It’s fair to say that Washington’s libertarian community and its allies in the Tea Party movement are almost unanimously opposed to taking the threat of global warming seriously. Skepticism about the scientific evidence that man is warming the planet—and hostility to the idea that the risks of climate change require a policy response—has somehow become a matter of ideological principle.
A very strong argument can be made, however, that libertarian principles are being ill-served by the arguments forwarded by the libertarian establishment.
In “Science, Public Policy, and Global Warming: Rethinking the Market Liberal Position” (published in the Cato Journal back in 2006), libertarian economist Edwin Dolan finds problems “with respect to the arguments used by market liberals in support of their message of comfort and complacency.”
One problem area concerns the proper use of scientific evidence in reaching conclusions regarding public policy. It seems to me that market liberals are often reckless in the degree of certainty they professes [sic] regarding climatological hypotheses that are, in fact, still controversial and in early stages of development. A second problem concerns the use of cost-benefit analysis. Market-liberal writers are prone to make cost-benefit arguments regarding climate policy that they would never accept in other contexts. Third, the literature on global warming is often weakly rooted, if rooted at all, in the core principles of classical liberalism from which modern market liberalism has evolved. Instead, it is, for the most part, indistinguishable from what is said by conservatives. It might even be said that there is no market-liberal position on this issue—only an echo of arguments made by Republican patriots and the carbon lobby.
Libertarian law professor Jonathan Adler, who worked at the Competitive Enterprise Institute on environmental issues before going into academia, likewise concludes in “Taking Property Rights Seriously: The Case of Climate Change,” that:
If FME [free market environmentalism] advocates truly take property rights seriously, and reject utilitarian justifications for violating property rights, then they should reconsider their approach to global climate change policy. The focus on net welfare and other concerns in the context of climate change by many FME advocates represents a rejection of the libertarian principles upon which FME is based. There is nothing inconsistent with FME about opposing draconian emission-reduction policies or other mitigation measures that are unlikely to address the threat of climate change. But identifying policies to oppose is no substitute for identifying policies to support.
To the extent that ideological principle might help inform libertarians who are engaged in climate change policy, those two papers suggest that “the freedom movement” might well have taken a wrong turn.