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Libertarianism, Climate Change, and Individual Responsibility

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Abstract

Much has been written about climate change from an ethical view in general, but less has been written about it from a libertarian point of view in particular. In this paper, I apply the libertarian moral theory to the problem of climate change. I focus on libertarianism’s implications for our individual emissions. I argue that (i) even if our individual emissions cause no harm to others, these emissions cross other people’s boundaries, (ii) although the boundary-crossings that are due to our ‘subsistence emissions’ are implicitly consented to by others, there is no such consent to our ‘non-subsistence emissions’, and (iii) there is no independent justification for these emissions. Although offsetting would provide such a justification, most emitters do not offset their non-subsistence emissions. Therefore, these emissions violate people’s rights, which means that they are impermissible according to libertarianism’s non-aggression principle.
Vol.:(0123456789)
Res Publica (2022) 28:125–148
https://doi.org/10.1007/s11158-021-09514-3
1 3
Libertarianism, Climate Change, andIndividual
Responsibility
OlleTorpman1,2,3
Accepted: 26 April 2021 / Published online: 9 June 2021
© The Author(s) 2021
Abstract
Much has been written about climate change from an ethical view in general, but
less has been written about it from a libertarian point of view in particular. In this
paper, I apply the libertarian moral theory to the problem of climate change. I focus
on libertarianism’s implications for our individual emissions. I argue that (i) even if
our individual emissions cause no harm to others, these emissions cross other peo-
ple’s boundaries, (ii) although the boundary-crossings that are due to our ‘subsist-
ence emissions’ are implicitly consented to by others, there is no such consent to our
‘non-subsistence emissions’, and (iii) there is no independent justification for these
emissions. Although offsetting would provide such a justification, most emitters do
not offset their non-subsistence emissions. Therefore, these emissions violate peo-
ple’s rights, which means that they are impermissible according to libertarianism’s
non-aggression principle.
Keywords Libertarianism· Non-aggression principle· Boundary-crossings·
Individual emissions· Offsetting· Individual climate responsibility
Introduction
Climate change threatens much of what we value, for which reason it raises sev-
eral ethical questions. Do humans have a responsibility to prevent climate change?
If so, on whom does this responsibility fall? Although much has been said on the
ethics of climate change in general, less has been said about climate change from
a libertarian standpoint in particular. My aim in this paper is to make a contribu-
tion in this respect, by applying libertarianism to the problem of climate change. I
* Olle Torpman
olle.torpman@philosophy.su.se
1 Swedish University ofAgricultural Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden
2 Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden
3 Institute forFutures Studies, Stockholm, Sweden
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O.Torpman
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focus on libertarianism’s implications for our individual responsibilities regarding
climate change. More precisely, I study libertarianism’s implications regarding our
individual emissions.
There are several reasons why libertarianism is of interest in connection to cli-
mate change. First, many are attractedto libertarianism’s core idea that individu-
als have rights and that those rights are what fundamentally determine right action.
Arguments based on this view are common in the climate debate—not least from
right-wing politicians. Second, the moral aspects of climate change have so far been
studied mainly from consequentialist and welfare-based perspectives, which are per-
spectives that libertarians reject. Third, when something is said about libertarianism
and climate change, it is often taken as a defense of such things as private property,
free markets, or business as usual—which are all closely linked to climate inaction.1
Moreover, libertarianism focuses on individual actions while climate change is
the result of joint human emissions. Indeed, it seems that none of the harms caused
by climate change are attributable to particular individuals. One could see this as
posing a problem for libertarianism in relation to climate change, since, as argued
by Dan C. Shahar (2009, p. 234), ‘…much of the concern regarding climate change
cannot be reconciled with a rights-oriented paradigm’. This problem is also high-
lighted by contemporary libertarian Matt Zwolinski (2014), who dubs it ‘the prob-
lem of interconnectedness’, which he thinks is raised against libertarianism by envi-
ronmental pollution in general:
[The] exclusive focus on the outcome of individual actions leaves many of the
most serious problems posed by environmental pollution entirely unaddressed.
[…] Any particular action by an individual, considered in itself, makes only a
miniscule contribution to the overall problem. Either no one is harmed at all
by such actions (the harm resulting only once the cumulative amount of pollu-
tion crosses a certain threshold), or the harm produced is minimal (becoming
significant only when it is added up with all the other harms resulting from
other individuals’ actions). Intuitively, a morality of individual rights ought to
have something to say about actions of this sort. (2014, pp. 16–17)
In this paper, I argue that libertarianism has something quite substantial to say about
actions of this sort. As we shall see, libertarianism gives us reasons to pay serious
attention even to our individual emissions.
Although it has been argued by others already that climate change infringes
rights, not much has been said about how this is so in detail from a libertarian point
of view. Also, comparatively little has been said about the concrete recommenda-
tions that libertarianism yields in view of such a verdict. This paper aims to make a
contribution in both of these respects, by providing a clear explanation as to why our
emissions violate rights, and what we concretely should do about it.
1 To quote Jonathan Adler, ‘[c]onservative politicians, libertarian thinkers, and market-oriented policy
experts typically argue that the best response to the risk of climate change is to do little or nothing’
(2009, p. 297). One exception to this trend is the work of the Niskanen Center: www. niska nence nter. org.
See also see Dolan (2006), Shahar (2009), and Dawson (2011).
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Libertarianism, Climate Change, andIndividual…
The structure of the paper is as follows. In ‘The Basics of Libertarianism, I
explain the core concepts of libertarianism and spell out its non-aggression prin-
ciple. In ‘Do our Emissions Cross People’s Boundaries?’ and Are Our Emissions
Justified for Independent Reasons?, I investigate whether our individual emissions
violate this principle. In ‘Some Objections and Replies, I respond to some argu-
ments that can be raised against my view.In ‘Conclusion’, I conclude that our non-
subsistence emissions do violate people’s rights, and that they are therefore imper-
missible according to libertarianism.
The Basics ofLibertarianism
There are many different kinds of libertarian theories discussed in the philosophical
literature.2 In this paper, I discuss libertarianism exclusively as a basic moral the-
ory—i.e. in competition with utilitarianism, Kantianism, virtue ethics, etc. Hence,
I shall not address forms of libertarianism derived from other moral theories (e.g.
utilitarianism, ethical egoism, or contractarianism). Nor shall I discuss libertarian-
ism considered as a political theory.3
One of the most fundamental ideas of the libertarian moral theory is that indi-
viduals possess moral self-ownership. To possess moral self-ownership is, on one
description, to possess the same moral rights to oneself as a slave owner has legal
rights to his slaves or as a legal owner of an inanimate object has legal rights to that
object.4 In accordance with this idea, you, and no one else but you, have the right to
decide over your body and your choices in your life.
Libertarianism also comes with the idea that individuals may gain moral own-
ership over external resources (i.e. extra-personal resources)—such as land, miner-
als, water, air, etc. However, rights to external resources must somehow be acquired
(which the right to ourselves must not).5 All libertarians accept some kind of theory
on how this is done. In the words of contemporary libertarian Bas van der Vossen:
‘[S]ince persons can be justified in having property rights, they must be able to
appropriate’ (2009, p. 368).
