A Free-Market Energy Blog

R Street: Faking Freedom on Climate Change

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- September 28, 2017

“Classical liberals must expose the quixotic quest to ‘save’ or ‘stabilize’ the climate and must educate the public about what is really involved: a new, powerful government lever on economies and freedom, anywhere and everywhere. Socialist central planning for economies may be intellectually dead, but global climate planning is alive and well.”

“For classical liberalism, privatizing the subsoil to enlarge and democratize wealth from Mexico to Venezuela to Saudi Arabia to Nigeria is the number one energy issue, not climate change. Yet it goes uninvestigated and unmentioned at R Street and the Niskanen Center. It might be CO2-positive, after all, not something the climate funders want to promote.”

The toxic brew of climate alarmism and climate activism (aka forced energy transformation) is incompatible with the theory and practice of classical liberalism.

First, any qualitatively new government programs (justified with a “market-failure” rationale) are at bottom about the coercion of human beings. Second, Austrian school economics warns that even small opening interventions tend to require more and more interventions to achieve their goals. Third, Public-Choice economics warns against the inevitable political takeover and makeover of interventions that theorists have allegedly crafted to achieve good.

Just about everything that emanates from the climate activists is about bigger, global government and negating free consumer choice. Carbon dioxide (CO2) regulation has already proven to be about as byzantine, open-ended, and unenforceable as regulation can get.

Classical liberals must expose the quixotic quest to ‘save’ or ‘stabilize’ the climate and must educate the public about what is really involved: a new, powerful government lever on economies and freedom, anywhere and everywhere. Socialist central planning for economies may be intellectually dead, but global climate planning is alive and well.

Why demonize and discriminate against consumer-chosen, market-friendly fossil-fuel energies? Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant. It is not an unambiguous negative externality—except in the hypothecated equations of high-sensitivity climate models. CO2 has known benefits, chiefly the fertilization effect for plants. Moderately warmer and wetter climate change also has positives for agriculture, recreation, and the ecosphere.

The field of climate-change economics, pioneered by Robert Mendelsohn, sees such social benefits exceeding costs for higher CO2 atmospheric concentrations in a number of realistic scenarios.

Simply postulating that untouched nature is always optimal—and any human influence on the climate is bad–belongs to theory of deep ecology, not classical liberalism.

Freedom Fakers

But there are freedom fakers in our midst on the Climate Change issue. One such organization is the Niskanen Center, led by the Cato outcast Jerry Taylor, who has tapped into a fountain of cash to support a carbon tax and go easy on existing “decarbonization” intervention by governments. Fortunately, Taylor’s prior beliefs and writings are more than enough to refute his present views.

R Street Institute (like the Niskanen Center) is living a lie regarding climate-change analysis and policy. Dressed as a pro-liberty think tank (“Free markets. Real solutions”), R Street has raked in money to hire (former) free-market scholars. Of course, the pliable have to take climate science as “settled” (in favor of alarmism) and advocate pricing (taxing) carbon dioxide as somehow efficient.

Josiah Neeley, formerly of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, where he argued against climate alarmism and forced energy transformation, is the Energy Policy Director at R Street. He does not appear to want to debate the science of global lukewarming, and he is all-in for a carbon tax, which he certainly was not in his previous job.

Regarding the latter, Neeley has badly misinterpreted Robert Murphy as saying that such a tax has economic merit. (See Murphy’s rebuttal here.) But the issue goes beyond just arcane arguments about tax policy.

Climate Statism

The quandary of Neeley, Taylor, and others obstensibly promoting classical liberal scholarship is more than (illegitimately) making the assumption of high-sensitivity warming to calculate large economic damages.

The pretenders must dodge essential questions, forget basic insights of political economy, and acquiesce to ancillary regulatory forays.

I offer these five reasons why R Street and the Niskanen Center cannot claim to be “free market” or “classical liberal,” given their “toxic brew” of climate alarmism and CO2 regulation.

First, the whole climate crusade is thoroughly Malthusian and interventionist—and championed by a rogue’s gallery of classical liberalism’s enemies.

Climate is, as Al Gore stated in Earth in the Balance (p. 269), “the central organizing principal for civilization.” Or as stated in the subtitle of Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, it is Capitalism vs. the Climate.

Any acquiescence to the movement to demonize and then regulate CO2 will likely add many bricks to the road to serfdom.

Second, the science is not settled regarding the nature of the problem, much less its “cure.”

Given that the known benefits of CO2 (the fertilization effect) may be joined by benefits from global lukewarming, it cannot be concluded that CO2 emissions are on net a negative externality in either the near or distant future. (That could well be an indeterminate question.)

Given the science, peculiar assumptions must be made in order to create future climate benefits that can offset here-and-now economic costs. Lower-sensitivity estimates from climate models do much to ruin the climate benefits of mitigation policy.

