Let Them Build Seawalls

by Bill McKibben

Greeehouse Emissions

As a good Dish reader, I know I’m supposed to take libertarianism seriously, and so I try, even if every time I contemplate Ayn Rand I find myself wishing I’d been born to a different species. It’s possible that my trouble stems from the fact that dealing with climate change is notoriously difficult for libertarians: if you burning the coal in your coal mine raises the sea level around my continent, something’s amiss. So too many theoretically rational and science-minded libertarians have tended towards denying the physics of global warming, just to avoid dealing with the implications for the philosophy. (There are of course honorable exceptions, like Ronald Bailey at Reason).

But this is really rich. Writing from his perch at the Cato Institute, Charles “Chip” Knappenberger explains why the U.S. should avoid taking a leadership role in any climate negotiation: because others have more at stake:

Such information is carefully concealed in Obama Administration reports, such as the one issued recently by the Council of Economic Advisors that predicts escalating costs the longer we delay serious climate change mitigation efforts. Instead of focusing on domestic costs of climate change, the report is built around an estimation of the global cost for carbon dioxide emissions—which, by the Administration’s numbers—is some 4 to 14 times greater on a per ton of emitted CO2 basis than those projected for the U.S.

Translated: climate change is going to be worse for Bangladesh, so let them deal with it. And it is going to be worse–it already is. People are starting to evacuate their island nations as seas rise. It’s true we may lose Miami, but we’re well off enough, perhaps, to take the hit. Asks Knappenberger sweetly:

Why should the President’s rush to restrict U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, which even his own officials say raises concerns about domestic energy costs and grid reliability, be justified upon supposed benefits which will largely accrue to foreign nations?

That would be piggish enough right there–but of course what Knappenberger doesn’t even mention in his column is that we’re the reason that Bangladesh has a problem. They hardly emit any co2–they’re a rounding error in any calculation. Whereas the United States has contributed more by far than any nation to the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (China won’t match us even by 2030, and on a per capita basis, we’ll be champs forever).

Knappenberger’s logic will doubtless play well in the GOP as it stymies any nascent Obama administration effort to lead the world in a new direction. But if the libertarian creed is about people taking responsibility for their actions, as opposed to getting away with what they can, this is crass.

(Chart from the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency)