A Third Kind of Green Libertarians Should Care About

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James K

James is a government policy analyst, and lives in Wellington, New Zealand. His interests including wargaming, computer gaming (especially RPGs and strategy games), Dungeons & Dragons and scepticism. No part of any of his posts or comments should be construed as the position of any part of the New Zealand government, or indeed any agency he may be associated with.

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50 Responses

  1. Avatar Katherine says:

    Given that we can’t implement a global carbon tax, what’s wrong with federal or state ones?  BC’s implemented a carbon tax that’s been reasonably well-tolerated (well, at least, people were distracted by hating the HST more until they’d gotten used to the carbon tax) and is revenue-neutral, having been balanced with cuts to income and corporate taxes.

    Even if it doesn’t have a major effect on carbon use, it’s still an improvement in taxing something bad (carbon emissions) rather than something good (work, in the case of income taxes).  A revenue-neutral carbon tax means that libertarians don’t have to feel bad about supporting  it, since they’re not raising taxes, and it removes the potential adverse effects a carbon tax over and above current tax rates could have if some carbon-intensive activities function as inferior goods.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to Katherine says:

      The big problem with national carbon taxes is that they just move carbon-emitting industry from one country to another.  This can be worse than useless.  For instance, the US has the best GDP to CO2 ratio in the world.  If carbon taxes drive carbon emitters off shore the result could be an increase in global CO2.

      Also even if that doesn’t happen, by reducing the demand for fossil fuels in one country you lower the global price of fossil fuels.  That just creates an incentive for others to burn them, and as I said before Western countries generally manage to burn these fuels relatively cleanly, the environmental impacts of a lump of coal burned in China are likely worse than one burned in the US or Europe.

      Unfortunately this is a textbook case of a collective action problem, and without a global government I don’t see a solution.Report

      • Avatar Katherine in reply to James K says:

        Western nations produce far more carbon dioxide per person than the developing nations like China, so I think it can’t hurt for us to start reducing our carbon output first.  Most of the industries that haven’t already moved overseas for cheaper labour are here for reasons other than cost (presence of expertise, stability, good governance), which a carbon tax won’t change.

        And if we reduce the price of oil by reducing our use (something that’s not likely to happen rapidly even in a best-case scenario), wouldn’t that also mean China is more likely to use it rather than the relatively more-polluting coal, producing a net benefit?  Carbon taxes would also provide an incentive for businesses to develop and, especially, to adopt cleaner technologies here, making them more marketable, and, once mass production introduces more cost efficiencies, enabling developing countries to buy them and use them rather than fossil fuels.

        It’s not as if China and India and Brazil are unaware that climate change is an issue; there’s just a strong sense that it’s unfair that the countries that already industrialized using fossil fuels are asking developing countries to bear the costs of our prior actions.  I don’t see them starting to act unless we do; conversely, if we do take substantial action, we’re likely to have more moral suasion to get them to reduce emissions, especially if we can offer them green tech in compensation.Report

        • Avatar James K in reply to Katherine says:

          Western nations produce far more carbon dioxide per person than the developing nations like China, so I think it can’t hurt for us to start reducing our carbon output first.

          Yeah, but this really isn’t about fairness, it’s about the climate and the climate doesn’t care where a CO2 molecule is emitted.  And if more of them get emitted per unit of output in China than in the US then moving that output to China is a net loss for the climate.

          It’s not as if China and India and Brazil are unaware that climate change is an issue; there’s just a strong sense that it’s unfair that the countries that already industrialized using fossil fuels are asking developing countries to bear the costs of our prior actions.

          I don’t think fairness is the primary issue here.  I think, like every other country, they would rather the bulk of the cost of averting climate change be borne by other countries.  That’s the problem.  I don’t blame them but the dynamic results in no one doing anything.

          if we do take substantial action, we’re likely to have more moral suasion to get them to reduce emissions, especially if we can offer them green tech in compensation.

          The short-run effects on economic growth could throw China into revolution, I don’t think moral suasion is going to cut it here, especially if they have the option of appearing to comply without doing very much (As Europe has).  Truth be told I think moral suasion has basically no power in interstate relations, especially on issues of significant cost.Report

      • Avatar Fnord in reply to James K says:

        Well, let’s look at the EPA’s Inventory of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks.  To what extent is GHG production likely to move to different countries?

        Fuel burned for transportation isn’t going to get moved offshore, and that’s the second biggest GHG source, accounting for more than a quarter of total GHG emissions.

        Electricity production, the number one source accounting for almost a third, can’t directly be outsourced (except, maybe, to Canada and/or Mexico, but getting agreements between three countries is much easier than the entire world). Electricity-intensive industries can be, but let us consider the Energy Information administration’s numbers for Retail Sales and Direct Use of Electricity to Ultimate Customers. Residential and commercial demand comprise almost three quarters of electrical demand.

