Libertarians Can’t Save the Planet

by John Q on January 27, 2020

As promised, my article on climate change and the death of libertarianism/propertarianism, in Jacobin.


Global warming is the ultimate refutation of Lockean propertarianism. No one can pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere while leaving “enough and as good” for everyone else. It has taken thirty years, but this undeniable fact has finally killed the propertarian movement in the United States.



some lurker 01.27.20 at 3:45 am

Au contraire… propertarianism has killed everything/everyone else, even if we don’t quite know it yet.


likbez 01.27.20 at 5:29 am

Please don’t post climate science denialism here. I’m not interested in discussing it, or having discussion derailed by it – JQ


lumpkin 01.27.20 at 6:01 am

I went over to Reason Magazine to see what they’re saying about climate change. The article I read sets up and beats the shit out of a population control strawman allegedly being pushed by environmentalists. It then goes on to proclaim that capitalism is the only cure for climate change. And that’s pretty much it. Not a single concrete proposal in the entire discussion or even half-assed attempt to logically show how capitalism will cure global warming. They aren’t even trying anymore.

A brief foray into the comments was as depressing as watching an hour of Fox News. Here’s one that will give you a taste of the level of intellectual discourse:

“Maybe someone could start a gofundme page for a retroactive abortion for Greta.”

And that is today’s libertarian, folks.


Dr. Hilarius 01.27.20 at 6:52 am

I first ran into libertarians in the early 70s. Every single one was a male who believed that he was a natural aristocrat and leader held back by government regulation. But for government he’d be rich and having sex with supermodels. Yes, there was some superficial blather about no coercion and freedom to contract but that was just cover for their desire to rip off the marks and then run to government for protection.

When confronted with any issue like pollution the response was always the idea of a private tort suit. A solution on a level with prayer and sacrificing a few chickens.

I am skeptical that libertarianism/propertarianism is truly dead or even moribund. It’s existence never had any relationship to reality, it’s just a gloss on psychopathy. And there seems to be no shortage of psychopaths.


Dr. Hilarius 01.27.20 at 6:56 am

Ooops. First “It’s” should be “Its.” Need edit feature.


John Quiggin 01.27.20 at 7:47 am

@4 “And there seems to be no shortage of psychopaths.” But Trumpism supplies unvarnished psychopathy with no need to do anything dull and boring, like reading Atlas Shrugged.


nastywoman 01.27.20 at 9:04 am

”I can do with my property whatever I want” –
are about the first words I heard from my American relatives –
while the German -(and Italian) – ones hardly ever said something like that –
and so I always thought it was more of a ”cultural phenomena” – when the Americans were ready to ”sacrifice the common good for the good of the individual” – but then in California when my Californian Relatives understood (too) that the air they were breathing was NOT their ”personal property” but ”a common good” – some. of them were ready to sacrifice personal property rights even more than my German relatives – who still insist – that there should be no speed limit on ”der Autobahn” – but on the other hand – they contributed this weekend in ”Kitz” to ”Arnies Climate Initiative”…

– Life is sooo confusing?


nastywoman 01.27.20 at 9:14 am

and isn’t that the utmost annoying thing? – as visiting my homeland a lot – I sometimes – by sheer accident –
find myself in a group of ”homelanders” -(and mostly somewhere NOT on the coast) – who never ever heard of ”Climate Change” or ”the Climate Crisis” -(because they are mostly much too busy to work a lot of jobs – just to be able to afford ”Living in America”) – and then I feel so bad for them – that I always tell them – if they stop voting for the Clownstick – Taylor Swift will LOVE them!


SusanC 01.27.20 at 1:41 pm

The outlook we are now calling “Trumpist” probably predates the Trump presidency.

While the UK has a left and a right that are small l liberal, you dont often meet a Libertarian. The local equivalent of a Trumpist, on the other hand, is a familiar figure.

I’d suggest that Trump has tapped into a pre-existing sentiment that already had more followees than Libertarianism.


Tarun Nagpal 01.27.20 at 4:23 pm

The obvious answer to me is that if the air is privatized, I hearby declare you are not allowed to pollute in my air at all. And in fact are obligated to remove the CO2 and methane that you have already dumped in.

To me that is the logical end of this sort of thinking. You can just stick a damn bag over your exhaust and pollute your air allotment only and breathe out of that bag.