Libertarianism maintains that moral ownership of an entity (oneself or one’s
external property) consists of a set of rights over that entity. As this implies, the
notion of rights is central in the libertarian tradition.
2 Brennan (2012) brings a broad variety of such views up for discussion. See also Mack (2011) for a
brief history of libertarian theorizing.
3 However, I will consider arguments from such views in case they are relevant to my discussion.
4 See, for instance, Cohen (1995, p. 68), Kymlicka (2002, p. 108), Vallentyne (2009a, p. 4) and Narve-
son (2013, pp. 375–376).
5 See Mack (2010, p. 54).
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The Libertarian Notion ofRights
In the entry ‘Libertarianism’ (2014) in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
Peter Vallentyne and Bas van der Vossen claim that the libertarian rights amount to
rights of control (over the use of the entity, both a liberty-right to use it and a claim-
right that others not use it), compensation (as rectification for whenever someone
uses the entity without one’s permission), enforcement (e.g. pre-emptive rights of
prior restraint if someone is about to violate these rights), transfer (of these rights
to others by sale, rental, loan, or gift), and immunity (to the non-consensual loss of
these rights). As we will see below, it is the control-right and the compensation-right
that are of most interest in the case of climate change. Hence, these rights will be
our focus in this paper.
It should be emphasized that libertarianism is concerned with moral rights, as
opposed to legal rights. In other words, libertarianism holds that people bear their
rights irrespective of whether these rights are recognized by any legal system.
Moreover, libertarianism basically endorses only negative rights (i.e. rights to non-
interference). The idea of universal self-ownership is inconsistent with basic posi-
tive rights (i.e. rights to assistance), since such rights would obligate individuals to
actively serve as means to other individuals’ ends, which would infringe on the for-
mer individuals’ self-ownership. As libertarian Jan Narveson (2013, p. 382) puts it,
‘[a] positive right, by definition, cuts further into our liberty than the corresponding
negative one: if you are forced to help others in need, then you do not have your
choice whether to help them’. According to libertarianism, no adult individual ini-
tially has any right to any sort of positive treatment or aid from others.6
As indicated in ‘Introduction, libertarianism is an individualist approach. This
means that only individual people count as moral agents and rights-bearers. The
individualist stance comes with a so-called person-affecting restriction, according
to which all rights and duties are at bottom personal. This means that if an action
is wrong, it involves the wronging of someone. If no one has been wronged, then
no moral wrongdoing has occurred. As this suggests, libertarianism takes the sepa-
rateness of persons seriously: A person’s rights (duties) are her rights (duties) and
may not be substituted, transferred or counterbalanced by or to anyone else’s rights
(duties) without her permission. Robert Nozick expresses this idea as follows:
There are only individual people, different individual people, with their own
individual lives. […] The moral side constraints upon what we may do, I
claim, reflect the fact of our separate existences […] There is no justified sac-
rifice of some of us for others. This root idea, namely, that there are differ-
ent individuals with separate lives and so no one may be sacrificed for others,
underlies the existence of moral side constraints. (1974, p. 33)7
6 See also Mack (2010, p. 62): ‘the natural right to self-ownership rules out persons’ being born to posi-
tive obligations to deliver goods or services or desirable practices to others’. Note that the compensation
right is in one sense a positive right. However, since it is conditional on the prior violation of other
rights, it is not basic.
7 See also Mack (2010, pp. 58–59).
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Libertarianism, Climate Change, andIndividual…
As will be clear below, this individualist tenet of libertarianism has some interest-
ing implications with respect to the possibility of compensating those individuals
whose rights we violate. It also implies that no person initially has any duty to cor-
rect for any other person’s wrongdoings.
Summing up so far, the libertarian principle can be formulated as the
Non-Aggression Principle: An act is morally permissible if and only if, and
because, it does not violate anyone’s rights.8
As the non-aggression principle entails, libertarianism is a view regarding side-
constraints—i.e. it does not prescribe that we minimize rights-violations, but only
that we do not violate any rights. What it means to violate a right remains to be
answered.
What isaRights‑Violation?
An interesting feature of libertarianism is that it does not take rights-violations to
stem from harms, but rather from infringements. It is thus possible to harm some-
one without violating her rights (e.g. punching someone in a boxing match), and
it is possible to violate someone’s rights without harming her (e.g. breaking into
someone’s house without them ever noticing). Within the libertarian framework,
‘infringement’ is understood partly in terms of ‘boundary-crossing’.9 The idea is that
individuals have moral boundaries that surround all and only that which make up
their respective legitimate territories—i.e. themselves and their external property.
In that sense, the rights of a person are determined by the boundary of that person’s
moral territory, and to violate her rights implies crossing her boundary.
In order for a person’s boundary to be crossed, she must be subject to some kind
of effect. Libertarianism originally comes with a very strict view on personal bound-
aries and the effects these allow for. As Vallentyne and van der Vossen argue:
Recognizing people’s rights as full self-owners means condemning as wrong-
ful even very minor infringements, such as when tiny bits of pollution fall
upon an unconsenting person. […] [F]rom the point of view of self-owner-
ship, there is no principled difference between minor infringements and major
infringements. (2014, p. 8)
In line with this idea, people’s boundaries are sensitive to any interference whatso-
ever. Any physical intervention on one’s legitimate territory—such as a fist, bullet,
light wave, sound wave, molecule, etc.—is a boundary-crossing.10 As Peter Rail-
ton notes in a critical paper, strict libertarians ‘do not say that whether a border is
wrongfully crossed depends upon the magnitude of the effect’ (1985, p. 196). In
8 See Nozick (1974, p. 34), Block (2004), Vallentyne (2007b), and Mack (2010, p. 59).
9 See, for instance, Nozick (1974, pp. 57–59), Elliot (1986), Sobel (2012), and Mack (2015). Sometimes
‘impingement’, ‘trespassing’ and ‘transgression’ are used synonymously to ‘boundary-crossing’. How-
ever, the other constitutive part of infringement is lack of consent, which is explained below.
10 See also Vallentyne (2007b) and (2011).
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the words of David Sobel, another critic, the libertarian view thus appears to allow
a ‘simple and powerful argument against a range of activity without requiring an
investigation into the significance of the infringement’ (2012, p. 34).
This, however, might sound implausible. It seems to open up for any action being
a rights-violation. However, it is only agential interferences that count as boundary-
crossings—i.e. interferences that stem from a moral agent. Effects from non-agential
causes—such as from the sun, from an earthquake, or from a volcanic activity—
do not count. Moreover, boundary-crossing is not sufficient for rights-violation. To
infringe upon someone is to cross her boundaries without her consent. As Nozick
(1974, p. 58) writes: ‘voluntary consent opens the border for crossings’.11 In other
words, this means that someone’s action does not amount to an infringement if the
individuals whose boundaries are crossed by this action permit that crossing. In the
real world, people often consent to many sorts of boundary-crossings. These are
therefore unproblematic from a libertarian point of view.
Interestingly, ‘consent’ and ‘dissent’ may not only refer to explicit consent/dis-
sent, but also to implicit consent/dissent. The usual way to spell out implicit con-
sent is by reference to the actions people themselves perform and the conventions in
which they take part. If a person autonomously chooses to enter a situation, aware of
the rules and constituents of this situation, then she implicitly consents to these rules
and constituents—even if she has not explicitly consented to them. Similarly, one
could say that when an individual freely performs an action of a certain type, she
implicitly consents to others performing actions of that same type.
