By Duncan Whitmore
The pervasive issue of human-induced climate change has been hotting up again lately. The recent birth of “Extinction Rebellion”, which pursues the strategy of civil disobedience and economic disruption in order to force governments to “act” on climate change, as well as the creation of a mascot in the form of teenage activist Greta Thunberg, has helped to drive the once fledgling issue back to the forefront of political attention. A “Global Climate Strike” held on September 20th saw children – many of whom have been terrified into the belief that their world is about incinerate – allowed to take the day off from school in order to participate (an unlikely occurrence had they wished to protest against, say, mass immigration). Although Britain has emerged from what has actually been a fairly standard summer in terms of temperature, a handful of record breaking days helped to push climate fear to a high of 85% of the UK population, according to a recent poll.
Fortunately, the latest antics of “Extinction Rebellion” – which have included targeting ordinary East London commuters on their way to work – betray one of the reasons why Murray Rothbard split from his alliance with the left in the early 1970s: that you don’t win any support by attacking, with violent disruption, the very people whose hearts and minds you are trying to convert.1 The fact that these incidents targeted the London Underground and Docklands Light Railway only added to their irredeemable stupidity given that most people accept electrified public transport as a sufficiently green alternative to cars. Nevertheless, the issue itself is a lingering one and government policies committed to tackling climate change remain prominent.
There is little point in repeating here most of the arguments that dispute the so-called “scientific consensus” behind climate change, all which have been documented readily by sceptics, and on this blog. Instead, we will highlight one or two aspects of the counter-movement to climate alarmism upon which Austro-libertarians can shed some additional light from their perspective. In a future essay, we will go on to discuss how climate change can be analysed when it comes to a libertarian understanding of rights.
The Anti-Human Nature of Environmentalism
Libertarians are likely to agree that environmentalism (which, in addition to its obsession with climate change, includes conservationism and anti-pollutionism) is merely a ruse to subject capitalist industry to state control. Socialism has failed as an economic doctrine, but – as if by magic – it has been resuscitated as an environmental doctrine for the alleged reason that capitalism destroys the planet. Austro-libertarians, of course, realise that industrialised society is not the cause of “catastrophic” climate change, the irredeemable intoxification of the sky, rivers and seas with poisonous chemicals, nor of the gradual exhaustion of scarce resources. Indeed, socialist and communist societies have been the worst polluters imaginable while it is capitalism, on the other hand, which creates solutions to the problem of waste in just the same way as it creates solutions to every other pressing human problem. But even if capitalism was responsible for all of these horrors, the state would have no interest in environmentalism whatsoever if it did not provide an excuse for expanding state power. In other words, we could be destroying as much of the Earth as possible, but if the state could see no way in which it could expand its tentacles then it wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Hence, conservatives and libertarians have likened environmentalists to “watermelons” – green on the outside, red on the inside. Indeed, as with most arguments against capitalism generally, these watermelons have been happy to change the indictment so as to fit the purpose. In the 1970s the fear was the onset of a new ice age; then in the eighties it was all about acid rain, or a hole in the ozone layer; the nineties gave way to the “global warming” hysteria; and now in the twenty-first century it’s just some form of “climate change”. In other words, the precise environmental disaster doesn’t seem to matter so long as it provides an excuse for more state control. As German energy economist Ottomar Edenhofer, co-chair of an IPCC working group, admitted candidly:
We redistribute de facto the world’s wealth by climate policy […] One has to free oneself from the illusion that international climate policy is environmental policy. This has almost nothing to do with environmental policy anymore.2