MarkW 01.27.20 at 7:35 pm

“Why did this happen? The problem was to some extent philosophical. ”

I believe it was primarily pragmatic / political rather than philosophical. I do not know of any general libertarian philosophical opposition to trading schemes for ‘traditional’ forms of air pollution or fish catch-shares, for example. Nor, as far as I’m aware, did libertarians oppose the Montreal Protocol for phasing out use of CFCs. My sense is that libertarian concerns have very much more to do with suspicions that AGW is being used as a stalking horse for achieving traditional leftist goals by other means. They see the left rejecting climate change proposals that do not do so (as, for example, when the left in Washington State fought a revenue-neutral carbon tax because it would not have generated new funding for various interest groups and programs). The bottom line is that there nothing in libertarianism that is fundamentally opposed to emissions trading schemes (which were a libertarian idea in the first place) nor to using such schemes to address international issues (see the Montreal Protocol or agreements for the management of wild fish stocks).

How many CTers, I wonder, would support a carbon tax that truly was revenue-neutral (and robustly designed to remained so) in order to bring more libertarians and conservatives on board — even though the tax would never provide additional funding for government programs nor advance any of progressives’ other goals?


John Quiggin 01.27.20 at 8:20 pm

“How many CTers, I wonder, would support a carbon tax that truly was revenue-neutral (and robustly designed to remained so) ”

No need for hypotheticals. Australia had such a tax with all the proceeds returned to households to offset higher prices (low income households overcompensated). I supported its introduction, was a member of the authority that advised on it, and opposed its removal. As it happened, the compensating tax cuts and pension increases remained in place, even after the tax was gone.

And of course, the ultimate objective of a carbon tax is to raise zero revenue.


politicalfootball 01.27.20 at 9:04 pm

MarkW, as the Vox piece that you link points out, British Columbia’s carbon tax, supported by liberals, is carbon neutral.

But liberals don’t have to design this sort of legislation at all. It’s perfectly possible for conservatives to make an effort to ameliorate climate change. Everyone, including conservatives, expects liberals to be the grownups and to try to solve problems, but that isn’t a law of nature. Conservatives could behave like responsible adults.

Heck, conservatives could design a carbon tax that isn’t revenue-neutral, using the proceeds to address social welfare issues, in order to lure liberals into supporting it, right? Yes, that sounds silly — but it wouldn’t if anyone thought conservatives were willing to take responsibility for the state of the world.


Faustusnotes 01.27.20 at 11:39 pm

They’re too busy working for bolsonaro to even try.


Anarcho 01.28.20 at 9:31 am

It is a shame that the propertarians decided to steal the name “libertarian” from the left, as it does cause confusion. For genuine libertarians have been at the forefront of ecological thinking and action since the 1960s — Murray Bookchin, for example, played a key role in raising the dangers to the environment caused by capitalism and the need for an ecological perspective:

Going further back, both Reclus and Kropotkin were noted geographers who raised ecological notions at the end of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, while William Morris (Kropotkin’s friend) likewise is considered a forefather of green thinking.

Yes, propertarianism will not save the planet, but genuine libertarian ideas (libertarian socialism) will.


Zamfir 01.28.20 at 2:16 pm

MarkW says: “My sense is that libertarian concerns have very much more to do with suspicions that AGW is being used as a stalking horse for achieving traditional leftist goals by other means.”
Sure, this is the standard feeling among many conservatives. Climate change is oversold by lefties. The right should act as clear-eyed guardians of the economy, against the utopian plans of the left.

It seems, on paper, that such people could become potential allies in the fight against climate change. Suspicions and concerns can be taken away, and that fight needs conservative allies. But nothing ever is good enough.

As an example: this analyzes voting patterns for the WA proposal that you mentioned. form the article:
“Precinct-level voting data show that support for I-732 was highly partisan. Precinct-level vote shares show two-thirds support among precincts voting 100% Democratic or Green Party in the presidential election and virtually zero support among precincts voting 100% Republican or Libertarian. Regression results imply substantially higher support among Libertarians than Republicans and essentially unanimous support among Greens. Presidential vote shares alone explain 87% of the variation in precinct-level vote shares.” His regression implies about 22% support among Libertarian Party voters- a lot more than among Republican voters, but still a massive rejection.

That’s a for a plan designed to attract conservative support, and that was indeed rejected by the left! My own conclusion: we can’t get conservative uspport by taking away “suspicions”. The suspicions are just a roundabout way to say that climate change is not important. And if climats change is not important, then it doesn’t matter if plans are market-based, or economically-optimal, or revenue-neutral, or whatever. That makes them only less bad in the eyes of the suspicious, but not actively good.

What we need, are more conservatives who want to fight climate change themselves, who are willing to step over their lingering suspicions to look for compromise. Not people who seek cover in their suspicions, in order to do nothing


MPAVictoria 01.28.20 at 2:41 pm


Chetan Murthy 01.28.20 at 3:13 pm

MarkW @ 11:
What’s revenue-neutrality got to do libertarianism? I’d think that a libertarian would be staunchly against such a massive “government taking”, no? What’s that old saying?

