A Free-Market Energy Blog

Adler on Climate Policy: A Non Sequitur for Open-Ended Statism

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- January 16, 2020

Being “free and green” requires just what classical liberals and conservatives want: defeat of the anti-capitalist, anti-technology, anti-energy agenda. Market pricing, not carbon taxes. Open international trade, not carbon tariffs. Avoidance of one-world government in the perilous, futile crusade to “stabilize” the planet. In short, no climate road to serfdom.

Bad incentives have created a peculiar situation in which alleged classical liberals and conservatives push climate alarm and open-ended governmental energy activism. I have called out several of my former free-market colleagues in this regard, including Jerry Taylor (here and here vs. his previous view here); Josiah Neeley (here vs. his previous view here); and Jonathan Adler (here vs. his earlier view here).

In each case, these individuals published prior analysis that can easily neuter if not refute their present views.

Adler, a legal scholar who has opined on climate issues for decades, is an academic who now has his own environmental center at Case Western Reserve University. No doubt his switch from climate-alarm skeptic to carbon taxer was necessary for such an accomplishment in Left academia. Prestige and income are drivers in life that few can afford to resist.

But for alleged classical liberals and conservatives, the contradictions and tensions of the climate agenda abound. It starts with the unproved, even unprovable, “market failure” from unregulated carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions. In fact, the most settled science points to a positive externality in rough economic terms; it is the subtle, in-dispute, secondary effects from the enhanced greenhouse effect where the negatives come into play.

Then there is the quite certain government failure involved in the quest to regulate CO2 in the U.S. and around the world. We have 30 years of real-world experience in this regard.

And, finally, politics. With Hillary Clinton certain to succeed Obama to cement climate statism (Trump “is going to be utterly decimated in November,” stated Jerry Taylor), the argument from the new-bred activists was that those rejecting climate alarm and resisting government-directed energy transformation were out of touch. We had to choose the least worst policies. A carbon tax was better than both cap-and-trade and command-and-control.

But Trump won and reversed federal climate policy, a move that has contributed to the steady real-world collapse of the international climate agenda. It had to happen eventually given the inherent advantages of mineral energies over dilute, intermittent renewables, the latter hanging on by government threads.

Today’s 85 percent market share of fossil fuels in global energy markets–after three decades of climate alarm–speaks for itself. The Paris Climate Accord is quickly going the way of the Kyoto Protocol as the US-led but global oil and gas boom takes shape, and coal remains the fuel of choice for much of the developing world.

In short, sweet victories have resulted from our tireless educational efforts to apply classical liberal insights to the climate debate.

Given this, some of the side-changers have gone silent on the issue. Peculiarly, however, Professor Adler recently pleaded with conservatives and classical liberals to take up the fallen flag of climate/energy statism.


Enter Adler’s latest on climate policy, The Climate Debate Should Focus on How to Address the Threat of Climate Change, Not Whether Such a Threat Exists” (Volokh Conspiracy: December 1, 2019). His short article (in color) is interspersed with my comments.

Like Ronald Bailey, I used to be skeptical that climate change posed a serious environmental threat and questioned the wisdom of policy responses. Climate change featured prominently in Bailey’s Eco-Scam, and I edited a book and helped develop a policy program aimed at forestalling U.S. adoption of limits on greenhouse gases.

Comment: Please-believe-me-now does nothing to refute his previous views contained in “Greenhouse Policy without Regrets: A Free Market Approach to the Uncertain Risk of Climate Change” (Competitive Enterprise Institute, July 14, 2000).

And like Bailey, I no longer hold to that view, and I’m now willing to consider policy interventions I would once have rejected out of hand. (The Niskanen Center’s Jerry Taylor has had a similar change of heart.)

Comment: What “policy interventions”? Domestic taxes and global tariffs? How much and under what conditions? If those conditions are not met, are you then against government intervention? Are you really ready for UN global governance?

Jerry Taylor? This dishonest, Left-funded, discredited pundit (the sordid story of Taylor is told here and here) should not be mentioned in good conservative or libertarian company.

