People from all sides of the political spectrum are concerned about climate change and rightly so. There is an overwhelming abundance of evidence that the climate is changing in ways that will make it harder for the Earth to sustain its current population levels. There is also an abundance of evidence, contrary to what the Trump administration would like you to believe, that humans have played a role in accelerating climate change.
Many consider climate change an issue that libertarians cannot address without violating the non-aggression principle. Since it’s always more advantageous in the short term for a country to be using fossil fuel resources, every country will do so unless some coalition forces everyone not to. It’s the old tragedy of the commons example writ large. The tragedy of the commons is the observation that with commonly owned resources, some percentage of people will take actions that benefit them in the short term, but leave few or no resources for anyone else. Common examples are unsustainable fishing practices or dumping of toxic waste.
The situation is not as hopeless as it first seems, though. There are ways to save the environment that do not stray from deeply held libertarian principles. You just need to be a bit clever and audacious. One solution to the tragedy of the commons is to simply not have commons. If all land is privately owned, then someone is responsible for every single square mile of the earth. This extends to the oceans as well; one can easily imagine someone buying a section of the ocean to secure fishing rights or salt mining rights. There’s even a certain amount of gold and other precious metals suspended in the water column. Who’s to say they won’t be mined one day?
One caveat is that we would need to alter property rights so that they extend upwards into the atmosphere and down into the crust. With this accomplished we’re half way to saving the environment. The reason this is so important is that if I pollute the air on my land, I need to make sure that pollution does not flow over onto your land. The same applies with groundwater pollution. There are of course logistical issues, but without this crucial step my land can be polluted by others.
The next step is to strengthen our concept of trespassing and property damage. If someone owns land upriver of you, and their dumping of chemicals starts to impact your portion of the river, they are trespassing on your land. Same goes for if they’re burning chemicals that then influence the quality of the air you own. With this in place any company that’s damaging the environment would have to keep that damage extremely localized, or be driven out of business by people with legitimate complaints about destruction of private property.
Some concerns that immediately come to mind are issues like parks and poor people who cannot afford land. There may be occasional instances where circumstances are a bit more complicated than they are today, but collectives that want to have commons would still exist. These collectives would choose freely to maintain parks, and they could either charge an entry fee, or keep the park open to all. Same for beaches, and hiking trails. None of these things would disappear.
Libertarianism is often portrayed as a simplistic philosophy that cannot tackle large problems requiring cooperation on a grand scale. But this is not the case. Solutions might be unexpected or even upset other values, but these problems can be resolved, as is the case with the environment. Reevaluate the idea that the solution to climate change necessarily involves government ownership and intervention, and you might find a potential solution. Just because libertarianism is based on simple principles like non-aggression doesn’t mean it can’t tackle complicated problems.
This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.