The Economist Libertarians never met a large public bureaucracy they liked, and never met a large private bureaucracy they didn’t like.

And heck, why does it need to be revenue-neutral? Somebody’s gotta compensate all those parties injured by AGW, no? Fund all the research into tech to mitigate and remediate? You think somehow *the market* is gonna do all that?

Incoherent babbling. I read the Vox article (yeesh) and yeah, John you’ve it it on the head. It’s clear the few who have a clue that they’re on the wrong side of history are grasping at straws.


reason 01.28.20 at 3:48 pm

(No relationship to reason magazine which I have never even read meant or implied – I see myself as always between the fronts attacked from both sides as a voice of reason.)

I have vociferously pushed a revenue carbon tax (with the revenue being destributed on a flat pro-head basis) as the first step towards a UBI and for creating incentives for cutting down on carbon emissions, but I do not think it will enough. (Trading schemes if properly implemented are better because they actually limit the carbon emissions, whereas carbon taxes do not.)

But I can’t see how we can avoid short term desperate measures such a geo-engineering and we will also need public infrastructure investment, research subsidies (private research funding doesn’t benefit the public much it just creates rent extraction possibilities) and regulatory actions (for instance to help innovation in rooftop solar installation.


reason 01.28.20 at 4:01 pm

I always this series the most entertaining look into the philosophical underpinnings of Libertarianism:

(I am not often a fan of Naked capitalism. But this series was brilliant.)


DCA 01.28.20 at 4:08 pm

Hopefully Brad Delong will show up and give details, but the Clinton administration (led by Gore) proposed a “BTU tax” (this is what you get from burning carbon) in the early 90’s. So don’t produce an argument based on “if only liberals would consider a market-based idea like a carbon tax”.


bianca steele 01.28.20 at 4:54 pm

I didn’t realize until I clicked through the link in the Jacobin article that the idea that libertarianism is over comes from Cowen, who’s always been a law unto himself and not typical of libertarianism as a political movement/moment. He may be right that a large faction of people who always, to a degree, considered themselves libertarians, are finding a new label for themselves. He may be overestimating his ability, as a leader of a libertarian movement, to tell very large numbers of people to change their minds. I really think it should seem obvious that the reasons people adopt a politics or an ideology act differently on people in different milieus, whether academic or commercial or artistic, which means it should be obvious that what’s persuasive to one group who use a label might not be so to another group who uses the same label.

I’m personally not up for another round of “libertarians are really people who value reason and academic social science and liberal philosophers above all else” / “no, libertarians are averagely educated people who above all things must believe they already know everything they need to” / “no, I admit I should have realized you were right 10 years ago, but they’re changing.” That Cowen and some other economists are shifting is interesting, I guess.


Neel Krishnaswami 01.28.20 at 8:06 pm

MarkW at 11 wrote:

Nor, as far as I’m aware, did libertarians oppose the Montreal Protocol for phasing out use of CFCs.

How old were you then? Because libertarians absolutely did oppose it then, and continued to oppose it for decades. See, for instance, Ronald Bailey’s 1992 Reason article, “The Hole Story,” or Rod Rojas’s 2010 Mises Institute article, “The Ozone Scare: a Retrospective.”

Air pollution of any kind reliably makes libertarians play dumb, because it is one of the kinds of externality most poorly addressed by market frameworks. As a result, it’s a lot easier to deny that it is a problem than to grapple honestly with it — it’s sort of like talking with tankies about the Uighurs.


Hidari 01.28.20 at 10:24 pm

‘ it’s sort of like talking with tankies about the Uighurs.’

Ah. ‘Both sides’.


Jake Gibson 01.28.20 at 11:55 pm

An American Libertarian is someone who believes, or pretends to believe, that their personal preferences are the best options for all individuals.


Orange Watch 01.29.20 at 12:41 am


What’s revenue-neutrality got to do libertarianism?

It’s moreso about understandably reassuring the long-suffering but eminently fair propertarians who really, truly want to help that this isn’t some insidious leftist plot to end up revenue-positive and let the evil gov’t do something other than drown in its filthy bathwater.


Chetan Murthy 01.29.20 at 12:43 am

reason @ 20: Oh. My. God. Thank you SO much for that NC link! It’s just *amazing*. I’m reading it, and just chuckling on and on and on! It’s a riot, a complete riot!


Mike Huben 01.29.20 at 12:57 am

Matt Bruenig had an excellent article the previous month: Environmentalism poses a problem for libertarian ideology.

“The short of is that environmentalists totally smash open the idea that property rights theories can really account for who is permitted to do what with the land that they own. Almost all uses of land will entail some infringement on some other piece of land that is owned by someone else. So how can that ever be permitted? No story about freedom and property rights can ever justify the pollution of the air or the burning of fuels because those things affect the freedom and property rights of others. Those actions ultimately cause damage to surrounding property and people without getting any consent from those affected. They are the ethical equivalent — for honest libertarians — of punching someone in the face or breaking someone else’s window.”