        Transportation plus 3/4 of electricity production is about half of all GHG emissions that can’t readily be outsourced.  I’m not going to go through the rest of the list, which consists of a bunch of little sources, each much smaller than those two.  Some things could be outsourced (Iron and Steel Production), some can’t (Residential Fossil Fuel Consumption for energy, presumably heating), some I can’t tell (“Natural Gas Systems”; vague enough for ya?).Report

        • Avatar James K in reply to Fnord says:

          All worth knowing, but that only addresses my first point.  My second point, that reduced US fossil fuel usage will simply result in greater usage in other countries.Report

          • Avatar Fnord in reply to James K says:

            Does that argument apply to things other than fossil fuel, like Uranium?  Does the US eschewing nuclear fission simply result in cheaper Uranium and greater use of nuclear power in China et al?Report

            • Avatar James K in reply to Fnord says:

              This is a good point, but I don’t think the two commodities are somewhat different.

              The bulk of our economic infrastructure runs on petroleum and for a decade or two at least enough stuff runs on petroleum that if you consume a bit less here, a bit more will be consumed by soemone else.  It doesn’t cost much to make a new car for the road and for a Chinese or Indian family the fuel cost might make all the difference between the car being affordable or not.  Equally, China is producing a large number of new coal plants, so building a couple more isn’t going to be a big strain.

              By contrast there are relatively few nuclear reactors in the world and the cost of the uranium in them is a small fraction of the cost of a nuclear reactor (most of the cost is construction, which requires no uranium at all).  So it would take a huge change in uranium prices before I would expect to see any noticeable effect on the demand for uranium.Report

          • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to James K says:

            Damn, JamesK, that’s such a duh I’m embarrassed it never even occurred to me.  If the USA outlawed petroleum products tomorrow, the price would sink for the decreased demand, and the developing world would use even more of it, since oil remains the champ of BTU bang for the buck.

            BTW, I was reading on yr

            http://www.chancerygreen.com/index.php/news/entry/ets-review-panel-recommends-delayed-implementation

            today.  I of course find it laughable: NZ emits .00038 or whatever of greenhouse gases and that’s a piss in the ocean.  But still, it does prove that only affluent societies have the extra dough to make such enviro-gestures.  Survival comes first.Report

          • Avatar Fnord in reply to James K says:

            Even to the extent that fossil fuel use moves elsewhere, a tax increasing the cost of carbon in the United States provokes private entrepreneurship and  market-driven research and development on carbon-reducing technologies, especially on products that are close to being market-ready, which you point out is exactly where you don’t want direct government intervention.Report

            • Avatar James K in reply to Fnord says:

              This is true only to the extent that carbon prices rise, and a national tax only increases these prices in the US, and decreases them elsewhere.  So you get more innovation in the US, and less everywhere else.  The net effect is ambiguous.Report

  2. Avatar greginak says:

    Aside from the disturbing absence of any discussion of Ron Paul in this post i agree. I do think there are some enviro problems where direct regulation is the best answer. Those would areas would be involving substances that are too dangerous to tolerate anything but highly limited use or that need to be completely avoided and in how dangerous substances are disposed of Ex. nuke waste). The EPA has done a lot drive the cleaning up a lot of terribly polluted areas.

    A good college friend of The Wife lives in a subdivision in SoCal that some Evil Corporation, apparently, dumped some cancer causing chemical in the ground decades ago then built over it. Now a few people have cancer that, i’ve been told, is directly linked to the chem exposure. Her college friend and family, and the rest of the neighborhood, are still waiting to find out what is going to happen. How much, if anything, will they be compensated for their houses which will have to be razed? What happens if they have health complications? If there is a point its that there is a need sometimes for Gov to use its power to force people to do certain things and the pace of courts, and businesses with many lawyers, is not a pace that serves individuals.

    As a vauge cultural stereotype, libertarians don’t like environmentalism or show much concern for the enviro.

    What would be your view on national parks and wilderness? I’ll say up front i’m a huge fan of them.Report

    • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to greginak says:

      Mr. Gregniak, that’s a tort, a liable party, direct harm caused, damages able to be calculated.  I’d put it in a separate category.  By the time we get to global warming, none of those particulars are calcuable except in theory.Report

      • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

        Unless of course the liable party buys better lawyers. Or if you do happen to win because it’s just that obvious, good luck collecting – ask the victims of the Valdez how that’s going.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

        I wasn’t discussing GW. A big company has every incentive and often can stretch out cases like this. Individuals don’t have that same power and their lives are often on hold waiting for interminable court procedures. I was offering anecdata that relates to JK’s forth para.Report