As Bailey explains in his most recent Reason piece, the scientific evidence that climate change poses a serious problem continues to accumulate, as does the volume of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. While there is still substantial uncertainty as to the precise consequences of increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, there is more reason to fear harmful effects, and seriously adverse scenarios cannot be ruled out. Like it or not, the science has continued to converge in support of the theory that human activity is contributing to a warming of the atmosphere.

Comment: This is a non sequitur. Adler himself has refuted the notion that the precautionary principle makes a case for government activism. The assertion of mounting evidence for climate alarm is the Mann-Dessler-etc. Far Left view that has been ably challenged on theoretical/empirical grounds by a number of other scientists (Curry-Spencer-etc.) that Adler and Bailey do not seem to want to discuss.

Ronald Bailey’s latest views on the physical science effectively take on the ultra-skeptic view but shortchanges the global lukewarming view. The latter concludes that the sign of the externality is quite uncertain, if not positive, on temperature grounds.

Bailey’s latest deserves a separate rebuttal, in fairness. But since when did he take climate modeling at face value? Does anyone know the microphysics of climate that models try to parameterize and then account for with fudge factors?

Residual uncertainty about the precise timing and magnitude of future climate change is no justification for failing to act. To the contrary, we take action all the time to address uncertain or improbable threats. We invest in national defense not because we know of particular military threats that will manifest themselves at any given time, but to protect against such threats if they should materialize.

Comment: Adler (2019), please read Adler (2000). The national defense analogy (why not just say police protection?) is quite a stretch to apply to carbon dioxide, to say the least. And backing up, the physical science of climate change is not settled with just “residual uncertainty.”

Similarly, we don’t buy insurance or install smoke detectors in our homes because we know when disaster will strike. We take such measures because the chance and cost of a calamity are great enough to justify prudent steps to reduce the likelihood and magnitude that such risks will come to pass. Climate change is no different. The potential negative consequences of climate change are large enough and probable enough to justify significant action.

Comment: This is pure assertion–and ably refuted by Adler 2000. Market entrepreneurship to anticipate and adapt to extreme weather events from any source is the obvious policy to deal with an uncertain future, not “significant [government] action.” Adler can be asked: what is your theory of entrepreneurship? And how do you respond, for example, to President Obama’s recent purchase of a $15 million beach house in climate harm’s way?

As with national defense, libertarians should remain vigilant as to the threat of government overreach, but this is not an argument to do nothing. The best national defense policy entails taking prudent steps to provide security, while eschewing government interventions that are themselves a particularly serious threat to individual liberty. Striking the right balance can be difficult, but it is what serious policy requires.

Comment: “Prudent steps” just throws bad intervention after bad. The climate math is clear–there is no governmental “insurance policy” for an unknown potential harm that has no quantifiable, much less affordable, premium. We are talking about real-world policy, not a perfect-knowledge hypothetical.

There is something comforting in the conceit that any particularly thorny policy problem is a mirage and not something to be take seriously. Alas, that is not the world we inhabit. Climate change is, in many respects, the product of modern industrial civilization, and addressing the threat of climate change is an awesome challenge—but it is a challenge that must be met.

Comment: The “conceit” of global government planning, not free-market reliance, to meet a speculative but “awesome” challenge” turns classical liberalism on its head. Climate policy should not be Al Gore’s “central organizing principle of human civilization.”

Taking climate change seriously does not require embracing centralized government control of the energy economy or a “Green New Deal.” It is fair to argue that neither the Paris Agreement nor the Clean Power Plan represented a serious approach to climate policy. But you can’t beat something with nothing, and if those who believe in limited government wish to forestall excessive government interventions in the name of environmental protection, it’s long past time they articulate and defend an alternative set of policies that can keep us both free and green.

Comment: This is the final argument for a losing, futile crusade. Adler concedes that climate politics, domestically and internationally, is off the rails. But “you can’t beat something with nothing” insults the driving force of the market, the creative, anticipatory, wealth-creating entrepreneurship. Adler 2000 said it best:

A true “no regrets” approach to climate change is not greater government controls on economic activity, but fewer. Economic growth, market institutions, and technological advance are often the most effective forms of insurance that a civilization can have.