John Quiggin 01.29.20 at 4:21 am

@BiancaSteele Tyler Cowen is late to the party. The big shift came with the move to Niskanen by Brink Lindsey, Will Wilkinson, Jacob Levy and others.


Raven Onthill 01.29.20 at 5:59 am

Next: zombie propertarianism.



T 01.29.20 at 10:48 am

Tyler Cowen has always been a lagging indicator of Koch money. After Koch accepted the idea of climate change and eventually pitched the deniers at CATO, it was only a matter of time for some new opus aligning him with his benefactor.


bianca steele 01.29.20 at 1:18 pm

My issue with Wilkinson and Levy going back before Niskanen is that they talk about “norms” as if they can asssure the rest of us the norms that will govern won’t be the Trumpist norms. I see them retweeted by centrists and liberals who are looking for allies on the other side.

On the one hand they’re just examples of the split between academic and voter libertarianism. If you say “norms” to *them*, they’ll hear something educated and refined. Everyone else hears something more like “National Conservatism,” especially when their educated, refined people all tend to have certain traits in common.

On the other, their rhetoric to me looks aimed at getting liberals to think they’re reasonable, listen to them, and (like all the rightwing concern trolls in the run up to the election) be nicer to white conservatives so they won’t make a bad vote out of pique.

They don’t talk about economic libertarianism nearly as much as Cowen does. It’s hard to see that they’re libertarians in any sense that affects their public work. It’s hard to see a voter who identifies as libertarian showing any interest in either of them (where Cowen has an obvious pack of followers).


Fake Dave 01.29.20 at 1:27 pm

I maintain that there have always been two broad factions of libertarians. One group is over-educated and loves monetary theory and the other is undereducated and just loves money.

The libertarians with MS’s and higher tend to belong to the Reason/Wall Street Journal/Economist set and have high-status jobs professions where a reputation for inteligence is an important currency. These guys always have to know more than others and have all the answers. They can’t not have a tortuous just-so solution for climate change. They have one for everything.

The other group is the anti-intelectual libertarians. They consider anything that doesn’t make you money to be a waste of time and certainly don’t hold the benefits of a liberal arts education in high regard. These guys all think of themselves as self-made men, especially the ones who aren’t. Statements like “the government can’t create jobs” and “taxation is theft” are enough for these guys. They’re pretty much all-in for Trump anyway, but his denialism fits their worldview just fine in any case.

I think the “intelectuals” are just trying not be associated with the ignorant base even as they continue to be on the same side of 99% of practical issues.


notGoodenough 01.29.20 at 1:46 pm

Apologies if this is slightly OT, but just to note that Scotland seems to be doing pretty well as far as renewable electricity goes:

Of course, there are many other considerations (e.g. impact of electrification of cars, etc.), but still a moderately promising note.


Faustusnotes 01.30.20 at 3:31 am

Part 2 of reasons post precisely describes what the republicans and rich Americans have been doing since 2000.


Hidari 01.30.20 at 7:11 am


Scotland (a tiny country of 5 million people) is doing OK, or to put it another way, Scotland is crashing up against the limits of what ‘market based’ solutions to climate change can achieve. Needless to say (as you note) the vast majority of cars in Scotland are not electric, and of course, all vans, trucks, motorbikes etc. are driven by petrol (a few buses and trains are electrified).

Much more seriously, all airplanes that leave or land in Scotland are fuelled by fossil fuels for the good reason that there currently is no ‘green’ replacement for the passenger jet, and there is not likely to be one for about 30 to 40 years. (there are internal flights as well, and its technologically possible to replace these smaller planes with electric planes, although of course this has not been done yet).

Even more seriously, Scotland’s ‘business model’ (especially given that, under the SNP, Scotland wants independence) is predicated on North Sea oil and gas, until, essentially, it’s all been taken out of the ground. To put it bluntly: no North Sea oil and gas…no realistic case for independence. So the SNP are not going to be doing anything about that any time soon.

As well as this Scotland has a financial sector (most notoriously, RBS) which, obeying the immutable laws of capitalism in its endless hunt for profits, frequently funds polluting industries.

As I say, Scotland is doing OK, within the existing socio-economic framework, and therefore demonstrates the limits of this framework in dealing with this emergency.


politicalfootball 01.30.20 at 2:46 pm

Someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but as best as I can reckon, Prof. Quiggin’s provocative declaration of the death of libertarianism has received absolutely no response from actual libertarians.