In the words of David Friedman, the relevance of implicit consent implies that
‘by breathing and turning on lights and doing other things that impose tiny costs on
others I am implicitly giving them permission to do the same to me’ (2014: §41).12
Surely, when it comes to implicit consent, a person’s conduct amounts to such just in
case she also knows what she is doing.13 As we shall see below, this has some inter-
esting implications in the climate case.
So, boundary-crossing without consent equals infringement. But are all infringe-
ments rights-violations? There is a discussion among libertarians whether there
might sometimes be overriding justifications for infringing on people’s rights.14 The
motivation for this is captured in the following passage by Judith J. Thomson (1986):
Suppose a man has a right that something or other shall be the case; let us say
that he has a right that p, where p is some statement or other, and now sup-
14 See Shahar (2009, p. 224).
11 See also Mack (2010, p. 61).
12 Cf. Thomson (1975).
13 See Huemer (2013, pp. 37–38). This is not all there is to say about the role of consent within the liber-
tarian framework. There is, for instance, a remaining problem regarding cases where people can neither
implicitly nor explicitly consent/dissent to the actions that affect them. Many medical cases are of this
kind, see Arneson (2005, p. 271). For more general cases, see Mack (2015, p. 217). One way of dealing
with this problem is to take into consideration not only people’s choices but also their interests. Vallen-
tyne (2007a, p. 193) proposes such an idea, lending room for people’s interests being lexically inferior
to their choices. See Wall (2009) for problems with this proposal. However, I will not employ this idea
further in this paper.
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Libertarianism, Climate Change, andIndividual…
pose we make p false. So, for example, if his right is that he is not punched in
the nose, we make that false, that is, we bring about that he is punched in the
nose. Then, as I shall say, we infringe his right. But I shall say that we violate
his right if and only if we do not merely infringe his right, but more, are acting
wrongly, unjustly in doing so. (1986, p. 40)
What can then be seen as potential justifiers for infringements in this respect? Rel-
evant factors discussed in the literature are:
(a) Unavoidability. The most obvious justifier is provided by the principle that
‘ought’ implies ‘can’. It entails that if an agent cannot avoid infringing on some-
one’s rights, then the agent does not act impermissibly when doing so.
(b) Avoidance of catastrophe. Nozick, for instance, speculates that one might be jus-
tified in infringing on other people’s rights in order ‘to avoid catastrophic moral
horror’ (1974, p. 30, n.). Narveson similarly speaks about cases of ‘preventing
the heavens falling’ (2013, p. 374).
(c) Unforeseeability. Peter Vallentyne, Hillel Steiner, and Michael Otsuka (2005, p.
207), as well as Sobel (2012, p. 51), discuss whether an infringement does not
amount to a rights-violation if the agent performing the action could not have
foreseen the infringement.
(d) Self-defense. The enforcement right (mentioned above) involves a right to self-
defense. This right implies that a defender’s infringing action does not amount
to a rights-violation on part of the aggressor, if the action is performed merely
in self-defense.15
(e) Compensation. Another possibility discussed in the libertarian literature is that
an infringement need not be a rights-violation given that those whose boundaries
are crossed without consent are compensated for this crossing.16
The general idea is that whenever there is justification of any relevant kind, the
infringement (i.e. unconsented boundary-crossing) does not amount to a rights-vio-
lation and hence it is not impermissible on libertarianism.17 Thus, only unjustified
infringements count as rights-violations.
In the remainder of this paper, I will investigate whether our individual emissions
violate people’s rights. I start, in ‘Do our Emissions Cross People’s Boundaries?’, by
investigating whether our individual emissions cross the boundaries of other people.
In ‘Do our Emissions Cross People’s Boundaries Without Their Consent?’, I then
discuss whether that is done with or without their consent. In ‘Are Our Emissions
Justified for Independent Reasons?, I investigate whether there are any independent
libertarian justifications for our emissions.
15 Cf. Railton (1985, p. 190, n. 8).
16 See Nozick (1974, Ch. 4).
17 Consider, for instance, Thomson (1977), Kagan (1994), and Vallentyne (2009b, 2011).
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Do our Emissions Cross People’s Boundaries?
Although early libertarian thinkers were unaware of the link between greenhouse
gas emissions and climate change, they were aware of the moral problems concern-
ing air pollution in general. In his book New Liberty (1973), pioneering libertarian
Murray Rothbard devotes an entire chapter, ‘Conservation, Ecology, and Growth’, to
environmental problems. There he specifically discusses air pollution:
The vital fact about air pollution is that the polluter sends unwanted and unbid-
den pollutants—from smoke to nuclear radiation to sulfur oxides—through the
air and into the lungs of innocent victims, as well as onto their material prop-
erty. All such emanations which injure person or property constitute aggres-
sion against the private property of the victims. Air pollution, after all, is just
as much aggression as committing arson against another’s property or injuring
him physically. Air pollution that injures others is aggression pure and simple.
(1973, p. 319)
In connection to this, Rothbard quotes another early libertarian thinker, Robert
Poole, who makes a similar observation in his “Reason and Ecology” (1972).18
Poole first defines ‘pollution’ as ‘the transfer of harmful matter or energy to the
person or property of another, without the latter’s consent’ (1972, p. 245). He then
argues that ‘[a] libertarian society would be a full-liability society, where everyone
is fully responsible for his actions and any harmful consequences they might cause’
(1972, p. 253). Shortly thereafter, Robert Nozick—presumably the most well-known
of all libertarians—characterized ‘pollution’ as ‘the dumping of negative effects
upon other people’s property such as their houses, clothing and lungs, and upon
unowned things which people benefit from, such as a clean and beautiful sky’ (1974,
p. 77).
On the basis of these passages, it is tempting to conclude that libertarianism
deems air pollution impermissible in general, and since greenhouse gas emissions
are a form of air pollution, libertarianism deems greenhouse gas emissions imper-
missible too. However, greenhouse gas emissions differ from other air pollutions
such as ‘nuclear radiation’ and ‘sulfur oxides’. While individually caused pollution
of the latter kinds might harm people directly, it is questionable whether our individ-
ual emissions of mere greenhouse gasses might do so. As mentioned above, climate
change is the result of joint human action. Moreover, thresholds and tipping points
in the climatic system suggest that the total effects of our joint emissions amount
to more than the aggregated effects of our separate emissions.19 For this reason,
one might be tempted to think that our individual emissions do not cross people’s
boundaries, and that they hence do not give rise to any rights-violations. At a closer
look, however, things are more complex.
