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Indur Goklany: A Carbon Tax Does Not Provide Redress For Any Alleged Property Right Violation From Global Warming

In a piece in the Atlantic titled, “A Conservative’s Approach to Combating Climate Change,” Jonathan Adler, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University and, more importantly, an old friend, argues for, among other things, reductions in greenhouse gases, preferably via a carbon tax, supplemented by adaptation.

While I have many issues with Jonathan’s piece, I will focus here on the logical disconnect between his purported rationale for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and his policy proposals.

He states that, “Were I a utilitarian, and if I placed substantial faith in such cost-benefit studies, I might find [convincing arguments that global warming is not a serious problem because the net short-to-medium term effects of global warming may well be positive] but I’m not and I don’t.” In his discussion, he identifies poorer nations as more victimized by global warming than the wealthier nations because the former are less able to adapt. He argues that harm from global warming is tantamount to a violation of one’s property for which the victim ought to be redressed. He then argues that if we believe in property rights then there is no room for utilitarian calculus, and if someone’s property has been damaged then that person is owed redress by the party or parties responsible for that damage.

As remedies, he advocates four sets of policies and measures. First, the federal government should offer prizes to induce the development of low-carbon technologies. Second, it ought to identify and reduce barriers to the development and deployment of alternative technologies. Third, the US should adopt a revenue-neutral carbon tax rebated to taxpayers—presumably, American taxpayers—on a per capita basis. As rationale, he offers a set of technical reasons, but for “a broader theoretical justification,” he argues, “if the global atmosphere is a global commons owned by us all, why should not those who use this commons to dispose of their carbon emissions pay a user fee to compensate those who are affected.” Finally, he would supplement the above policies with adaptation measures, e.g., greater reliance on water markets.

But none of these measures, including a carbon tax on American consumers, would make whole the party or parties supposedly harmed by global warming. This is obviously true if the tax is rebated to the American taxpayer. It is also true if it is rebated to the global taxpayer—or, for that matter, the Bangladeshi taxpayer—on a per capita basis (because not everyone would be equally harmed by global warming).

So I must ask Jonathan: how would your proposals remedy the alleged property rights violation and provide redress to the harmed party? Yes it punishes the American consumer, but how does it make whole the inhabitants of countries that may have been harmed. Also, how would you set a carbon tax, if not via a utilitarian calculus? Essentially, all estimates of the carbon tax, whether by Nordhaus, Tol, Stern or whoever, use cost-benefit analysis, that is, utilitarian calculus. [Don’t get me wrong, I probably have even less faith in these efforts than Jonathan does (1)].

1. Goklany, IM. 2009. Trapped Between the Falling Sky and the Rising Seas: The Imagined Terrors of the Impacts of Climate Change.

Watts Up With That, 4 June 2012