Global warming is a crime against that which not exist, namely future people. Of course, it is still a crime against people who do exist in the present, e.g. the poor in Bolivia whose glacial water sources are quickly disappearing.

This is a point I just thought about in a discussion about global warming on some other forum. It’s worth mentioning that global warming (read anthropogenic climate change) is a classic example of externalities. Neoclassical economics tells us that when people (which includes corporations) don’t have to pay the price for the consequences of their actions, there is market failure. Resources are not being allocated efficiently—one reason why any claim about markets being efficient should be taken with a grain of salt. For examples, producers of pollution do not take into consideration the harmful effects of pollution—i.e. the true cost of pollution is ignored—and so pollution is overproduced (because the price does not reflect the cost). However, not only is global warming a classic example of market failure, it is the “greatest market failure” ever, in the words of Nicholas Stern:

The science tells us that GHG emissions are an externality; in other words, our emissions affect the lives of others. When people do not pay for the consequences of their actions we have market failure. This is the greatest market failure the world has seen. It is an externality that goes beyond those of ordinary congestion or pollution, although many of the same economic principles apply for its analysis.

This externality is different in 4 key ways that shape the whole policy story of a rational response. It is: global; long term; involves risks and uncertainties; and potentially involves major and irreversible change.

As it happens, there is a solution to fix the problem of when prices do not reflect true costs. The solution is to make the price reflect cost. In this case, you increase the price. That’s what some people have called the carbon tax (i.e. a Pigouvian tax). The externality goes away and resources are being allocated more efficiently. Now, we know the cost of our pollution and activity on this planet is enormous. It is several magnitudes larger than any cost associated with mitigating it, in fact. The rational human being should therefore be opting to mitigate it. The real question becomes whether or not we’re rational.

But let us think about the four key ways that Stern says global warming is distinct from other typical externalities. It’s global, long-term, risky and involves uncertainties, and is irreversible (within reasonable amounts of time, that is). What this means is that we’re condemning future populations of humans to live with the adverse effects of our actions. When we think about it for just a moment or two, we quickly realize that this is fundamentally wrong. It is morally wrong. Yet, many of these people do not even exist yet. They haven’t been born. At the same time, when they do come into existence, they will have to live in a much worse environment because of the actions we are committing in the present. It is in this sense that we are committing a crime against that which does not yet exist (namely future generations).

This is very peculiar indeed. The non-harm and non-aggression principles of libertarianism tells us not to harm other people. But it says nothing of people who do not exist (in that they have yet to exist). In a sense, I think many people in the present feel undisturbed about the effects of human activity on future generations because it’s a rather intangible idea, somewhat abstract. It’s hard to connect. If we are able to so brazenly ignore the plight of suffering Africans in the present, surely it is almost impossible for us to feel anything for generations of humans who are yet to exist. The effects of what goes on in our neighborhood, our cities, our states, or even our nation are much more immediate than that which goes on halfway around the world. So I think there is a problem of immediacy here. What happens to future generations is not immediate to us. This allows us to do what we do without even so much as batting an eyelid. Again, though, this is because we aren’t having to pay for the costs. Future generations will have to pay for it, and they will pay greatly. This is an externality. We can fix it by making the price of our actions reflect the true cost, and in this way we will also make the problems associated with our actions more immediate to us.