Third, CO2 regulation is all about global government as well as imposing new layers of domestic interventionism. Because CO2 is indeed a global phenomenon, the “market failure” argument for CO2 regulation becomes a justification for government control at a trans-national level and worldwide scale that classical liberalism has scarcely encountered before.

Domestic CO2 regulation requires US-side tariffs and/or quotas for hundreds if not thousands of goods–an interventionist process plagued by a pretense of knowledge in the planner world and politics in the real world. (Spread over the world, a global border-pricing program would involve billions of different pricing arrays.) Neeley’s study (co-authored with Catrina Rorke),”Adjusting a Carbon Tax Price at the Border,” focuses on international trade legalities and does not even begin to consider the subjectivity and real-world viruses of such a regime.

Fourth, the non-neutral effect of carbon taxes on income levels has also made differential taxation part of the plan. Again, the pretense of knowledge, as well as politics, come into play to refute any “optimality” argument.

Fifth, the worldview of pricing CO2 has come in place of a true global classical-liberal movement regarding energy and the environment: privatization of the subsoil (as well as above-ground infrastructure).

Privately owned subsoil mineral rights are a rarity in the world. The US is now the world’s leading fossil-fuel producer, thanks in large part to its free, private-property energy economy (oil exceptionalism can be applied here).

For classical liberalism, privatizing the subsoil to enlarge and democratize wealth from Mexico to Venezuela to Saudi Arabia to Nigeria is the number one energy issue, not climate change. Yet it goes uninvestigated and unmentioned at R Street and the Niskanen Center. It might be CO2-positive, after all, not something the climate funders want to promote.

Point #1 is BEWARE; Point #2 is WHAT IS THE REAL PROBLEM?Points #3 and #4 are THE ‘CURE’ IS WORSE THAN THE ‘DISEASE’ and Point #5 is REFOCUS.

 Finale

Classical liberals can agree that the free market–voluntary transactions between consenting adults–does not bear the burden of proof when the alternative is government coercion. Markets are be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Government intervention, contrarily, bears a high burden of proof and must show both that markets are failing and that political intervention will not fail. All the more so, in the case of global intervention.

Climate change is less a problem for free markets than it is a stalking horse for open-ended statism.

Climate alarmism and its attendant forced energy transformation is the reverse of classical liberalism. Conservatives and libertarians and populists should not be fooled. Climate activism emanating from the Niskanen Center, R Street, and their like is fake freedom.

5 Comments


  1. Jon Boone  

    Persuasively written, Rob. But you always had a better opinion of Jerry Taylor’s intentions than I did. The carbon cabal and its attendant frippery is, to me, a stalking horse for ka-ching at grandiose scale. Since carbon is essential to life and since carbon dioxide is a byproduct of virtually every life transaction, open-ended doesn’t begin to describe the tax’s scope and reach. Western society seems at the end of what and how much it can exploit through income and property taxes, inexhaustible user fees (tolls, licenses, access), even sin taxes, augmenting all this with various lotteries and casinos. A carbon tax puts all this to shame–champ change by comparison. What’s even more audacious is its unaccountability. Carbon tax revenue represents free money. Like the costume worn by Lady Godiva and the emperor with no clothe’s closet , there would be no real strings attached….

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  2. Ed Reid  

    The ultimate goal of the climate alarmism cabal is a global vegan commune of approximately one billion souls, run by some subset of the leftist tinpot despots represented in the UN General Assembly.

    What could possibly go wrong with such a grand vision? “Enquiring minds want to know.”

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  3. Charles G Battig  

    The other tool of economic and social manipulation which ranks right up there with CO2 and carbon footprints is the UN fostered concept of sustainability. The ruling class has embraced this ill-defined , but infinitely adaptable, benchmark of acceptable human activity as a means of regulating all forms of economic activity. I had applied the term “universal solvent” to the practical impact of sustainability guidelines used by regulatory agencies and planners , as any proposal could be thwarted by claims that “it was not sustainable.”

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  4. JON R SALMI  

    The bedrock of modern science is the scientific method as proposed by Popper in 1934 and in use ever since. This is not practiced by the UN IPCC, instead they use the pseudoscience called Post-Normal science. It sort of looks like real science but, it isn’t. There use of so-called ‘consensus science’ turns the scientific method on its head as rather than attempting to disprove experiments, it accumulates evidence in an attempt to prove its pseudo-version of science. The IPCC has been taken over by politicians of a progressive bent whose most popular tactic is to bully and denigrate, rather than refute their evidence. Finally, the public must be shown that computer data is not empirical (scientific) data.

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  5. Energy Statism: R Street Hits New Low (carbon tax dead, so wind & solar lovefest today) - Master Resource  

    […] The ‘keep it in the ground’ anti-fossil-fuel funders of R Street have Josiah Neeley (who in a previous life argued against the very things he is now fronting) as their front […]

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