Worse than that, however, it is important to realise that the goal of the environmentalist movement is fundamentally anti-human and is ideologically pitted against the progress of humanity. By this we do not mean merely the assortment of upper middle class lefties who want everyone else to fly less and eat fewer hamburgers just at the time fossil fuel based energy has brought prosperity to the great unwashed. Most of these whining brats would probably wither away as soon as any serious environmental policy threatened to confiscate the iPhones on which they can record their peculiar street theatre. Rather, we are concerned with the fact that most people have swallowed the lie that the aim of environmentalism is to achieve some kind of “sustainable living” that will allow humans to continue their advancement of prosperity and progress albeit in a “cleaner”, “greener” fashion that is more “in harmony” with nature; and that even though the stereotypical environmentalist is a jobless “hippy” bearing the appearance and odour of a walking compost heap, we can at least console ourselves by accepting that his heart is basically in the right place. All of this, however, is a mistake. In fact, the core of the environmentalist movement seeks to elevate unbridled nature above humanity, to the extent that its real aim is to control and ultimately reduce the presence and impact of humanity upon the blessed Mother Earth.3
Although seemingly permanent retrogression and impoverishment is now starting to creep into the explicit environmentalist narrative – “eat less”, “fly less”, “breed less”, etc. – this anti-human foundation has long been clear from, say, the attitude of environmentalists towards different sources of energy. Obviously, they have no qualms in denigrating our mainstays of coal, oil and natural gas owing to their inherently “dirty” and “polluting” nature, as well as their release of so-called greenhouse gases. But environmentalists also rail against nuclear power (in addition to hydroelectric power on account of its “spoiling” of the landscape) in spite of the fact that it could meet all of humanity’s energy needs in an efficient and scalable fashion while presenting few of the problems that environmentalists purport to identify in fossil fuels. The issues of safety and cleanliness of nuclear power are overblown by several factors, namely the irrational reaction to a handful of high profile incidents (usually Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, two of which were decades ago), the disposal of spent nuclear fuel, and the wilful conflation of nuclear power with nuclear weaponry. However, not only are these worries ameliorated by improvements in technology and nuclear fuel’s exceptional energy density, but the safety record of nuclear power is surely mitigated by, say, a comparison with the number of deaths caused by the mining and extraction of fossil fuels, or the deaths and health problems caused by burning coal? And what about carbon dioxide? If the threat from burning fossil fuels is that we are all going die from “catastrophic” climate change as a result of releasing “greenhouse gases” then wouldn’t the risks from adopting nuclear power be the lesser of two evils? Nuclear power is not going to have a perfect safety or “cleanliness” record (nor will any source of energy when you set the bar as high as environmentalists do) but there is surely something suspect about the willingness of environmentalists to dismiss it so readily.
Instead of fossil fuels and nuclear power, all that the environmentalists will permit us to use is a handful of expensive, impractical and unreliable methods of energy generation such as solar panels and wind turbines (the latter of which climate sceptic James Delingpole has mercilessly derided as “bat-chomping, bird-slicing eco-crucifixes”). These methods are so lacking in efficiency and cost effectiveness that governments have to furnish them with heavy subsidies, while their unreliability requires them to be backed up by fossil fuel power stations anyway. Moreover, environmentalists are keen to point out that the “overall” release of carbon dioxide resulting from a switch to nuclear power (i.e. from the construction, maintenance and operation of nuclear plants) may rise. However, anti-nuclear outfits seem to be less keen on highlighting the resource inefficiency and carbon dioxide release from the production of, say, the fan blades for wind turbines. In the same vein, they worry incessantly about what to do with spent nuclear fuel, but scarcely mention the vast amounts of toxic waste that will be produced when the current generation of solar panels wears out in the coming decades.
The reason for these apparent anomalies is that, reading between the lines, one senses that environmentalists identify as their basic problem not the cleanliness or safety of any particular form of energy as such but, rather, something akin to what economists call the “Jevons paradox” – the notion that once a commodity becomes cheaper and more efficient there is an overall increase in demand leading to a greater exploitation of the commodity. So cheaper energy would lead to increased demand, more energy use, more people, more resource use, more overall pollution and more ravaging of the Earth. Hence, “efficient” methods of energy production must be discarded in favour of alternatives, such as solar and wind, that are guaranteed to promise reduction and retrogression.