      • Avatar BSK in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

        It also assumes you can put a monetary figure on something like cancer. For many people, you can’t. Which is why remedy-after-the-fact doesn’t work universally.Report

        • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to BSK says:

          It’s the best we can do with criminals, after the fact, not prior.  I do favor more criminal charges for such malfeasance, however.  Oddly, OPA90 has them, although oil spills seldom result in the loss of human life.Report

          • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

            But, we have plenty of ‘laws’ against robbery for robbery. I don’t have to file suit against a mugger if he steals my wallet. So, we do have ways to punish and deter a criminal before the act. Just like we should with the environment. Look at the good the Clean Air Act did.Report

            • Avatar BSK in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

              This is where I think our legal system gets very muddy with regards to intent and outcome.  If you and I both fire a bullet into the heart of a man and, through the miracle of medical technology, my victim survives while your victim dies, I likely get charged with a different crime than you.  Is that right?  I don’t know.  At the same time, if a third person accidentally drives his car into a gaggle of nuns each carrying a gaggle of babies, killing all of them instantly, he gets a different punishment than either of us (likely lesser, assuming it was a true accident).  Is this right?  I’d say so, but how does this mesh with my previous position wherein outcome matters over intent?

              I don’t know what the answer is.  Thankfully I’m not a lawyer or a judge or a lawmaker.  But there does seem to be an issue when our legal system doesn’t take a firm, consistent position (at least that I know of) on what matters more between intent and outcome.

              My two cents is that if it can be reasonably foreseen that a given act is likely to lead to a given outcome, one which violates the rights of another, non-consenting party, than it is justifiable to take steps before the act is carried out.  We know that pouring mercury into drinking water supplies will have horrible outcome from those who draw from it.  As such, that action should be illegal and reasonable steps taken to prevent it from happening in the first place.  If the outcome is unforeseeable, than we are probably left to after-the-fact solutions.  However, that can then set or change the precedent for what is considered foreseeable.Report

            • Avatar Scott in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

              Jesse:

              A criminal prosecution of the nugget won’t necessarily compensate you for the loss of your wallet or your medical bills. Only a civil suit will do that. Remember, OJ beat the murder rap but the civil suit cleaned him out.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to greginak says:

      Those would areas would be involving substances that are too dangerous to tolerate anything but highly limited use or that need to be completely avoided and in how dangerous substances are disposed of Ex. nuke waste).

      Yes, in special cases like that I can see the wisdom of direct regulation.  In fact once you reached sufficiently deadly substances releasing them seems less like nuisance and more like assault.  And I think the majority of libertarians would consider it proper for assault to be a crime.

      What would be your view on national parks and wilderness? I’ll say up front i’m a huge fan of them.

      Personally, I dislike natural spaces, I’m a born urbanite.  But as for the government setting up national parks?  I don’t really have a problem with it.  Like anything it can be taken too far, but other than that I don’t really have any feelings other way.Report

    • Avatar Roger in reply to greginak says:

      Greg and James,

      This libertarian agrees with James. Pollution harms others and should be controlled or limited in practical ways and a tax is often an efficient way to do this.

      CO2 is an odd duck. As James mentions it is a global issue and national limitations just push the problem around. A NEW WORLD ORDER could address it, but then a libertarian and anyone with a passing familiarity with human exploitation would be afraid of the costs associated with this cure.

      I suspect the eventual efficient solution to CO2 will be to be to extract it back out of the air. Even here, we need to ask who will be in charge of the thermostat.Report

  3. Avatar Rob in CT says:

    Nice to see a libertarian actually grappling with this issue.  Mostly I just see a bunch of hand-waiving or denials.

    I wasn’t much of an environmentalist until I got into my current job (which involves insurance claims made by companies tagged for polluting).  Now I take the issue of pollution seriously.  It’s not that all regulations are good – regulation is a tool and often a clumsy one.  But expecting companies to regulate themselves is pure folly.  9 times out of 10, if a cost can be pushed off onto someone else (particularly someone with little recourse), it will be pushed off.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Rob in CT says:

      9 times out of 10, if a cost can be pushed off onto someone else (particularly someone with little recourse), it will be pushed off.

      In my limited experience with insurance companies and etc., this strikes me as the correct default position to assume in advance of any further discussions. If two people can’t agree on this, one of them is either willfully ignorant or lying. Both are argument killers.Report

  4. Avatar Katherine says:

    Curiosity – what are the first two types of green?  I’m guessing that the first is ‘greenbacks’, i.e. money, but can’t come up with the second.Report

  5. Avatar Anderson says:

    Besides the issue of pure Pigouvian taxes as environmental policy, what do you think of recent EPA rules concerning mercury? These basically are an attempt to create national emission standards under the Clean Air Act, which results in power companies having to install “wet and dry scrubbers, dry sorbent injection systems, activated carbon injection systems, and fabric filter” for their plants–on the companies’ own dime. Is this too heavy-handed for your ideal (i.e. setting numerical standards), even though it tackles the cost/benefit issue?Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to Anderson says:

      I still think a Pigouvian tax would be superior to what they are proposing.  After all, even if a given policy has a Benefit-Cost ration of greater than one doesn’t mean it’s the best policy.