I think libertarians understand their belief system is lifeless, and have accepted their status as intellectual zombies. So there’s really nothing to argue about.


politicalfootball 01.30.20 at 3:26 pm

MarkW @11 is rebutted by:

-The fact that Prof. Quiggin and others of his ilk supported a revenue-neutral carbon tax in Australia. (See Quiggin@12.)
-The fact that British Columbia has such a tax with liberal support (See politicalfootball@13.)
-The fact that liberal Washington state voters themselves supported a revenue-neutral carbon tax (see Zamfir@16).
-The fact that libertarians vocally opposed the Montreal Protocol. (See Neel@23).

I would also be interested in an answer to my question: What, if any, responsibility do conservatives have to address global warming?

But my deeper question is this: Given that MarkW’s comment @11 has been thoroughly rebutted, has MarkW learned anything at all from this? I am deeply interested in the ability of conservatives to grapple with factuality once they are confronted with it. Is engagement with the truth even possible folks like MarkW?


Almar 01.30.20 at 6:01 pm

A minor aside to the issue covered by the article:

Near the beginning there is the standard reference to Coase as the inspiration for the view that assigning property rights is the way solve pollution problems. Having seen many such references I was surprised when I first read Coase’s actual article. Much of it discusses reasons why trying to use property rights to solve pollution will often be infeasible or insufficient. Perhaps a stress on problems of practicality should have been expected: after all, the other thing Coase is famous for is highlighting the importance of transaction costs.

It is a delightful article to read, clearly written and full of fascinating examples. I encourage anybody who has not read Coase’s original article to do so.


Area Man 01.30.20 at 7:29 pm


The bottom line is that there nothing in libertarianism that is fundamentally opposed to emissions trading schemes (which were a libertarian idea in the first place) nor to using such schemes to address international issues (see the Montreal Protocol or agreements for the management of wild fish stocks).

Really? Maybe there is nothing in libertarianism that opposes emissions trading, but virtually no libertarians as far as I can tell are actively pushing for carbon trading. The libertarian movement in the US at least is heavily steeped in denialism.

If you take the libertarian conception of property rights seriously, you can actually derive a very radical environmental agenda from it. Strangely though, it seems that virtually all libertarian thought is bent toward anti-environmental, pro-corporate ends and almost invariably ends up aping whatever is in the best interests of the fossil fuel industry and other polluters. Very odd.


John Quiggin 01.31.20 at 2:11 am

Neel @23 To be fair, Ron Bailey is one of the handful of libertarians who’ve shown some willingness to shift their position in response to the evidence.


roger gathmann 01.31.20 at 7:36 am

The revenue neutral carbon tax is mere nudgery. The size of the massive state intervention necessary to moderate the death of the Holocene is never, ever going to get the libertarian seal of approval (unlike, say, massive wars, which they all love, since nothing says opposing state power than approving mass murder by the state). There’s every reason to go behind the “war of ideas” to the unmasking of funders, and the funders for libertarianism, as well as conservatism, are pretty much all, traditionally, group around the carbon extraction industries, from oil companies to coal companies. The Kochs, the Buckleys, and all the modern oil companies – you will have to pry their cold dead fingers off the oil trigger.
Redesigning transportation, phasing in mandated solar energy, spending hundreds of billions in research on renewable energy – these are a few things the goverments need to do. The argument with libertarianism is, I think, a sort of fun activity, but not a serious one if by serious is meant: with the intent of converting the opponent. Cause they are unconvertible.


notGoodenough 01.31.20 at 8:43 am

Hidari @ 36

Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I´m a little wary of diverting threads, as it is a bad habit of mine, but if I may make a sort-of-general response (which isn´t necessarily a disagreement) from a technological (not political or economic) perspective.

While it is true that Scotland is a tiny country, as far as I can tell the issue with electrification of large countries isn´t population but geography. Generation and storage are relatively scalable, but past a certain point distribution via a “national grid” system isn´t (due to inherent resource costs over large distances). However, by breaking down region-by-region, it should be possible to maintain the benefits of a grid (risk and use distribution) without needing excessive cabling. This does, however, remain a concern – and would necessitate constant investment in order to maintain the infrastructure. Though, to be fair, this is also true of pretty much anything (e.g. trains, water, etc.).