This does not mean to say that we are devoid of environmentalists who care genuinely for the prosperity of humanity in harmony with the environment. However, the movement’s fundamentally anti-human stance has caused many of these admirable folk, such as Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore, to be excommunicated from the flock of the faithful, becoming instead their sharpest critics. Similarly, the vast number of lay people who have swallowed much of the hysteria most likely have a genuine concern for the environment and for humanity’s impact on the planet without wishing to decimate humanity at the same time. Moreover, the assortment of wealthy, virtue signalling celebrities and politicians – such as Leonardo di Caprio, Emma Thompson, Al Gore, not to mention the insufferable David Attenborough serving out his twilight as the geriatric Greta – all of these clowns can probably be ignored on account of the fact that any support they lend to ludicrous causes is offset by the rank hypocrisy of their jet-setting lifestyles. But those who care about human prosperity need to learn that the rotten core of environmentalism – the beliefs and trappings of which bear all the hallmarks of a religious cult rather than a rational endeavour – cannot be approached or dealt with on equal or friendly terms, and we should be keen to see through any pretence that suggests otherwise.
Climate Change and “Science”
The second sorry aspect of climate alarmism we will emphasise here is the bastardisation of science that has been achieved by the climate change industry. By this, we mean the elevation of science and scientists to the level of an unquestionable priesthood, whose blessing is designed to lend authority to propositions that are far outside of their competence.
This should come as no surprise to Austro-libertarians who are used to decades of epistemological debauchery in economics, perpetrated for the sole purpose of the “dismal science” being better able to serve, rather than oppose, the state. Indeed, much of science these days is little more than another technocratic state administrator – a bureaucracy that wears white coats rather than suit and tie. But it is arguably the case that climate sceptics are still trying too hard to meet the predictions of impending doom with counter-science (or focussing on fiddled data) rather than tackling the epistemological faults behind climate science in the first place.
To start off with, regardless of the veracity of the well worn “97% of scientists agree…” mantra, scientific hypotheses are not validated by consensus among scientists (most of whom are probably regurgitating what they have read from other scientists without any direct involvement in study and experimentation). Truthful scientific propositions require only a single scientist to furnish reproducible results, regardless of whatever anyone else may think. Indeed, given the tendency of scientific progress to disappear down wrong paths for decades (such as with the now discredited phlogiston theory), strong agreement may, in fact, be evidence of wilfully blind complacency, groupthink, or even corruption – particularly when it comes to something as complex as the climate and all of the concomitant political and economic choices at stake.
Second, the justification for government climate policies is that climate science has predicted a given climate outcome for the future. We will not discuss here whether this predicted outcome is as “catastrophic” as governments suggest it is, which is more of an interpretation of the outcome rather than the outcome itself. Instead, our focus is upon this difficult relationship between “science” and “prediction” and how much “predictions” can be taken as scientific propositions.
Scientific knowledge is the explanation of phenomena under assumed conditions. That is, we can determine cause and effect when we know what the prevailing conditions will be, as we do in a laboratory when we can control the variables that we wish to study. In economics, the equivalent is the ceteris paribus rule – that a given outcome can be expected if one variable is changed while all other conditions remain constant. For example, from our understanding of human action, we can deduce that, if all other conditions are equal, an increase in demand leads to an increase prices. Hence, we can hold up the rule that an increase in demand leads to an increase in prices as a scientific proposition (or, to put it another way, an increase in demand explains an increase in prices).