      The advantage of a Pigouvian tax is that it gives polluters the maximum freedom to reduce their omissions – they can buy filters, pay more for higher quality raw materials, cut down their output, or just pay the penalty (the latter can be socially optimal if the benefits of the production exceed the cost of the pollution).  Direct regulation can end up pushing polluters down certain technological lines, which can have perverse effects.Report

      • Avatar Tim D. in reply to James K says:

        IMHO, a simple pollution tax or trading scheme is inappropriate for certain pollutants if they are (a) really toxic, or (b) very locally concentrated.  The problem is not whether it passes some society-wide cost benefit balancing, but whether the demands of justice are met for the people who are affected.  Mercury checks both boxes — there are hot spots and the highest risk areas can be very geographically concentrated.  The people who live there are getting screwed, or to phrase it more libertarian-ly, their property rights (and health) are being trampled without redress.

        If memory serves, Bush tried to institute a trading scheme for mercury and was quickly shot down.  At any rate, the new mercury rules pass the CBA test.  Maybe they’re not equivalent to some theoretical ideal policy, but they’re a hell of a lot better than the status quo.Report

        • Avatar James K in reply to Tim D. says:

          While I agree that sufficiently toxic substances would merit more direct regulation, I don’t know if mercury is toxic enough.  A substance would have to be dangerous enough that exposure is akin to assault before I’d be comfortable with doing this that way rather than just by imposing a tax (bear in mind that the more damaging the pollutant is, the higher this tax should be).  And when direct regulation is called for I would favour emissions standards over prescribed methods of preventing emissions, though if I’m reading that EPA document right, that’s more-or-less what they’re doing.

          Maybe they’re not equivalent to some theoretical ideal policy, but they’re a hell of a lot better than the status quo.

          Oh sure, they probably are better than the status quo.  It’s hard to say since I have no idea what the status quo is, but assuming the BCA was performed properly, I expect it is.Report

          • Avatar Tim D. in reply to James K says:

            The problem I see with this is that any notion of “toxic enough” has more to do with the dose and the details of the exposure than just the identity of the pollutant.  A big dose of mercury to a developing infant is pretty toxic, while a small dose to a healthy adult is probably no big deal.  So how do you define “toxic enough”?Report

  6. Avatar Tim D. says:

    Thanks for the post, James K.  It’s so nice to read a libertarian actually engaging with environmental issues — mostly it seems they either (1) ignore the topic, (2) take a non-libertarian position, or (3) mumble something about ‘courts and torts.’

    I’m curious if you know of any other libertarians who write about the environment?  Any recommendations?

    On bad days I share your pessimism about a global deal on climate (at least for the moment), but I don’t think we should abandon all hope on switching over to clean energy production before we’ve even taken the first steps.  There are a lot of scenarios that don’t involve a massive global treaty as a necessary pre-condition.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to Tim D. says:

      Thanks Tim, I’m glad you liked it.

      Unfortunately I can’t think of anyone else.  Ron Bailey at Reason covers some of this stuff, since his beat is science generally, but that’s about it.  That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this.

      There are a lot of scenarios that don’t involve a massive global treaty as a necessary pre-condition.

      This is true.  Maybe we’ll get the technology we need before the wheels fall off.  If alternative energy gets cheap enough the transition to low-carbon will be cheap enough that people will do it without kicking up too much fuss.  It’s not that I think we’re doomed, I just think there’s very little governments can do (beyond encouraging research, and in a pinch geoengineering) to stave off any doom that happens to be coming our way on this issue.Report

      • Avatar Tim D. in reply to James K says:

        One policy area where governments can help is by helping people realize gains from energy efficiency.  I used to rent a house that was a huge energy leak, with old windows and roof and an inch gap under the front door that we would stuff with a towel in the winter.  It had been that way for decades since neither the renters nor the landlord had incentive to fix it.  The landlord didn’t pay the heating bill and the renters weren’t going to pay for capital improvements on a house they didn’t own and were only renting short-term.  Probably hundreds of dollars each year just lying there on the sidewalk (as the old joke goes).  Various policy pushes would help with stuff like this and it would save people money, so it shouldn’t (in theory) be controversial.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Tim D. says:

      Tim,

      There aren’t a lot of libertarians writing seriously about environmental issues, but you can check out the Property and Environment Research Center (perc.org) and the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (free-eco.org/”).Report

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