18 My quotations of Poole are taken from Rothbard (1973, pp. 324–326).
19 See IPCC (2014, pp. 39–54), Cook etal. (2013), Rockström etal. (2009), and Steffen etal. (2007).
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Libertarianism, Climate Change, andIndividual…
The Ways inWhich Our Emissions Cross Other People’s Boundaries
Some authors—for instance, John Broome (2012, pp. 50–59), Avram Hiller (2011,
pp. 59–60), and John Nolt (2011)—have argued that even individuals’ emissions
cause harm to others. They have done this by taking the estimated total harm that is
the result of human-induced climate change, and dividing this by the total amount
of emissions, and then estimating the proportional climate impact of each individual
emitter. The calculation says that the harm caused by each individual emitter is seri-
ous. To quote Broome (2012, p. 56), ‘the annual emissions of one single person
living in a rich country shorten people’s lives by a few days in total’. In the words
of Hiller (2011, p. 357), ‘the [emitting] actions of a full life of an American seri-
ously harm the full life of one person’. If these claims are correct, then the emissions
of a rich individual apparently make a difference that counts as boundary-crossing
according to libertarianism.
It could be objected that this line of argumentation involves an aggregation, and
a reference to average numbers, that is at odds with libertarianism. Broome, for
instance, assumes that ‘a great many miniscule, imperceptible harms add up to a
serious harm’ (2012, p. 75). But to shorten the lives of billions of people by a frag-
ment of a second each is not identical to shorten one particular individual’s life by a
few days in total. Such an aggregated harm is not suffered by any particular person,
and is therefore not relevant to libertarianism.
In response to this, however, it should be noted that even miniscule and impercep-
tible harms are harms. And if individuals’ emissions cause such harm to other peo-
ple, then their emissions amount to boundary-crossings. In this respect, it should be
mentioned that fossil fuel-based energy production generates a number of additional
pollutants that affect people more directly than carbon dioxide molecules. Moreover,
an individual’s emissions might sometimes take us over the climate thresholds, and
thus give rise to quite substantial harms. This seems to hold at least for those people
who emit massively—e.g. Saudi oil tycoons or CEOs of multinational corporations
who fly around the world in private jets.20
It is, however, a quite complicated task to determine whether or not an individu-
al’s emissions give rise to harm. As we saw in ‘The Basics of Libertarianism’, how-
ever, rights-violations do not fundamentally derive from harms, but from infringe-
ments. Thus, it is in the present context possible to sidestep the notion of harm and
still be able to assess people’s emissions from a libertarian point of view. As I will
argue below, the libertarian notion of boundary-crossing suggests that our individ-
ual emissions—irrespective of any resulting harmcross the boundaries of at least
some other people. If it can also be argued that our individual emissions cause harm,
then this will strengthen the upshot of this section: that our individual emissions
amount to boundary-crossings.
The main reason for counting our emissions as boundary-crossings on libertarian
standards is that they are physical signals that come into contact with other people
and their property. One might think that a notion of boundary-crossing with these
20 See Chancel and Piketty (2015) and Kagan (2011).
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implications is too sensitive, since it opens up for the moral wrongness of a vast
number of actions. Indeed, this seems to fit poorly with the core ideas of libertarian-
ism. As stated by Sobel: ‘Could the philosophical theory named for liberty actually
turn out to be unacceptably restrictive of our freedom?’ (2012, p. 37).
In the next sub-section, I explore the ways in which libertarians could address
this issue. I argue that they all fail, and that we therefore should accept that emis-
sions are boundary-crossing.
How Libertarians Might Argue That Our Emissions Do Not Cross Other People’s
Boundaries
In his book The Machinery of Freedom (2014: §41), David Friedman claims that
‘[i]t seems obvious that we want property rules that prohibit trespass by thousand
megawatt laser beams and machine-gun bullets but not by flashlights and individual
carbon dioxide molecules. But how, in principle, do you decide where along that
continuum the rights of the property owner stop?’ One answer, discussed by Fried-
man himself, is that only significant boundary-crossings should count. He does not
specify what would count as significant, but it suggests a strengthened notion of
boundary-crossing that is less sensitive to external influence.
Perhaps such a strengthening could be made along the lines of Rothbard, who
claims that ‘[a]ir pollution […] of gasses or particles that are invisible or undetect-
able by the senses should not constitute aggression per se, because being insensible
they do not interfere with the owner’s possession or use’ (1982, p. 83, my empha-
ses). Since separate individuals’ greenhouse gas emissions are precisely of this
sort—invisible and undetectable—one could argue that they should not count as
boundary-crossings.21
However, this proposal is inconsistent with some of the core beliefs in the liber-
tarian tradition. It might avoid some problems with minor infringements, but only
at the cost of creating new problems. For instance, it has the implication that many
clearly problematic actions—such as physically molesting a sleeping person who is
incapable of detecting this—do not amount to boundary-crossings, and hence will
not be wrong on libertarianism. Also, exposing ignorant people to nuclear radiation,
that cannot be seen or detected by their senses, would not be boundary-crossing.
But, intuitively, such acts should count as boundary-crossing on libertarianism.
Eric Mack (2015) has come up with a defense of a refinement in the location of
boundaries that is supposed to avoid these problems. His basic idea is that having
a right to something, X, implies a right to some use of X. If that were not the case,
Mack argues, we would end up with a ‘hog-tying problem’, as we would then be pro-
hibited from doing almost anything. For that reason, he postulates an ‘elbow room
for rights’. According to this postulate, ‘a reasonable delineation of basic moral
rights must be such that the claim-rights that are ascribed to individuals do not sys-
tematically preclude people from exercising the liberty-rights that the claim-rights
21 This argument is also stressed by Block (2011, p 5).
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are supposed to protect’ (2015, p. 197). Mack’s refinement suggests that ‘minor
intrusions’, defined as ‘impositions of very low-level physical effects upon another
person or her property’ (2015, p. 196), do not count as boundary-crossings. Exactly
what this means, he argues, is to be settled by convention.22 However, he does make
a further specification:
The moral elbow room reasoning is that, while individuals must be at liberty
to engage in non-malicious (and non-wanton) minor intrusions if they are to be
at liberty to dispose of their own persons and possessions as they see fit, this
liberty need not extend to malicious (or wanton) minor intrusions. It suffices to
solve the hog-tying problem that non-malicious and non-wanton minor intru-
sions be permissible. As long as the minor intrusions on others are incidental
to the agent’s decisions about how to deploy his person or property we reason-
ably view these deployments as fundamentally exercises of that agent’s rights.
However, if those intrusions are wanton or malicious – done for or verging
on being done for their intrusiveness – they are more reasonably seen as the
agent doing as he sees fit with others or their property and, hence, as bound-
ary-crossing. (2015, p. 212, my emphases)
This idea avoids my previous objection. Since individuals have the right to use
only their own persons and properties, the elbow room postulate is supposed not to
allow individuals to steal things, molest sleeping people, or the like, even if doing
so would be undetectable by the victims. Since Mack’s account implies that non-
malicious and non-wanton minor intrusions do not count as boundary-crossings,
and since only boundary-crossings can be rights-violations and hence impermissi-
ble, his account implies that no non-malicious or non-wanton minor intrusion can be
impermissible.
But it seems that some non-malicious or non-wanton minor intrusions are bound-
ary-crossings on libertarianism. For example, if I happen to scratch your car when
walking my dog, then that is a boundary-crossing even if it would be done non-
maliciously and non-wantonly. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that it is
a rights-violation. But if it is not a rights-violation, then the best explanation to that
is not that it is not a boundary-crossing. The explanation is rather that it is either
consensual somehow (e.g. by parking one’s car in the public street one consents to it
being subjected to small scratches), or that there is some justification for that cross-
ing. In any case, therefore, I do not think that libertarians should accept a strength-
ened notion of boundary-crossing á la Mack. If non-wantonness and non-malicious-
ness matters—which I think Mack is right that it does—then this is most plausibly
as a justifier for infringement (to be discussed in ‘Are Our Emissions Justified for
Independent Reasons?’).
