Friday, 9 February 2007

…and what should be done to tackle climate change.

The European Commission has produced another daft and damaging proposal in their efforts to combat climate change. This is regrettable both for the commission’s image and for the climate cause.

My efforts to comment on this have produced an essay, so I am going to post it in three parts, which readers may read from as they will. In Part 1, I explained why I believe that Europe is the right forum in which to address climate change. In Part 2 I looked at Wednesday’s announcement and explained why I feel it is misjudged. I also touched upon the failing of the EU’s existing cap-and-trade system. In this part I will offer a liberal alternative to the authoritarian socialism that has suffused much of the environmentalist debate.

The European Commissions proposal highlights a far broader problem that infuses the climate change debate: that it is a Trojan horse for authoritarianism and socialism. The commission’s plan is a classic example: to save the planet we are to be told how to drive. Other examples are legion: subsidies for favoured industries and technologies (wind power, trains); protectionism (dressed up as reducing “food miles”); rationing (aka. “carbon quotas”); population control (which needs no explanation); over-regulation (housing and vehicle standards). The list could go on. These methods may or may not curb climate change, but in the process they will curtail freedom and condemn millions – perhaps billions – to poverty.

The Left was quick to see the opportunities presented by global warming and environmental degradation, and have moved quickly to occupy the commanding heights of the debate, from where they will once again seek to control the economy and curtail individual freedom. Climate change may be the justification now, but the techniques are the same, and the desires within the rationalist-progressives are also the same, rooted as they are in a belief that a few intelligent people with the time to think it through can create and manage a better society than we all can as individual actors perusing our interests.

So what’s a liberal to do? Nobody wants to fiddle while Rome burns, but neither do we want to place our writs willingly in the state’s shackles and accept the slavery that we fought so long to resist. Fortunately, there is a liberal alternative. In fact, there are two.

The first, and one that appeals most to me, is a carbon tax. Rather than ration supply by issuing quotas, or picking particular egregious sources of emissions and stamping down on them, we set a price for carbon and let the individual decide how much to pay for. After all, there is nothing wrong with a 4x4 emitting exhaust, or with a skier jetting off to Aspen; what is wrong is the global excess of carbon emissions. Reducing the emissions produced by power stations is not an end in itself; the end is reducing all emissions. Focussing on individual types of emission is arbitrary, because it squeezes some more than others, and it also harms us all more than it needs to because uneven economic meddling reduces the efficiency of economic activity, which means less wealth to go round – wealth that may pay for my holiday, your school or a Gambian’s dinner.

A carbon tax, by comparison, allows us all to continue to make the same individual decisions in our own best interests that we have always done, but forces us to bear the cost of our pollution. If I drive inefficiently or fly to Aspen my activity carries a cost; if I fit solar panels to my house or buy a bicycle my carbon-tax bill will fall. It is easy to apply and hard to avoid (it would be like VAT). It would be easy to control emissions: if they are too high, the tax rises, if they are well within tolerable limits, it can be reduced. But most importantly, it would not hand power to state officials who are at best fallible and at worst arrogant, capricious or venal. Neither will it admit the command economy through the back door. At worst, there is a danger that it could simply be used as a new tax to fill the coffers of some grasping finance minister, but any government of principle would seek to make the change revenue neutral, and voters would be able to judge their politicians against their tax burden and the state of the world.

The alternative method, favoured in both Europe and the United States (due to the visceral reaction that the word “tax” engenders) is a “cap and trade” system, whereby companies buy permits to emit and then either use them – and hand the costs onto the carbon-consumer – or trade them on the market. While this has had some serious problems (caused in Europe by allowing national governments to issue too many permits, and by the decision to give them away rather than selling them – a licence to companies to print cash) it still has the merit that it leaves individuals in the position to allocate their resources as they see fit, perhaps by driving a big car (which they may need if they have a big family or a big farm) but never flying, or doing both but buying solar panels, or making any number of choices that would see their overall “carbon footprint” reduced, while allowing them to reduce it in the manner that best suits their needs and their lifestyle.

In a seminal essay, Friedrich Hayek explained that the bipolar view of the world as divided between Left and Right wings is inaccurate, a result of conservatives and socialists associating liberals with the other camp because liberals may share common ground with other groups on certain issues. The environment is a classic example of where liberalism is clearly distinct from the other two creeds.

For socialists, global warming requires interventionist measures, complex planning and more power to the bureaucrats. It provides the excuse that for a decade and a half they have lacked for implementing the policies that until the 1980s they advocated on the grounds of economic efficiency. Conservatives for a long time denied global warming; now their responses are typically authoritarian. Liberals are open to the evidence of global warming, but not to the autocratic solutions that most environmentalists propose. The solution is to encourage and enable individuals to find their own way of reducing the negative impact they have upon the environment, rather than force centralised solutions down from above. For liberals, a world in which we are subject to the state is not much better than one where we are subject to the elements.

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