapse of cod production in the North Atlantic is an example.
Private property and the atmosphere
Commons result in the “tragedy of the commons,” with users over-using and despoiling a resource because none has an interest in limiting consumption or enhancing supply. The solution is private property rights.
The invention of radio provoked a free-for-all of clashing stations and interference: it created a commons. After an interregnum of government central planning, the radio spectrum now is mostly divided into useable lots and auctioned to private users. Writing before the reform, Ayn Rand demanded private property:
Today, for the most part the government defines and secures the property rights, but private owners use their spectrum as they judge best. The result has been huge advances in the quantity and quality of information transmitted over the radio: just think of WiFi and 4G, and whatever will come next.
Suppose it turns out to be the case that human action is heating the atmosphere. And further, suppose it turns out that such climate change is in net harmful to human life. (In asking you to suppose this, I am not presuming this conclusion. The benefits to human life of widespread use of fossil fuels are enormous and the most pressing human needs worldwide are for economic development, not lower temperatures.) But say the climatological and normative global warming worries hold water: then the solution would need to be property rights to the atmosphere, probably implemented via a cap-and-trade system for key gasses.
Does the idea of property rights in air repel you? The idea of property rights in land repelled many primitive peoples, who wanted to be able to roam where they would. But when there is a conflict over resources, private property will allow those who use a resource well to make the most of it. That will benefit all rational, productive people.
We should never give in to the anti-man core of environmentalists. We shouldn’t give in to their hatred of industry and idealization of the primitive. But we shouldn’t refuse to think about the questions global warming theory raises, and think about what a pro-man, pro-liberty, pro-industry solution might be, if such a solution is needed.