A Free-Market Energy Blog

Climate Policy vs. Classical Liberalism: The Curious Case of Jonathan Adler

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- November 14, 2023

The ability and beneficience of free minds and markets to handle the unknowns of future weather and ‘climate change’ has a strong intellectual case. Such is more true today than when the global warming debate began in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Four decades on, the case of classical liberalism against climate alarmism and forced energy transformation remains intact and strong–probably stronger than ever given the “saturation effect” of greenhouse gas (GHG) forcing. [1] In fact, the debate should be not about the weather or climate but about Statism, that gargoyle of government intervention that makes rich people poorer and keeps poor people poor. Regarding climate, statism is what sets up the problems that are too often simplistically and erroneously blamed on ‘weather’ or ‘climate’.

I bring this up in relation to a new book that ignores and dumbs down the free-market, classical-liberal viewpoint on energy/climate in the name of … “classical liberalism.”

Climate Liberalism: Perspectives on Liberty, Property and Pollution, published in the Palgrave Studies in Classical Liberalism, is not “classical liberal” in terms of scholarship or advocacy. It assumes what must be debated–that carbon dioxide (CO2) is a pollutant and urgent negative externality that must be addressed by Global Big Brother.

Volume editor Jonathan Adler states:

The aim of this book is to critically assess what (if anything) Classical Liberalism has to say about how we should address large-scale externality problems, including climate change. The contributions span multiple disciplines and include both those sympathetic to and skeptical of Classical Liberalism. Contributors include: Karen Bradshaw, Mark Budolfson, Billy Christmas, Daniel H. Cole, David Dana, Ed Dolan, Monika Ehrman, Brian T. Fitzpatrick, Andrew Morriss, Mark Pennington, Dan C. Shahar, Catherine M. Sharkey, and John Thrasher.

False. Where are the classical liberals who reject the severity of the problem and reject government intervention into energy and other sectors of the economy in the name of “climate change.” Not one of these authors does that–a sure giveaway that the fix was in (presumably the doing of editor Adler).

Why wasn’t I invited as an author for a real classical-liberal perspective? (Jonathan Adler knows me and my views well.) Better yet, why not Benjamin Zycher, Indur Goklany, Robert Murphy, Ross McKitrich, Kenneth Green, Marlo Lewis, and other highly qualified individuals who would upend the book’s pretense to be scholarly in the classical-liberal tradition?

And how about “inviting” (or invoking) the old Jonathan Adler, who effectively rebutted the new Jonathan Adler (yesterday’s post).

A real classical-liberal approach to climate policy in light of extreme weather events from any cause exists. I mentioned four key aspects in my negative commentary on Adler’s book, Classical Liberalism vs. “Climate Liberalism”:

  1. “No regrets” free-market actions that reduce government intervention and GHG emissions.
  2. Rejection of government intervention designed to mitigate anthropogenic GHG emissions.
  3. Primary reliance on free-market adaptation, including greater economic freedom to enhance the adjustment process.
  4. Secondary reliance on civil society to address here-and-now issues related to weather/climate, including relief and “compensation.”

Adler’s most recent focus has been on using tort law for alleged victims to be compensated from alleged perpetrators, a judicial activism scheme that is a fallacious “imperfect markets/perfect government” construct.


One can draw up a long list of questions for Adler (or any classical liberal) to address in regard to pricing dioxide emissions (CO2) in the U.S.:

  1. Apply the knowledge problem. What is the “right” price for CO2 and other GHG emissions? Who, what, where, how?
  2. Apply Public Choice: how will an ‘expert-designed’ system be initially implemented and change over time? Is this not a reason to avoid the program entirely?
  3. With the U.S. accounting for 15 percent or less of GHG emissions, leaving 85 percent or more globally, how will domestic regulation effectively reduce “climate change” in the short, medium, or long term?
  4. Can a classical liberal advocate “border adjustments” (tariffs or quotas) at the U.S. border as part of this program? What trade barriers are “necessary” in other countries that supply the CO2-intensive products that are assembled for export to the U.S.? Apply the knowledge problem here, too.
  5. In a tax-and-dividend program, apply the knowledge problem and the political problem to the questions of who, what, where, how much.


Jonathan Adler’s own views have gone from classical liberal to Statist with his proposals to enact a revenue-neutral tax on carbon dioxide (CO2), where the government would tax fossil fuels and return the revenue, dollar-for-dollar to the public (a strange wealth transfer that assumes, rather than debates, the problem and assumes omnipotent government to guide us to the promised land of optimal climate).

Adler’s judicial activism approach is equally peculiar in light of the “problem” and “solution.” It threatens to dumb-down tort law (tort inflation), where the few gain at the expense of the many. Unbounded, it is a judicial road to serfdom. [2] Thursday’s post, “Global Warming: A Dialogue,” will discuss this in more detail.


[1] The saturation effect means that the more the atmosphere fills up with the trace gas carbon dioxide (CO2), the less forcing effect each additional effect of CO2 has. The forcing is logarithmic, not linear, meaning that the warming effect of doubled CO2 does not occur again at a tripling but at a quadrupling. So CO2 mitigation policy today is about 10-15 percent less effective that it would have been when the debate started in the late 1980s. And each passing day adds to this reality as the world booms with fossil-fuel reliance.

[2] The present post raises the question: why did Jonathan Adler change his mind? The simple answer is academic advancement and power. His climate activism is a “loss leader” for his views elsewhere, which may be and often are classical liberal. The same analysis applies to Lynne Kiesling regarding electricity, energy, and climate, as well as to that intellectual influencer Tyler Cowen (see Epstein’s rebuttal here and Cowen’s rude, vague dismissal here).

… And then there is the (fake) conversion of Jerry Taylor to climate alarmism to found a whole new institute with Leftist funding, but named for William Niskanen, whose views of climate were violated, a story I have told here and here. Sigh ….

Leave a Reply