22 Although Mack says that ‘[t]he permissibility of minor intrusions is explained on the basis of a refine-
ment in the location of boundaries rather than a general attenuation of rights’ (2015, p. 198), his refer-
ence to convention seems to imply that his proposal concerns the notion of consent. In other words, it
seems to be an idea about what people give their permission to, rather than what their boundaries are
resistant to. I will return to this in the next section.
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In effect, I think individuals’ emitting activities constitute boundary-crossings,
even if they would be mere non-wanton and unintentional effects of exercises of
liberty-rights. Whether they might still be permitted is a separate question (to be
discussed in ‘Do our Emissions Cross People’s Boundaries Without Their Consent?
and ‘Are Our Emissions Justified for Independent Reasons?’). The only remaining
potential way for libertarians to avoid counting emissions as boundary-crossings,
is, I think, by interpreting boundary-crossing in terms of liberty-restriction. Based
on such an understanding, an action crosses somebody’s boundary only if it hin-
ders her from performing some actions that she would otherwise have been able to
perform.23 In other words, an action is boundary-crossing (on this account) only if
it restricts someone’s legitimate choice-set compared to what the choice-set would
look like were the action not performed. Thus, it might be argued that since no indi-
vidual’s emissions restrict any other individual’s liberty, no individual’s emission
crosses any other individual’s boundary. In this way, libertarianism would provide a
solution to the problem of miniscule effects.
Although liberty-restriction would perhaps be plausible as a sufficient condition
for boundary-crossing, it is not plausible as a necessary condition for boundary-
crossing. Considered as a necessary condition, it is inconsistent with the libertarian
control-right—in particular the claim-right that others not use one’s property with-
out permission. To see this, suppose that I use your car impermissibly for a short
ride, before I return it unnoticed to you. Assume that there is nothing that you can-
not do because of my action that you could have done had it not been performed. In
this case, my action does not in any relevant sense restrict your choice-set. Still, the
libertarian control-right gives you the claim-right that others do not use your prop-
erty without your permission. Hence my action is impermissible and so it constitutes
a boundary-crossing. Consequently, liberty-restriction cannot be a necessary condi-
tion for boundary-crossing.
Libertarians therefore have reason to stick to a strict notion of boundary-cross-
ing on which particular individuals’ emitting activities are boundary-crossings—yet
they are neither intentional, noticeable, malicious, wanton, nor liberty-restricting in
any relevant sense. However, as we saw in ‘The Basics of Libertarianism’, not all
instances of boundary-crossings amount to rights-violations. First and foremost, an
action that crosses another person’s boundary is an infringement only insofar as it
lacks the consent of this person. If the person somehow permits the crossing, it does
not constitute an infringement.
23 This is in line with an idea of Rothbard’s, that ‘…we must refine our concept of invasion to mean not
just boundary crossing, but boundary crossings that in some way interfere with the owner’s use or enjoy-
ment of this property’ (1982, p. 151). See also Vallentyne (2011) and Oberdiek (2008) for discussions of
similar views.
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Do our Emissions Cross People’s Boundaries Without Their Consent?
Although individuals’ emissions cross the boundaries of others, it seems plausible
to assume that people will not dissent to them on the basis of their direct effects—
especially not when considered in isolation. Indeed, people care little about things
that are unnoticeable to them, and the effects of individual emissions of green-
house gases are miniscule and imperceptible. If the absence of dissent is taken to be
equally relevant as presence of consent, then libertarianism seems to imply that our
individual emissions do not amount to infringements.
However, libertarianism takes wrongdoing to require only the absence of con-
sent (and thus not the presence of dissent) from those people whose boundaries are
crossed.24 Even if people do not dissent to the emissions of others, the interesting
question is whether they do, or do not, consent to them. In this section, we shall
take a look at whether people might consent either explicitly or implicitly to our
emissions.
People’s Lack ofExplicit Consent toEmissions inGeneral
Although the major effects of climate change are to be seen in the future, some of
the effects are perceivable today already. Some individuals are harmed or even killed
by climate change at this moment. This appears to be the main reason why some
people raise their voices against the high emissions even of separate individuals—
although they know that each and every one of these emissions may be considered
inoffensive in isolation—because they realize that these emissions taken together
put the survival of themselves and their children at risk.
There is also dissent from people who are not yet themselves affected by climate
change, but who care for others. This, I surmise, is also why we have a debate on cli-
mate change in the first place. Even if the survival of the human species is not pro-
tected by libertarianism per se, and even if the identity of future people is contingent
on the activities of present people, some present people express concern for future
generations and the human species. And for that reason, they dissent to these emit-
ting activities. Consequently, there is clearly no explicit consent to people’s emis-
sions in general.
Before we can conclude that this turns our emissions into infringements, a few
questions need to be answered. One question concerns whether the dissents at issue
are valid—i.e. whether they can make the actions at issue count as infringements.
Indeed, one person’s dissent (or lack of consent) to an action can make that action an
infringement only if that action is a boundary-crossing of that person. I cannot make
24 Note that this does not require that lack of consent must be morally equated with dissent, since we
could allow for different roles or magnitudes between them. For instance, one might want to argue that
although a person’s lack of consent to another’s boundary-crossing action suffices for making that action
an infringement, if the person moreover dissents to that action then it cannot be excused or in other ways
justified. We will get back to related issues in ‘Are Our Emissions Justified for Independent Reasons?
section.
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an action impermissible by dissenting to that action, if my own boundaries are not
crossed by that action. So, what is the case regarding people’s lack of explicit con-
sent to emissions in general?
One worry here is due to temporal distances. If the crossings of present individu-
als’ boundaries are entirely due to the emissions of past individuals (e.g. those who
lived in the nineteenth century), then present individuals’ boundaries are not crossed
by other present individuals’ emissions. Hence, they cannot validly dissent to the
emissions of present individuals, meaning that these emissions cannot violate any
present individuals’ rights. Perhaps, therefore, it does not matter that some present
people raise their voices against the high emissions of others.
As we saw in ‘Do our Emissions Cross People’s Boundaries?, however, our
greenhouse gas emissions are spread very fast and widely in the atmosphere, which
means that at least some of the boundary-crossings of our emissions occur to present
individuals here and now, as well as to present individuals later in their lives. Conse-
quently, these present individuals may validly dissent to these emissions.25
We need to establish, however, that there is no conflicting implicit consent in the
background. If there is, it might outbalance the lack of explicit consent to emissions
in general. As can be inferred from the discussion in‘The Basics of Libertarianism’,
the notion of implicit consent suggests that anyone who emits greenhouse gases to
a certain extent gives her implicit consent to others to emit such gases to that same
extent. Since almost anything we do gives rise to greenhouse gas emissions (even
the poorest of the poor emit some amount of greenhouse gases), all present individu-
als implicitly consent to some emissions simply by performing acts that are needed
in order to stay alive (breathing, eating, digesting, etc.).
