One other reason libertarians fear environmentalists

George Monbiot has an excellent blog post today explaining more clearly and with more citations a point I made a few weeks ago. Everyone should read Monbiot’s post today, but the short of it is this: libertarians have to deny the existence of environmental harm because not doing so sinks their entire property rights ideology.

While this is still — I suspect — the main reason libertarians are so bothered by environmentalism, there are other reasons as well. For instance, in the case of climate change, libertarians really are totally at a loss for how to properly stop it. Usually libertarians will try to say that the kind of immediate harm done by environmental externalities can be dealt with by the courts: if some power plant is hurting your land or your body, you should sue them. Ignoring all the problems with that approach, think about how impossible it would be to solve the problem of excess greenhouse gas emissions via lawsuits.

No particular greenhouse gas emitter is actually a problem, only all of them in aggregate. So who do you sue? Do you sue all greenhouse gas emitters at once? Each one of them could defend by saying that their specific greenhouse gas emissions are not causing any environmental problems, and — at least in the context of climate change — they would be right. There are also millions, possibly billions, of them — anyone with a car for instance — and they exist in every country in the world. A suit like that would be an impossible nightmare.

Climate change is also a bit difficult to attribute specific harms to. A farmer whose land dries up from drought will not be able to demonstrate for certain that the drought is a consequence of climate change. But we know that will be one consequence of climate change at least in some areas. How would such a farmer protect their land through lawsuit given the proof problem involved? There are also all sorts of jurisdictional issues in that the effects of climate change are global but firms exist within specific countries and thus court systems.

I could go on, but hopefully it is clear just how totally impossible it would be to solve a global environmental problem that is caused by the aggregate pollution of millions of actors in a libertarian world. Climate change really is one of those problems that just cannot be solved without collectivist action. In the world of states we have now, that means environmental regulation, carbon caps, fuel efficiency standards, carbon taxes, and whatever else. Libertarians hate those things, but there really is no other way to solve a problem of aggregate environmental harm that exists on a global scale. Being skeptical of the existence of such a harm is the libertarians only way out.