I think I´ve commented on airplanes before – I don´t think electric planes are (currently) that feasible for long travel times, but have yet to see why hydrogen would be impossible. I´ll admit I´m into batteries rather than hydrogen (e.g. fuel cells, spin-coated pellets, etc.), but a very brief back-of-envelope calculations suggests that a sufficiently well developed approach should be feasible in terms of energy density (though I would need to talk to an aviation engineer to discuss the practicalities from an engine perspective). In short, while I would freely admit there doesn´t seem to be any green planes on the horizon now, I don´t think that (from a technological perspective) they must necessarily be 30 to 40 years away from development. I suspect that this sort of time-frame is a result of aviation development not being incentivised to innovate in that direction. Indeed, my understanding is some of the Boeing 737 disaster has been blamed on a shift of culture from innovation to re-using the same tech to improve profits, though this is just an impression and could be wrong. In short, while I don´t want to minimise the challenges involved, I suspect that (again, from a technological perspective only) it wouldn´t be impossible to transition away from fossil-fuel aircraft in a much shorter period (maybe 10 years or so). In the meantime, reducing the number of flights (i.e. taking ferries, etc. wherever possible), combined with trying offset approaches and reducing all other forms of fossil fuel usage, would be a huge step forward (and may even be sufficient to buy enough time for development).

Electrification of transportation is something I´ve given a bit of thought to over the years, but I should caveat that this is going a little outside my area (I focus on storage, not distribution). While there are concerns regarding the raw battery materials (which we in the research community are slowly addressing), I think the biggest issue is going to be having a sufficiently resilient way of recharging (i.e. it falls under having a good electric grid). I think a series of mini-grids primarily for vehicle-charging, combined with fast-charge stations, etc. would go a long way to mitigating this, and if there were also an improvement in internal city public transportation it seems to be within the realm of possibilities. In this way, I think one can overcome some of the geographical issues by making these things a “bottom-up” scalable approach.

In short, I don´t think the challenge of going carbon-neutral (or even carbon-negative, if sufficient advances in capture are made) is impossible from a technological point of view, even for much larger countries.

However, I also agree that the current economic and political climates are unlikely to promulgate such advances. We would need to invest heavily in R&D (and sensibly, using well distributed and carefully curated approach – not just throwing money!), we should increase public transportation to reduce car-use within cities (which would also benefit decreased congestion), and probably decrease aviation (and offset it) while the transition to electric (for short journey) and hydrogen (for long journey) is made. While this would necessitate some pretty serious commitment to changes in lifestyle, it doesn´t have to mean “no planes, no cities, back to medieval times” but rather more “careful curation of lifestyles for several decades”.

So, in short, as far as I can tell what is preventing us from seriously tackling climate change is more the political, social, and financial aspects, rather than the inherent limitations of the technological and scientific side (though, to be clear, there are limitations there too). Of course, I appreciate that that is a bit like saying “the only thing preventing us from flying to the moon is gravity”, but still wanted to highlight this point.

Indeed, my thinking has evolved a little regarding this – I used to think that conservatives would support addressing climate change as, to a large degree, there would be a lot of resulting economic development (i.e. when you are investing on the scale of a New Deal, it would create jobs and businesses), and I thought (perhaps naively) that the inherent advantages of reaching the research advances first would be so obvious that green developers would need helmets to deflect all the huge bundles of investment money thrown their way. Instead, in many places (e.g. Australia and US) it has become a political football, and a depressing number of people prefer to bury their heads in the sand (i.e. “it probably won´t happen, and if it does it won´t be as bad as the people with a lifetime´s expertise are saying it will be, etc. etc.).

The reason I wanted to bang on this a little is because I get the impression a lot of people in the 1st world countries think that going green must involve everyone decreasing quality of life, and all being miserable forever. I don´t see that this is the case – changes in lifestyle would be needed, but overall quality of life would still be very high (and in some cases probably vastly improved). I see it less as a step back and more of adaptation – the price of saving the planet is probably not going back to living in a muddy field (à la Dennis the peasant) and only leaving your village once a year, but rather using more public transport and decreasing holidays abroad a bit (i.e. you may have to more frequently travel by ferry, rather than plane). If I recall correctly you´ve pointed out the dependency on fossil fuels before – I just want to highlight it is a societal dependency rather than a technological one.

To summarise, I think I slightly disagree regarding the technological feasibility of going green, but do generally agree with your other points (i.e. I´m a bit of a bloody pedant).

Apologies for the long and only tangentially-related comment – I have said my piece here, and will refrain from harping on this point too much.


Tim Worstall 01.31.20 at 11:22 am

““How many CTers, I wonder, would support a carbon tax that truly was revenue-neutral (and robustly designed to remained so) “”

Not that I’m a CTer. But given that I have supported exactly that this past decade. Including, often enough, at the Adam Smith Institute, wrote an entire and widely unread book arguing the case for it, I guess that makes me and the ASI not libertarians by the standards in play here.

Assuming that CC is a problem that must be dealt with then the solution is a revenue neutral carbon tax. Shrug. The only thing left to argue about is what rate?


politicalfootball 01.31.20 at 2:31 pm

The libertarian movement in the US at least is heavily steeped in denialism.