This suggests that people who emit only small amounts of greenhouse gases do
not give their implicit consent to the massive emissions of others. This is true for
most poor people, and also those (relatively few) people among the rich who do not
emit the same quantities as the typical rich. Unless these low-emitting individuals
have given their explicit consent to higher emissions, they do not consent to those
emissions.
People’s Implicit Consent toOther’s Subsistence Emissions
The previous line of reasoning suggests that we may distinguish between the amount
of emissions that everyone makes, and those emissions that exceed this amount.
This may be done along the lines of a seminal paper by Henry Shue (1993), making
a distinction between subsistence emissions (i.e. emissions required for satisfying
basic needs) and non-subsistence emissions (i.e. emissions required for satisfying
non-basic needs). If we stick to this terminology, and take ‘subsistence emissions’ as
a technical term for the amount of emissions that everyone makes (and has to make
in order to satisfy basic needs), and ‘non-subsistence emissions’ as a technical term
for any emissions that go beyond that amount, then we may infer that subsistence
25 In a similar vein, Nicholas Stern has argued that ‘the rights of a young person now to enjoy life and
property in the future are being violated by the emissions of the current generation’ (2014, p. 415).
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emissions are implicitly consented to by everyone, while non-subsistence emissions
are not. Consequently, libertarianism implies that only our non-subsistence emis-
sions amount to infringements.26
Some might want to object that since the poor do not really have any choice but
to emit as little as they do, their emissions cannot be taken for implicit consent to
only such minor emissions. Presumably they would consent to some major emis-
sions—even some of the non-subsistence emissions—if they had the opportunity to
emit more themselves. This, however, would be a form of hypothetical consent—i.e.
consent that would be given by the agent were she in a somewhat more ideal posi-
tion (with more knowledge, more opportunities, more capacities, etc.). However,
hypothetical consent is ruled out from a libertarian point of view. What matters for
libertarianism is what people actually consent to (explicitly or implicitly). And the
poor do not actually give any such consent.27
Perhaps one could object to this reasoning by questioning the understanding of
implicit consent that I have adopted: By performing an action of a certain type, the
agent implicitly consents to others performing actions of that same type. An alterna-
tive way of understanding implicit consent, with different implications, would be in
terms of proportionality: By consuming a certain proportion of what the agent her-
self could consume, she consents to others consuming the same proportion of what
they themselves could consume. But this understanding is implausible. For example,
it implies that any poor person who consumes everything there actually is for him
to consume would thus consent to any consumption levels whatsoever of everyone
else. For that reason, we should stick to the previous understanding of implicit con-
sent. We should also accept that our non-subsistence emissions amount to infringe-
ments on at least some people.
Of course, one might want to reject the relevance of implicit consent completely,
and endorse the notion of explicit consent only. Doing so is, however, of no help in
the context of climate change. Given that many people do not even explicitly consent
to other people’s subsistence emissions, this would imply that all emissions amount
to infringements on libertarianism. This gives libertarians reasons to accept the rel-
evance of implicit consent. Hence, at least our non-subsistence emissions count as
infringements on libertarianism.
Still, it is not clear how subsistence emissions should be distinguished from non-
subsistence emissions more concretely. Plausibly, whether a particular emitting act
is to count as an instance of subsistence emissions or non-subsistence emissions will
depend on the extent to which the agent has already emitted in the past, as well as
on how much she will emit in the future. This suggests that emissions should be
counted from an annual or a lifetime per capita perspective. From the annual per-
spective, a person’s emissions would count as subsistence emissions only if her total
26 Doing so is also in line with Locke, who thought that people’s most fundamental right is ‘the right
everyone had to take care of, and provide for their Subsistence’ (1690: Vol. 1, First treatise, §87).
27 Cf. Nozick: ‘tacit consent isn’t worth the paper it is not written on’ (1974, p. 287). If we would take
hypothetical consent to be relevant, then, since many people actually suffer from the harms caused by
climate change, some of them would not even hypothetically consent to such high amounts of emissions.
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amount of emissions during that year would not exceed the amount needed for sat-
isfying basic needs during that year (whatever that amount is). From the lifetime
perspective, her emissions would count as subsistence emissions only if her total
amount of emissions made in her life would not exceed the amount needed for sat-
isfying basic needs during her lifetime (whatever that amount is). Considering the
lifetime perspective, an individual would be allowed to rectify her non-subsistence
annual emissions made in previous years by emitting sufficiently less in the remain-
der of her lifetime. This suggests that our non-subsistence emissions in this sense
count as infringements on libertarianism.
The next question to answer is whether our non-subsistence emissions, qua
infringements, are impermissible on libertarianism. This depends on whether they
can be justified for independent reasons.
Are Our Emissions Justied forIndependent Reasons?
Any plausible moral theory, including libertarianism, should allow for some non-
consensual boundary-crossings. As I have argued above, the most coherent way for
libertarianism to do this is not through a modification of the notions of boundary-
crossing or consent. On my view, the most plausible way to do this is insteadby
reference to justifiers for infringements. As stated in ‘The Basics of Libertarianism’,
the potential justifiers discussed in the libertarian literature concern (i) unavoida-
bility, (ii) avoidance of catastrophe, (iii) self-defense, (iv) unforeseeability, and (v)
compensation. In this section, I explore whether any of these potential justifiers are
relevant with respect to libertarianism’s implications for our individual emissions. I
will also say something about Mack’s ‘elbow room’ view, discussed in ‘How Liber-
tarians Might Argue That Our Emissions Do Not Cross Other People’s Boundaries’,
in this regard.
When it comes to (i), unavoidability, it could be argued that it is impossible to
make no emissions at all. Breathing and digesting yields emissions. However, this
unavoidability is already accounted for by the distinction between subsistence and
non-subsistence emissions. And the focus here is on the potential permissibility
of our non-subsistence emissions. Regardless of where we want to draw the line
between those emissions that are possible to avoid and those that are not, it is clear
that non-subsistence emissions are of the former kind. Therefore, unavoidability
fails to justify our non-subsistence emissions.
Concerning (ii), avoidance of catastrophe, it is safe to say that our greenhouse gas
emissions—especially our non-subsistence emissions—are not plausible candidates
for this kind of justification. If there is any catastrophe to worry about, it is rather
because of our emissions.
Regarding (iii), self-defense, it suffices to say that people’s non-subsistence emis-
sions are typically not performed for the sake of defending themselves. People might
emit as a means to improve their lives, but they do not do it as a means to defend
their rights. If any emissions could count as self-defense, then those are subsistence
emissions. Hence, the right to self-defense cannot function as a justifier for our non-
subsistence emissions.
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When it comes to (iv), unforeseeability, I find it implausible as a justifier for
infringement in general. Although unforeseeability plausibly affects the judgment of
blame for people’s actions, it is not obvious that it affects the permissibility of their
actions.28 However, the effects of our climate-relevant activities are nowadays quite
foreseeable. Even if we accept that early industrialists were justified in doing what
they did, for the reason that they could not foresee the environmental consequences
of their actions, this does not imply that unforeseeability constitute a justifier for
present people’s non-subsistence emissions.