If we understand science to be the explanation of phenomena when the conditions are known then, strictly speaking, no prediction can ever be truly “scientific” as the precise circumstances that will appear in the future are always uncertain, if only minimally so on particular occasions. Beyond such epistemological stricture, however, once we are confident that a) our scientific explanation is correct, and b) that the conditions required to produce a predicted outcome are likely to prevail, then we can, in turn, be confident that the prediction is scientific. Once again, controlled, laboratory experiments are the ideal environment in this regard, but outside of this, so long as the conditions are few and general, are relatively stable, and have little interdependence (i.e. a change in one condition does not affect the rate of another condition) then a given prediction is likely to be scientific enough for practical purposes. For example, if someone places a pan of cold water on the kitchen stove and turns up the heat then we can be reasonably sure that the handful of conditions required to bring the water to boiling point – stable atmospheric pressure, the consistency of the gas supply, that no one will simply walk in and remove the pot from the stove – will be present, and so the prediction that “this water will boil” can be taken as scientifically valid. Or if it is raining and there is sunshine at the same time we can probably predict with reasonable certainty that a rainbow will become visible.
However, such surety is likely to diminish once several factors come into play:
- The number of conditions that must be accounted for increases;
- The stability of those conditions is subject to greater fluctuation;
- The conditions become more interdependent;
- The length of time that must elapse before the predicted outcome materialises grows longer.
It is at this point when scientific prediction morphs into the much hazier discipline of forecasting. Forecasting makes use of science and scientific knowledge, and forecasters may well be good scientists. Any forecast of future prices, for instance, is more likely to be successful if the forecaster is aware of the scientific relationship between supply and demand (indeed, the use of such knowledge may serve to distinguish a forecast from a mere guess). However, forecasting is a subtly different endeavour from scientific prediction. Whereas science is concerned with what will happen under a given set of conditions, if the conditions are highly uncertain and/or contingent upon other factors which may themselves possess a high degree of uncertainty, then forecasting must necessarily focus instead on whether the required conditions themselves will actually emerge at some point in the future in order to produce a given result. The number of different decisions required in this regard, and the weight that much be assigned to each factor means that a forecast outcome is essentially a judgment rather than a scientific conclusion. Again, when forecasting the rate of future prices, each of the relevant variables (the rate of inflation, the demand to hold money, and the demand/supply of goods) are themselves dependent upon hundreds of possible influences, all of which could change tomorrow, next week, next year, in ten years, and so on.
Forecasting the climate presents a similar, if not worse, kind of complexity. It may well be true that, all else being equal, an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will cause an increase in global temperatures (although even this is disputed) just as an increase in demand, all else being equal, will raise prices. But what will be equal and what will not be in ten, twenty, fifty, or one hundred years time cannot be stated with anything approaching certainty as we have no concrete idea of the conditions that will be present at those times. To make matters even more complicated, some effects may produce offsetting counter-effects. For instance, it is readily believed that cutting down the world’s trees will lead to a greater concentration of carbon dioxide and, thus, more global heating. But cutting down trees could also cause soil to wash away and expose bare rock, which has the effect of reflecting sunlight and thus making for colder surface temperatures. If this is true then how much rock will be exposed? How much light will it reflect and what is its relationship to temperature? How much will these differences impact over time?
Another problem is the long timescales involved. Because we cannot recreate the climate in a laboratory, forecasters using computer simulations have to choose the inputs that will vary and those that will remain constant and set the algorithms accordingly before letting the models run to create a projected climate outcome. According to one source:
To project climate into the future, the climate forcing is set to change according to a possible future scenario. Scenarios are possible stories about how quickly human population will grow, how land will be used, how economies will evolve, and the atmospheric conditions (and therefore, climate forcing) that would result for each storyline. [Emphasis added]
This passage could win prizes for its deceptive simplicity. But even if factors as difficult as “how quickly human population will grow” were more easily determinable, just a slight variation or error can, when allowed to run over a course lasting for years, decades or centuries, produce wildly divergent results – in just the same way as two people starting from the same spot, one walking North, one walking North North West, will end up farther and farther apart the longer they walk. Thus, an error needs to be only very small in order to produce an outcome that varies wildly from reality.