They deny that. In fact, they’ll tell you that “denialism” is an unjustified slur.

Rightwing libertarians often engage in denialism denialism.


Kiwanda 01.31.20 at 4:24 pm

Hidari: Unfortunately, the most that will probably happen is that governments will have targets of various kinds, as many do, pushing and sometimes requiring transition to lower carbon.

That may not be such a battle against the profit motive, because according to some plausible forecasts, cost considerations will favor renewable generation and battery-electric cars in the near future:

– two-thirds of the world population live somewhere where wind or PV, or both, are the cheapest new-build electricity option, now;
– [Electric vehicles] … should reach upfront price parity with equivalent ICE models as soon as 2023;
– In China…new onshore wind [likely] will be cheaper than running existing coal-fired power as early as 2024;
– In India [co-located renewable/battery systems] will look more economic than new pithead coal-fired generation by 2024;
– in the U.S…new-build wind and PV look likely to be cheaper than running most existing combined-cycle gas plants by 2030.

Energy and road vehicles are only a part of the problem, for sure; other parts, like lowly *refrigerant management*, are also important, as seen in this interesting list.


Hidari 02.01.20 at 9:29 am

Thanks for your thoughtful and intelligent comments. And may I add that, given that you would appear to be an engineer with a specialism in battery technology, you know a heck of a lot more about this situation than me.

However, one point (which is probably not as minor as you might think).

‘it wouldn´t be impossible to transition away from fossil-fuel aircraft in a much shorter period (maybe 10 years or so). ‘

Are you absolutely sure about this?

As an engineer you will of course be aware of the difference between ‘things which look good on the drawing board’ and ‘things which actually exist in the real world’.

Remember the number of actual existing electric passenger jets which can be bought, so to speak, ‘in a shop’, is, at the time of writing, zero. (It is not at all clear either, at the time of writing, how trans-continental jets (e.g. the 747) are ever to be electrified…battery technology is just not there yet. Perhaps it will never be there).

Are you absolutely sure that we can move to a situation in ten years in which all the (many) technological problems with electric jets can be ironed out, all existing ‘planes are taken out of service’ and all of them are replaced with electric passenger jets? In that time period? This is a genuine question, and you of course know about this than me, but my italics, I hope, indicate my scepticism.

Your post indicates a follow up point, which is often ignored in these debates.

The problem is not just introducing a new technology.

The problem is introducing a new technology which has to replace an already existing technology which is perfect OK and which works fine.

This is why (e.g.) comparing electric planes to the Wright Brothers is so misleading. Apart from Zeppelins/balloons (and after the Hindenberg this was obviously a ‘dead’ technology) ‘planes had no competitors, and a very obvious commercial reason to use them. There is no obvious reason for companies to ditch fossil fuel ‘planes (or for that matter trucks, motorbikes and cars) given that these technologies already exist, function, are cheap, generate profit and there is a pre-existing support infrastructure (petrol stations, mechanics, a road system based round fossil fuels etc.).

Take another example.

Britain has zoomed ahead of Germany in terms of green technology (as I’m sure our friend Dipper will shortly pop up to point out) because in the 1980s, Thatcher shut down all the coal mines. This was an awful horrendous decision, but, in the long run, quite a good one, because it means that renewables, in the UK, have no real competition.

Look at the horrendous problems the Germans are now having, given that they have a big coal industry, which must now be shut down, all the workers retrained, etc. etc. without causing major social unrest.

The price of a product is of less relevance when you already have something that is similar to that product which actually exists, is up and running, and which employs millions and millions of people worldwide.

The implicit ‘promise’ of the market utopians is that all the coal miners will be thrown out of work (given that these jobs tend to be unionised, there may well be a ‘hidden agenda’ here) and they will all either go and work on solar/wind plants (good luck with that) or that they can retrain (‘learn to code!’) or they can piss off, all without causing huge social unrest, in countries like China and India with a long history of violent labour disputes and radical left wing politics.

Good luck with that. Also have a long look at the recent British and Australian and American elections, which were, amongst other things, gigantic victories for the fossil fuel lobbies, and massive defeats for the ‘green’ perspective, and reflect how politically popular, even in the West, something that promises huge social disruption and the rejection of working technology in favour of untested ‘future’ technology, will be.


notGoodenough 02.01.20 at 5:34 pm

Hidari @ 47

Thank you again for your comments, and for making some good points! I hope you will take it as the compliment it is intended to be when I say that while I may not always agree with everything you say, I typically find what you say well-reasoned, interesting, and often challenging and thought-provoking (in the best sense of that). I certainly appreciate your response, and it is motivating me to actually go and look into this in more depth (assuming I get some free time).