Regarding (v), compensation, things are more complex.
Is Compensation aMeans toJustify Our Non‑Subsistence Emissions?
There are several ways in which compensation might be considered as a potential
means to justify non-subsistence emissions. It seems obvious, for instance, that com-
pensation could work in a proactive sense as a means for obtaining prior consent to
subsequent boundary-crossings. If a non-subsistence emitter were to persuade mere
subsistence emitters—by way of compensation—to let him continue to make non-
subsistence emissions, then there would no longer be any valid dissent to his non-
subsistence emissions, thus making them permissible. In this sense, however, com-
pensation would not constitute any justifier for infringement, but rather a means for
assuring that a boundary-crossing does not amount to an infringement in the first
place. As things are at the moment, however, non-subsistence emitters do not com-
pensate their victims in this proactive respect (this will be addressed below).
Ever since Nozick (1974, Ch. 4), there has been a discussion among libertari-
ans whether compensation could perhaps also work in a justificatory respect—i.e.
whether it would be permissible to cross people’s boundaries without their consent
provided that compensation is paid to them later. Nozick labels this option ‘cross
and compensate’.29 Nevertheless, I think this option is unavailable from a libertarian
view. As we saw in ‘The Basics of Libertarianism’, ownership consists of a bundle
of rights, of which the right to compensation is one. This right is due to the more
basic control-right that others do not infringe on one’s own territory, and it kicks in
whenever someone does. Consequently, if a rights-violation has already occurred,
then compensation is prescribed as a means for rectifying that violation. This sug-
gests that it is impermissible to cross people’s boundaries without their consent even
if we compensate them afterwards. Thus, compensation cannot function as a justifier
for infringement.
In any case, compensation would be practically problematic in the case of non-
subsistence emissions. As Railton puts it, ‘[i]f a polluting activity harms an indi-
vidual, the compensation required would be such that the victim would have been
indifferent before the fact between not suffering the harm at all and suffering the
harm but receiving the compensation given’ (1985, p. 213). The problem with
28 See Sobel (2012, p. 51) and Thomson (1990, p. 234) for similar arguments.
29 See also Railton (1985), Arneson (2005), Wall (2009), Sobel (2012), and Mack (2015, p. 196).
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compensation for our individual emissions becomes clear as soon as we try to spell
out what it would require in practice. The main problem is that some individuals
are not indifferent before the fact between not being affected by our emissions and
receiving the compensation given, no matter the amount of compensation. Some
people are dying from climate change and cannot be compensated at all. And even
if we could compensate our victims, we would not know exactly to whom we owe
compensation (or how much we owe each of them).30 Even if compensation would
work as a means for rectifying some infringements, it does not seem to work when it
comes to rectifying the infringements that are due to our non-subsistence emissions.
A related possibility for justifying our non-subsistence emissions concerns so-
called offsetting.
Is Offsetting aMeans toJustify Our Non‑Subsistence Emissions?
To offset emissions is to make sure that for every unit of greenhouse gas you add
to the atmosphere, you also subtract one unit from it. Offsetting is thus, to put it in
economists’ terminology, a way of internalizing the external costs of one’s emis-
sions. In other words, it means that the emitter pays for all the social costs related
to his emitting activities. Offsetting has been suggested as a justifier for emissions
by, for instance, John Broome (2012), and is a popular idea among libertarians as
well.31
All measures of offsetting are external to the agent’s own activities, in the sense
that they either amount to helping others produce less greenhouse gases, or to help-
ing nature absorb more of the gases already produced. Investing in projects that gen-
erate renewable energy, for instance via solar panels and wind turbines, is an exam-
ple of the first kind of offsetting. Investing in projects that plant carbon-absorbing
trees, or developing methods for capturing carbon in underground storage facilities
(to the extent it works), are examples of the second kind. The gist is that offsetting
lets you neutralize your total emissions. Thereby, the idea goes, you make sure they
give rise to no boundary-crossings, meaning that you may continue to make even
some non-subsistence emissions.
The problem with this idea, however, is that while one’s emitting acts produce
greenhouse gases immediately, one’s offsetting acts that reduce greenhouse gases
do so only after some time. To fly from New York to London and back, for instance,
will emit more than a ton of greenhouse gases during the flight.32 But the time it
takes to offset one ton, via whatever offsetting program one may choose, is most
likely far longer than that. Consequently, one’s offsetting will not affect the same
30 See Broome (2012, p. 79), and Railton (1985, pp. 214–217). There would also be problems due to
transaction costs. See Nozick (1974, p. 76): ‘the appropriate compensation would seem to involve enor-
mous transaction costs’. Nozick here speaks about the problems of compensations to ‘those persons who
undergo a risk of a boundary crossing’ (my emphasis). However, the nature of climate change suggests
that the same worries hold for actual boundary-crossings as well.
31 See, for instance, Adler (2009), Epstein (2009), Brennan (2012), and Friedman (2014: §64).
32 This example is from Broome (2012, p. 74).
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particular people that are affected by one’s emissions. Given that one’s non-subsist-
ence emissions cross the boundaries of particular people, one’s offsetting cannot
assure that these emissions do not cross these people’s boundaries.
But even if offsetting one’s non-subsistence emissions does not undermine the
boundary-crossing aspects of those emissions, it might be relevant for another rea-
son: If offsetting can make sure that people’s non-subsistence emissions do not con-
tribute to climate change, then offsetting may undermine the motives that people
have for not consenting to these emissions. In this respect, offsetting might provide
an alternative to stop producing non-subsistence emissions.
There are, still, many practical complications with offsetting, not least from a lib-
ertarian point of view. First, there is the obvious restriction that our offsetting must
not violate anyone’s rights. Second, our offsetting must be additional, which means
that the reductions in question would not have happened even if we had not made
our offsets. Otherwise the emissions that we reduce through our offsetting meas-
ures will not really even out the non-subsistence emissions we make.33 The fact that
ouremissions do not decrease, however, is evidence that most emitters do not suc-
cessfully offset their non-subsistence emissions.
What About Mack’s ‘Elbow Room’ forRights?
In ‘How Libertarians Might Argue That Our Emissions Do Not Cross Other Peo-
ple’s Boundaries’, I discussed Mack’s ‘elbow room’ view, according to which non-
malicious and non-wanton minor intrusions do not count as boundary-crossings
and hence do not count as infringements. I objected to this view, since some non-
malicious or non-wanton minor intrusions are boundary-crossings on libertarianism.
However, I opened up for the ‘elbow room’ view to be relevant when it comes to
justifying infringements.
Now, having discussed the role of consent (in ‘Do our Emissions Cross People’s
Boundaries Without Their Consent?’), and thus distinguished between subsistence
and non-subsistence emissions and explained what counts as subsistence emissions
and non-subsistence emissions, respectively, it seems clear that a prohibition of
non-subsistence emissions neither implies the ‘hog-tying problem’, nor ‘preclude[s]
people from exercising the liberty-rights that the claim-rights are supposed to pro-
tect’ (Mack 2015, p. 197). As this means, a prohibition of non-subsistence emissions
does not give rise to the problems that the ‘elbow room’ view is meant to avoid.
