Conservatives, John Locke, and Climate Change

The Heartland Institute hosted a conference this past Friday in Washington, D.C. to support the cause of skepticism about anthropogenic climate change. I went to the institute’s website and found this: ?Heartland’s mission is to discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems.? If the website is to be believed, Milton Friedman once called Heartland ?a highly effective libertarian institute.? Am I the only one puzzled about why anyone who believes in ?free-market solutions? would be a climate skeptic?

Among American conservatives, there is now a standard anti-government line that would incline them to approach regulatory policies with hostility. But that has nothing to do with climate science. You would think that one could have a free-market economic and philosophical bent and still be perfectly sane about the science of climate change. Shouldn?t we expect the majority of free-market advocates to endorse the position of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists, at least at similar rates to the rest of the public? And yet Republicans have only become more skeptical regarding anthropogenic climate change in the last decade, even as the consensus among climate scientists remains overwhelming. It starts to look like an admirable?but deeply wrong?political philosophy has been twisted by a political ideology or corrupted by industry funding, or both.

For those who take their John Locke seriously?and I am assuming that the folks over at the Heartland Institute take their Locke very seriously?the general hostility to regulatory policies is not a starting position but the result of an inference about justice, with respect to goods that morally may be owned privately and thus may not morally be encroached upon by the state. And it is by no means obvious that the atmosphere, or its capacity to absorb and recycle CO2, is such a good.

Locke starts with the idea that ?God?hath given the World to Men in common?? I have not heard much talk about that in the press releases coming out the Heartland Institute?s conference. Locke?s view is that private property has to be justified given that starting point; and the justification requires, among other things, that those who appropriate resources leave ?enough, and as good,? for others. But when people spoil the atmosphere for a century or more?the average time a CO2 molecule remains in the atmosphere?they are precisely not leaving enough and as good for others.

So, why would a libertarian believe that the atmosphere may be privately appropriated? If it couldn?t be, then there is no reason to suppose that free-market policies are at all appropriate in dealing with climate policy. Why wouldn?t a Lockean maintain that the atmosphere should be protected by government regulations as the common treasure of humankind? You don?t even get to this argument, though, if you are sufficiently blinded by ideology or corrupted by energy company funds. (Heartland does not publish the names of its corporate or individual donors.)

I write this from Frankfurt, Germany. The German government is a center-right coalition of the Christian Democrats (CDU?historically social and economic conservatives) and the Free Democrats (the closest thing to libertarians around here). Here is a striking difference between the U.S. and German Right: In the wake of the disappointing meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change last month in Bonn?a meeting in preparation for the Conference of the Parties in Durban later this year?the German government has taken the lead in organizing an international conference, which also took place this weekend, to get the discussions on track. Moreover, Chancellor Merkel has reiterated Germany?s voluntary pledge to reduce CO2 emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Compare this to the Obama administration?s pledge in Copenhagen in 2009, amounting to a 3.75 percent reduction against 1990 levels by 2020.

There really is no political spectrum common to German and American conservatives such that one can meaningfully refer to them both as ?Right.? Following the crisis at Fukushima in Japan, the German government immediately closed seven nuclear power plants and pledged not to open an eighth that was already offline. Just this week it declared that all of its seventeen plants would be permanently closed by 2022. Moreover, the Bundestag, led by the CDU, passed a set of laws requiring that by the end of the decade the proportion of energy produced from renewable sources be increased from 17 to 35 percent. (The Greens rejected this as ?insufficiently ambitious and lagging behind the real world developments.?)

Conservatives in different countries, or from different planets?