The canard that capitulation will somehow avoid “excessive government interventions in the name of environmental protection” is at war with political reality. The federal government is busy dismantling climate policy. The Paris Accord is in disarray. The world is winning with a new era of mineral energy abundance.

Being “free and green” (Adler’s term) requires just what classical liberals and conservatives want: defeat of the anti-capitalist, anti-technology, anti-energy agenda. Market pricing, not carbon taxes. Open international trade, not carbon tariffs. Avoidance of one-world government in the perilous, futile crusade to “stabilize” the planet. In short, no climate road to serfdom.


  1. Gregory Rehmke  

    Reasonable people can disagree about important issues. So can unreasonable people. It is reasonable to take the widespread belief in and fear of climate change seriously. Also popular is the belief in immigration alarmism, that immigrants are hurting the U.S. economy and society.

    For these and other public policy issues debater Joshua Anumolu’s post on “Steelmanning” for Ethos Debate [https://ethosdebate.com/steelmanning/], makes the case for restating and if possible improving opponents’ arguments before responding.

    It seems to me possible for economic freedom supporters to be swayed by the daily flood of stories claiming “game changing” advances with green energy production and storage, or claiming newly discovered harms expected from more CO2 in the atmosphere.

    And in business, academic, and social settings it can be hard to engage with friends and associates without spending time to understand where they are in their own beliefs on energy, technology, and climate science and dynamics. I don’t know what articles and studies Jonathan Adler has been reading, but why not accept that his readings and conversations have influenced his sense of the nature, dynamics, and likelihood of climate changes.

    The NCFCA homeschool league is debating federal energy policy this year and teams are advocating all sorts of policy reforms. In workshops and talks, I make the case that none can know which technologies, entrepreneurs, and engineers will take the lead in the ongoing energy innovation. Similarly, it is impossible to know or predict which carbon reduction or sequestration technologies will flourish.

    I sent Joshua Anumolu a copy of Robert Bryce’s book “Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper” and he reviewed it for NCFCA debaters. [https://ethosdebate.com/smaller-faster-lighter-denser-cheaper-lessons-on-energy-tech-and-policy-part-1/] SFLDC (book title) tech advances apply across energy production, distribution, storage, and use, as well as across climate mitigation strategies. That’s a good thing. We can regret that government intervene and spend so much on projects heavily lobbied for by special interests (whether fossil fuel or green interests), but we should welcome advances, even as we know lots of money and time will be wasted pursuing dead end projects.

    It’s interesting now to read the 2008 Cato Unbound posts for “Keeping Our Cool: What to Do About Global Warming.”

    One post “The New Climate Center: How Technology Could Create a Political Breakthrough,” begins: “For 20 years, liberals and conservatives have been locked in a debate about the relative seriousness of climate change…” Well, now that would be: “For over 30 years…”

    But the emphasis on technology is key. How expensive is it today (vs. 2008), to generate electricity from natural gas with zero CO2 emissions? ( Net Power’s zero-emission natural gas plant, for example), or to absorb CO2 emissions by planting more trees (“The global tree restoration potential,” Science, July 5, 2019). [https://science.sciencemag.org/content/365/6448/76] And global greening from increased CO2 in the atmosphere helps these new trees grow faster.

    How cost-effective will new CO2 removal pathways be?: “MIT engineers develop a new way to remove carbon dioxide from air” (WUWT, October 26, 2019). For example, new green concrete can cool urban areas, clean the air, and absorb CO2, “Moss-growing concrete absorbs CO2, insulates and is also a vertical garden,” [https://www.theplaidzebra.com/moss-growing-concrete-absorbs-co2-insulates-and-is-also-a-vertical-garden/]

    The case can be made that momentum for new fossil fuel regulations and carbon taxes is so pervasive that it is worth trying to nudge reforms toward less harmful and costly policies. Maybe a well-designed carbon fee could transform to a carbon subsidy once new research reveals more on which way externalities are flowing. Though then I guess all the green buildings and carbon sequestration project get taxes instead of subsidized.


  2. rbradley  

    Greg: If “reasonable people are concerned” or “reasonable people can disagree” is the standard, then just about every government intervention in a democracy would be worth trying and innocent until proven guilty.