As this unveils, the ‘elbow room’ would function as a justifier in a similar way as
(i), unavoidability, discussed above. Even though it is impossible to make no emis-
sions at all, it is clear that non-subsistence emissions are possible to avoid. This also
suggests that if non-wantonness and non-maliciousness is at all relevant as a justifier
for infringing emissions, then it is so only with respect to subsistence emissions.
Consequently, the ‘elbow room’ view cannot justify the infringements that are due
to our non-subsistence emissions.
33 Cf. Broome (2012, pp. 87–89).
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Some Objections andReplies
Before drawing any final conclusions, I wish to answer some potential objections
to the account given so far.34 Most noticeably, it could be argued that the reciprocal
character of the account of ‘implicit consent’ that I am adopting has some trouble-
some implications.
For instance, suppose some person who, for reasons of economic deprivation, is
forced to endure standards of living below subsistence. In this case, it seems that we
cannot appeal to this person’s implicit consent to justify others’ subsistence emis-
sions. The case moreover suggests that the level of acceptable emissions might be
much lower than subsistence emissions. One way to escape this implication is to
appeal to unavoidability. As was argued in ‘Are Our Emissions Justified for Inde-
pendent Reasons?, people can be said to have a right, due to unavoidability, to sub-
sistence. This in turn justifies people to emit up to a subsistence level even if others
are emitting less.
However, this seems to assume that subsistence emissions are really necessary
for subsistence to be achieved. But suppose someone who actually achieves sub-
sistence while successfully offsetting her emissions to the point of having zero net
impact on the climate system. In this case, it seems that subsistence emissions are
not necessary for that person to achieve subsistence. Moreover, that person cannot
be said to implicitly consent to others’ subsistence emissions. Hence, it seems that
this person’s offsetting implies an obligation on others to offset their emissions to
zero as well.
It is correct that it follows from my interpretation of libertarianism that as long
as some people reduce their net emissions to zero—e.g. via carbon offsetting—then
this obligates others to offset their emissions too, given that they can. Since different
people have different capacities and live under different circumstances, this implies
that what is (in the relevant sense) necessary or unavoidable for one person might
not be necessary or unavoidable for another. If someone cannot offset (or in other
ways neutralize) their emissions, e.g. due to economic deprivation, then that some-
one is justified in not doing so.
Still, it seems that the version of libertarianism that I have defended is incom-
patible with industrial civilization. Consider, by way of illustration, the first person
building a factory in a previously unindustrialized society. Since no other facto-
ries would exist at the time, the industrialist would not be able to appeal to others
implicit consent to justify this project. Since industrial civilization revolves around
people being allowed to take innovative actions that increase the level of impacts on
others (i.e. without antecedently securing the consent of every affected individual),
this seems to make my interpretation of libertarianism incompatible with any real
material progress.
However, it could be argued that, although my account implies that the emis-
sions of the first industrialists did cause boundary-crossings to some people, it is not
34 I want to thank two anonymous reviewers for bringing up these objections.
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Libertarianism, Climate Change, andIndividual…
obvious that these people did not consent to them. As mentioned in ‘Do our Emis-
sions Cross People’s Boundaries Without Their Consent?’, the reason that people
tend not to consent to carbon emissions is the climatic effects of these emissions.
But it is only after the carbon budget is exempted that any relevant threshold in the
climate system is passed, for which reason the first industrialisers did not themselves
give rise to any climate change. Moreover, if the affected people voluntarily took
benefit from the factories (e.g. by being employed in them), then they could be said
to have implicitly consented to the related emissions.
Of course, not everyone affected by the polluting activities of the early industrial-
ists benefitted from their activities. And when it comes to assessing these activities,
climate change as such is not the main issue. The early industrialists emitted not only
carbon dioxide but also large quantities of lead, sulfur, mercury, and nitrogen oxides,
etc. The negative impacts of these emissions were readily perceived at the time, and
it is quite obvious that not everyone affected by them consented to them. For that
reason, these activities were nonetheless impermissible according to libertarianism.
However, this verdict is not counterintuitive. If the first industrialists actually
did cause such harm to their contemporaries, then libertarianism implies that what
they did was wrong. In effect, libertarianism requires that these people are compen-
sated, which seems fair enough. Note that this does not mean that libertarianism
is incompatible with industrialization as such, but only with industrialization as
it actually evolved. If the question is whether existing factories should be allowed
to continue to operate, then the answer is clear: Libertarianism allows this only as
long as the responsible agents make sure that their factories will not violate anyone’s
rights henceforth (and that they rectify any relevant historical injustices). As this
means, libertarianism is in fact compatible with industrial civilization, it is just that
it requires a rights-respecting development of such a civilization.
Interestingly, there is nothing specifically libertarian about this condemnation of
the actual history of industrial civilization. Most moral theories yield similar ver-
dicts. Utilitarianism, for instance, implies that early industrialists acted wrongly for
the reason that they could have chosen other alternative actions which would have
produced more utility. Kantianism implies that early industrialists acted wrongly for
the reason that the maxims on the basis of which they acted were not universalizable
(in the relevant sense). Virtue ethicists would, presumably, say that early industrial-
ists acted wrongly for the reason that they were not acting out of virtuous motives.
This suggests that the fact that libertarianism did not allow industrial civilization to
evolve the way it actually did does not make an argument against libertarianism in
favor of other moral views.
Conclusion
In this paper, I have argued that although our individual emissions in separa-
tion would cause no harm to others, they do cross the boundaries of other people.
Although it can be argued that the boundary-crossings that are due to our subsist-
ence emissions are consented to by others, the boundary-crossings that are due to
our non-subsistence emissions are not consented to by everyone. Therefore, these
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146
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non-subsistence emissions amount to infringements according to libertarianism.
Moreover, I have argued that there is no independent justification for these infringe-
ments, although there is an alternative to stop making non-subsistence emissions:
to offset our non-subsistence emissions completely. At present, however, most peo-
ple do not offset their non-subsistence emissions. Therefore, these emissions violate
people’s rights, which means that they are impermissible according to libertarian-
ism’s non-aggression principle.
Interestingly, this conclusion hinges on the current differences between people’s
emissions. If everyone were a non-subsistence emitter, then all emissions would be
implicitly consented to by everyone. In that case, libertarians would have to turn to
other resources in order to find reasons for condemning our non-subsistence emis-
sions. On that note, I have in this paper neglected the lives of future people, as well
as the question regarding the joint responsibilities we might have regarding climate
change. I have also disregarded the various risks that are associated with climate
change, as well as the libertarian proviso for appropriations of the natural resources
(e.g. coal, oil, and gas) that are used in our emitting activities. If this was taken into
consideration, then we would presumably find separate reasons for libertarians to
take climate change seriously.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that the conclusion of this paper also depends on
the specific notions of ‘rights-violation’, ‘infringement’, ‘boundary-crossing’, etc.,
that I have argued for. As this implies, a critic could argue that I have not used the
most plausible version of libertarianism and that, therefore, the conclusion is of lim-
ited value to the debate. However, whether there are other more plausible versions of
libertarianism that could avoid these implications is a topic for further investigation.
At the very least, I hope that the arguments made in this paper provide a direction
for further theorizing on libertarian morality and its implications for climate change.
Funding Open access funding provided by Stockholm University.
Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License,
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