I’m certainly no expert – my own speciality is in energy storage, where I am mostly a combination of research scientist (technically I did my doctorate in chemistry and materials science, back in the day!) and engineer, so stepping towards looking at whole systems is definitely something I can be wrong about. I’ve made some quick calculations, but please think of it as being at the “scribbling on a beermat in a pub” stage, rather than a well thought out project proposal. I can go into a bit more depth regarding how I got there (if anyone’s interested in my ramblings), but I just wanted to make a bit of a general comment/response. So, certainly your scepticism is warranted!

I am, first of all, thinking only regarding the tech side – actually rolling out aircraft would require the involvement of companies (who mostly seem intent on roleplaying Captain Planet Villains), and I don’t know if any companies are prepared to make investments for longer-term profits any more. Given I can’t really understand or account for these behaviours, if you’d indulge me I’d like to take a spherical-cow-in-a-vacuum approach,[1] and ignore whether or not money, support from political and industrial sectors, etc., is plausible.

So, leaving aside solipsistic comments regarding certainty :-), and whether or not it is plausible from a non-tech perspective, I think I should clarify a little what I had in mind.

I don’t think 100% “green” aviation is plausible in 10 years, but I do think a transition away from 100% fossil fuels is plausible.[2] Moreover, it is important to note the following:

1) I don’t think electric is enough for anything other than short range. I think hydrogen is necessary for long ranges – so I don’t think there would be an electric 747, but probably rather a hydrogen-based one.

2) I am thinking transition, not complete replacement (the degree of the transition depends on how many planes need what range, which I haven’t yet found a source on).

3) I am considering the proof-of-concept work already in place (e.g. electrified and fuel cell based drones etc. exist, as do some short range proof-of-concept planes) which means some of the groundwork is already done (which includes getting the data on flight cycle energy drawing, etc., which is all quite important for the boring-but-necessary energy management systems).

4) I do also think some compromise and hard changes will be needed (for example, perhaps increased ferries vs. planes, limiting the amount of airmiles people can travel, etc.), so I am not proposing a situation where everything is the same as now but with better planes.

Of course, as I say this is just a rough thought – I’d have to spend a bit more time and find some good collaborators in the aviation field to make a more sensible answer – and certainly I don’t want to minimise that some big changes and huge effort would be needed (something like WW2 mobilisation), but my general point is that making a greener world doesn’t necessarily require “no more travel”, but “probably better planned and more limited travel” instead.

But again, just to emphasise, this is all back-of-envelope, so please do continue to regard this with scepticism – you are entirely justified in doing so!

[1] referencing the old joke regarding application of theory.

[2] In order to get some sensible numbers regarding the extent of replacement possible, I would need an idea of the number of flights by range – this would help see what percentage could be doable in what period of time. So if anyone has a source on this they could point me to (ideally something like a distribution of flights within 1000km-increment ranges) I’d be much obliged.


Dipper 02.01.20 at 8:04 pm

@ Hidari “Britain has zoomed ahead of Germany in terms of green technology (as I’m sure our friend Dipper will shortly pop up to point out)”

My work here is done.

Seriously, in the UK there is no debate about whether to cut emissions, the debate is about how and how quickly. Now we are out of the EU, we can look at using tax and tariffs to target emissions due to domestic consumption currently imported from other nations.


faustusnotes 02.02.20 at 8:55 am

Tim Worstall, there’s a lot more to argue about than the rate. You can’t tax your way out of the end of industrial civilization, and it’s incredibly short-sighted – and that this stage I would say denialist – to pretend this is all we need. I provide some calculations here of exactly how little impact even very large carbon taxes will have. We can see this from tobacco consumption, where even taxes equal to almost 50 or 60% of the price of the product don’t stop some people from using, and even in the presence (now) of healthier alternatives, many people don’t shift their consumption patterns simply because of the required capital outlays.

If you’re serious about climate change – and I know you, Tim, are not – then you need to be looking past a carbon tax, recognizing that it’s a bare minimum response, and considering divestment, advertising bans, regulation, subsidies and any other massively market-distorting methods you can think of to force our society away from self destruction. (I know you don’t believe we’re heading to self destruction, because you remain at heart a denialist. But others reading this might be more serious about the issue).

Australia could make a major contribution to this by banning coal exports. Governments and pension funds can make a contribution by divestment. Beyond that, we need a massive and complete change to the way our economies work in order to save ourselves.


Chetan Murthy 02.02.20 at 4:58 pm

Tim Worstall @ 44:

Assuming that CC is a problem that must be dealt with then the solution is a revenue neutral carbon tax.

Lemme translate that to English: “yeah, we made a shit-ton of $$ for a century by shifting costs on to you-all, but ain’t no way you’re gonna claw any of that back, nosirree!”

Spoken like a true libertarian.

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