So, it should come as no surprise that the word "freedom" is frequently deployed like a cluster bomb in order to discredit opponents in a public debate. Who, after all, wants to be classified among "the enemies of freedom"? That's why the climate change denial lobby now uses this word incessantly. It is one of the last arrows in its quiver as the world contemplates ever tighter restrictions on greenhouse gases.
Now, what do the climate change deniers mean by freedom? Do they mean freedom of speech, assembly, and religion, cherished rights guaranteed under the U. S. Constitution? Do they mean freedom of association? Do they mean free elections and representative government?
None of these seems to be on their minds. In its most elemental form the freedom they seek is the freedom for individuals to exploit all the resources they can get their hands on at whatever rate and in whatever manner they choose. Here is an example from a recent letter to the editor to a Florida newspaper:
Celebrate the fact that you live in the greatest economy in the world and that you can afford two cars. Celebrate that you can still afford to gas them up. Celebrate the freedom this gives you. And realize that the people who want you to curtail your enjoyment of the economy have no intention of curtailing their enjoyment.
A more sophisticated and ideologically grounded version comes from Vaclav Klaus, current president of the Czech Republic:
I see another big problem in environmentalism and in its currently most aggressive form - global warming alarmism. This ideology has gradually turned into the most efficient vehicle for advocating extensive government intervention into all fields of life and for suppressing human freedom and economic prosperity.
Again, the concern is with so-called economic freedom, primarily to grab whatever wealth one is able to grab. This is an appealing doctrine to those who have the skills and social position to do just that. And, there is an important second component to this freedom, property rights. Property rights become very important if you already have a lot of property (wealth) or the prospect of gaining a lot of property. So, it is again no surprise that the financial press--The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Post among them--see climate change as a canard to gyp them and their readers out of their rights to use their property--primarily property that emits a lot of greenhouse gas--as they see fit.
What these defenders of freedom don't tell us is what they are willing to do to defend the property rights of the inhabitants of coastal cities and countless seaside villages should their communities be swamped by rising sea level--one of the most widely expected effects of global warming. Nor do they tell us what they might be willing to do to protect the water supplies of billions dependent on Asian mountain rivers as the glacial meltwater that feeds them disappears. How might they answer the farmers whose formerly fertile fields become drought-stricken deserts as climate change proceeds? Who do all these people see about the violation of their property rights?
What is conspicuously absent from the freedom lobby's lexicon is the word "justice." They are all for freedom so long as it doesn't include the freedom to hold them accountable for their contributions to the demise of other people's homes and livelihoods. Here they simply ignore their own arguments about property and freely trample on the rights of others to have a livable climate. The private property zealots refuse to acknowledge that the atmosphere belongs to all of us and that that implies that no single person or group has the right to abuse it.
What the freedom lobby has conveniently forgotten is that society is a social contract. As philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote, without that contract we would be free to do whatever we wish and the result would be a "war of all against all." The ruling ethos would be that of "might makes right."
The second historical memory lapse is that property is a social convention. The reason something qualifies as private property is because we all agree that it does. There are certain things which we explicitly say are not private property such as public parks, roadways, waterways and museums. They belong to the community. In general the world has said that water belongs to the community. It stands to reason that climate belongs to the community not just of human beings, but of all living things.
The point is that private property rights have always been subject to the agreement and needs of the community as a whole. There never has been and never will be a right to unfettered use of one's property inside society.
So, what is the freedom lobby really selling? Since they care little for the imperiled property rights, livelihoods, and lives of those who come after us, their agenda can properly be described as the defense of privilege. They are busy defending those who have already acquired considerable property and wealth that could be subject to restrictions or taxation designed to preserve the climate for future generations. Any diminution of those privileges is attacked as an assault on freedom.
The middle and lower classes are recruited into this attack by telling them that their energy-intensive way of life will become endangered: Large automobiles will no longer be available or will become beyond their reach; suburban commutes will become increasingly expensive; well-heated homes will become a thing of the past; hot showers will be a luxury item; air travel will become prohibitive; and above all, jobs will disappear and shift to scofflaw nations overseas who do not enact greenhouse gas restrictions. What the wealthy backers of the freedom lobby don't want the targets of their propaganda to know is that this moneyed elite won't suffer any of these things themselves. Nor do they want them to know how severe the effects of climate change could be including imperiling basic necessities such as food and water.
(Not discussed, of course, is that peak oil and natural gas production may bring an end to our energy-intensive way of life long before any restrictions on greenhouse gases do.)
The freedom lobby also likes to use other labels to brand their opponents. If you are for the regulation of greenhouse gases, you are a socialist or less often a communist, or occasionally a totalitarian. What the freedom lobby fails again to remember is that all of these 20th century systems depended heavily on burning vast quantities of fossil fuels. The problems associated with fossil fuels are not limited to one ideology. They affect all of humanity and need to be addressed under a variety of economic and social systems.
If, however, you want the freedom to be thirsty or to be hungry or to be hopelessly flooded out of your home near the ocean, you can join the freedom lobby and enjoy a few more years or perhaps even a decade or two of huffing and puffing at the imaginary enemies of freedom before the real basis of your freedom, an intact and functioning nation and community, starts to degrade inexorably. By then the wealthy backers of fossil fuel intensive industries will have decamped to their second homes in more habitable places away from the shoreline and nearer the world's remaining stores of food and drinkable water.