The greater libertarian movement is far from being a monolith. There are a number of ideologies that fall under the “big tent.” However, there are some issues about which libertarians stand largely united on. For example, libertarians are generally against policies that disarm the populace. Sure, some may oppose it from a natural rights standpoint, whereas others argue against it from a consequentialist perspective, but the libertarian position is largely uniform and well known.
This is not the case with climate change. There are a couple of different stances that libertarians can be found taking. Some are skeptical of the science often used to explain climate change. Others have pointed out exaggerations in the rhetoric of those predicting an apocalypse. Some have thought up libertarian justifications for revenue neutral carbon taxes, and still, others have proposed that the free market will solve this issue. But by far, the most common response to the topic of climate change that I have encountered from libertarians is one of apathy.
This is a response I understand. To begin with, the issue is incredibly complex. The reports often cited by pundits and politicians such as Annual Report 5 (AR5) from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are long and can be quite boring to read. In addition to that, the dominant narrative in our national discourse is that the world will end if governments do not engage in sweeping regulations of the market and of our personal lives. If this were true, it would indeed be a very sore subject for libertarians. I think it would be only natural to want to brush the issue aside to instead focus on the Federal Reserve or foreign policy.
While I would agree that those two issues are more important than the climate, I still see value in a more active and universal libertarian take on climate change. It is shaping up to be one of the major issues of the 2020 election. A great deal of people care deeply about it. It’s estimated 200,000 people took part in the Peoples Climate March in Washington D.C. in the spring of 2017, and there were around 300 additional locations. Appearing uninterested and struggling to even talk about climate change does not make our movement, and libertarianism as a whole, look good.
Climate change is an issue that I am personally very passionate about. My study of the climate in college as well as my reverence of Henry Hazlitt’s book Economics in One Lesson has led me to the conclusion that Alex Epstein has the best take on the issue. He points out in The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels that the benefits of fossil fuels are often ignored and that they greatly outweigh the costs, including those brought about by climate change. And because fossil fuel energy is crucial to running our modern world, any attempt to limit or outlaw fossil fuel use is the absolute worst way forward. To me, this is a view that is compatible with all parts of the liberty movement.
While I will passionately argue for this position, I recognize the possibilities that either I am wrong or that most libertarians will find another stance to be more in line with their thinking. In any case, I only hope that more people will begin to recognize that there are many interesting libertarian perspectives out there about climate change. And it is important we take time to think about these perspectives, because there are popular policy proposals that would put significant limits on individual liberty. The worst thing we can do is meet these dangerous proposals with apathy.