Moreover, even attempts to piece together what has happened to the climate in the (geologically) recent past must, owing to the limits of data and the inability to reproduce the conditions, employ at least some conjecture which makes them susceptible to competing explanations. A particular problem in this regard is that, even if trends such as simultaneously rising carbon dioxide levels and global temperatures are depicted correctly, their mere correlation is often presented as proof of causation. And yet it has also been argued that increasing levels of carbon dioxide are as much a response to increasing global warming as they are a cause. Finally, all of this assumes that climate scientists are behaving with integrity, which is itself disputed by climate sceptics.
For public consumption, all of these difficulties are ignored by boiling forecasts down to headline grabbing one-liners that can justify government climate policy. “The world will end in twelve years!” “The polar bears will die!” “The ice caps will be gone by 2030!” and so on. But such simplification goes beyond the mere spouting of doom scenarios and disaster theories; it also causes rank scientific falsehoods to seep into the popular mindset. For instance, carbon dioxide – often abbreviated incorrectly to just “carbon” – is a gas which is essential for photosynthesis and, thus, for the flourishing of life itself; yet a generation of schoolchildren will enter adulthood believing it to be a dangerous pollutant. We are also taught to believe that global temperatures will rise and fall in congruence with the levels of carbon dioxide, as if controlling emissions from industry will produce the same effect as the temperature dial on an oven. The dissemination of tenuous forecasts may be one thing, but an extensive campaign of public miseducation is quite another.
None of this should be understood as an attempt to completely discredit the modelling of future climate behaviour which, if executed faithfully and with the appropriate degree of caution, may yield some interesting or useful information that would help us to understand the possible consequences of different scenarios. But the difficulties and complexities involved in predicting precisely which conditions will be present in something like the climate mean that any forecasts produced do not deserve to be credited with the rigour that is imparted by the use of the word “science” – particularly not when they are boiled down into simplistic sounding headline fillers, nor when practically every single one of such forecasts made over the years has turned out to be wrong. A fortiori, they do not deserve to be taken as the bedrock of government policy which will uproot the entirety of humanity’s progress and prosperity.
This confusion of science with forecasting is something we are all too used to with so-called “economists” regularly churning out useless statistics and projections, many of which conveniently suit a political narrative. However, most people retain an inkling of the fact that matters involving human behaviour (such as the economy) are not easily susceptible to prediction, and so they are content to write off such technocrats as government stooges. As Conservative MP Michael Gove said when the predicted doom scenarios failed to materialise as a consequence of the Brexit referendum, we “have had enough of experts”. Indeed, if scientists were truly expert at forecasting the future then they wouldn’t be scientists. Instead, they would be millionaires, as they would have channelled all of their wealth into what they could see would be the most profitable outcomes.
However, people may expect something better from those who study the natural world – i.e. objects and entities which are supposed to behave with regularity rather than volition. And so when predictions in this regard turn out to be wrong (particularly if major changes of lifestyle have been imposed) the risk is that science itself – that is, real science – could be discredited in the eyes of the average Joe.
Having emphasised these two aspects of the climate debate we will proceed, in a forthcoming essay, to discuss specifically how libertarian theory might respond to climate change. What we shall see is that, even if anthropogenic climate change is occurring (i.e. humans really are responsible for warming the Earth) and it would be a “disastrous” outcome, there would still be no justification for the state to wade into the fray. Moreover, we shall see that the problem could and should be resolved by capitalism and the adherence to private property rights.
1See, for instance, Murray N Rothbard, Farewell to the Left, in Murray N Rothbard and Jospeh R Peden (eds.), The Libertarian Forum, Vol. II, No. 9 (May 1st 1970), 1.
2IPCC Official, Climate Policy Is Redistributing The World’s Wealth, Interview with Bernard Potter, November 14, 2010.
3For a devastating critique of the essentially anti-human nature of the environmentalist movement, as well as its philosophical and intellectual ramifications, see George Reisman The Ecological Assault on Economic Progress, Ch. 3, Part B in Idem. Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics, Jameson Books (1998), 76-120.