    Nixon’s imposition of wage and price controls in August 1971, for example, was a temporary (90 day) program intended to subdue inflationary expectations. Four percent or so inflation was unusually high. The business and business community generally supported the surprise program. So was it okay to try under your standard?

    The climate debate is about the global gas of life. It is about carbon-based mineral energies for the most part. Regulating it in any sort of effective way means global governance; unilateral measures such as a US carbon tax are ineffectual.

    Energy understanding (which Adler may not have) explains all of the advantages of energy density. Getting CO2 out of the air is pie-in-the-sky with very high costs and very limited scale. Most of it works to produce more oil by CO2 injection–no climate panacea.

    We are already in negative emission territory if you really want to do what the “science” says needs to be done.

    Classical liberalism means nothing if the suite of interventions proposed by Adler and others is somehow justified; such violates both theory and practice. And what is very peculiar is that the climate issue is openly championed as the road from freedom–and they are right, this is a “problem” way too big for “capitalism” to solve.


  3. Joseph Bast  

    I agree with Greg that we should not question Jonathan Adler’s sincerity or motives in taking the positions he does. He’s been writing along these lines for a long time. Ditto Ron Bailey. However, I entirely agree with Rob’s critique of the views of both Adler and Bailey. The science does not support claims of a climate emergency, but rather points to a very slow-moving and long-lasting change in mean average surface temperature (if there is such a thing… see Essex for critiques of the very idea) that is having/will have only local effects, and therefore is best addressed by people acting locally. Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for showing us the way.

    Economists have looked closely at whether markets can address the consequences of climate change and concluded, as any conservative or libertarian would expect, that they can. See Bezdek, Steele, Stroup, and Baden’s chapter on environmental economics in “Climate Change Reconsidered II: Fossil Fuels,” at http://climatechangereconsidered.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/1-Environmental-Economics.pdf.

    Economists have also conducted cost-benefit analyses of climate change, the use of fossil fuels, and specific measures to mitigate, rather than adapt to, climate change. They find more benefits than costs, that alternatives to fossil fuels cannot compete in a free market, and adaptation is orders of magnitude less costly to society than mitigation. See Bezdek, Monckton, Brill, Dayaratna, and Leyland’s chapter on cost-benefit analysis in that same book, at http://climatechangereconsidered.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/8-Cost-Benefit-Analysis-final.pdf.

    And scientists have considered virtually all of the “new science” that Bailey cherry-picked for his recent essay for Reason and still find there is no reason to buy “insurance” against a nonexistent threat. See Idso, Legates, Singer, et al.’s chapter on climate science in that same book: http://climatechangereconsidered.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/2-Climate-Science-final.pdf.

    Note that these authors are all real economists and scientists (and they cite hundreds of others), not lawyers and journalists. Who should you believe? I side with the economists and scientists.


  4. Robert Bradley  

    Joe: Regarding personal motivation, I do so as a historian of thought in a situation where 1) the person is allegedly a classical liberal 2) he changed his mind to support major intervention (https://reason.com/2019/11/06/forget-paris-it-was-never-a-serious-way-to-handle-climate-change/); 3) has an unconvincing, rather ginned up, case and 4) enters a new field where the about-face is extremely politically correct.

    Why? Professor Adler has stated that he obtained tenure without climate writings and has an self-endowed environmental center that is not dependent on outside funding where Left funders might be a constraint.

    But his Center has not and does not plan to debate issues regarding climate science and science policy. So students will not get to hear both sides of climate debates. This is unacceptable for an alleged classical liberal and begs for analysis.

    I stand by my interpretation that Adler’s climate switch has something to do with the great academic pressure to assume and not debate the climate “problem.” I see his very strong views as the ‘greenwashing’ needed to get him in elite circles to debate all of the other things of free market environmentalism that, I would agree, are good and ‘undo’ some of his climate damage to classical liberalism.

    So given Left academia, is this trade a good thing?

    Adler’s pushing and repushing his climate agenda when we are clearly making progress on this road to serfdom is beyond me. I would think he could have published enough to show he was no longer a “denier” and move on.

    Something else is at work. This will be a continuing story….


Leave a Reply