Sunday, May 17, 2009

The freedom lobby

There is nothing so intoxicating as freedom. That's partly because the word is so abstract that people can define it in any way that they want. And, naturally they define it in ways that they believe will give them the maximum purchase on wealth, power, pleasure and security.

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.


Henry Warwick said...


Great stuff, I'll post more about later, but wanted to get this out when thinking about it. Don't know if you're familiar with "The Trap" by Adam Curtis. 3 part doc on Freedom.

The Trap, part 1, "FUCK YOU, BUDDY".

The Trap, part 2. "THE LONELY ROBOT"

The Trap, part 3. "WE WILL FORCE YOU TO BE FREE"

watch them. Freaking brilliant and insightful and useful...

HanZiBoi said...

Kurt - this is a SPLENDID posting - thank you!

HanZiBoi said...

For a great many Americans, their most cherished freedom is the "right" to drive wherever, whenever, and as much as they want, in a vehicle as large and powerful and menacing as they can obtain on credit, and then park for free.

In practice this translates into the "right" of the swift, the mighty, and the heavily armored to so thoroughly dominate most of our public thoroughfares that most people simply cannot imagine using those corridors sans automotive exoskeleton (i.e. via foot, bicycle, horse, etc.)

It also translates into the "right" of motorists to undermine, destroy, and prevent the formation of human-scale urban habitat:

Tragically, most Americans know more about what humanity has done to obliterate rain forests and destroy polar bear habitat than what we have done in our own neighborhoods and communities to destroy human-scale communities for ourselves.

Chris R. said...

Outstanding, well written, insightful....this piece is deserving of broad circulation.

Thanks Curt

Chris R.

Anonymous said...

"..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..."

This would sound a lot more convincing if Al Gore wasn't busily making vast sums of money through forcing people to buy his carbon trading credits, and buying beach-front property with it....

jack Savage said...

Er... would they be the same wealthy backers of the Cap and Trade movement?
The trouble with people like you is you believe all "climate change deniers" are indifferent to matters such as wasteful practice,unfeasibly large cars,pollution etc. We are not.We just believe AGW is not happening and more and more the science is starting to bear this out.
Your aguments come over as hysterical.

Anonymous said...

I guess this is what it boils down to. People who disagree with the conventional dogma of Global Warming (oops, sorry, I mean "Climate Change") are labeled and slandered and are now shown to be unworthy of freedom.

Perhaps James Hansen was correct; there will be "trains of death", but in the minds of the eco-fascists, they should be bearing the bodies and souls of those who have not yet seen the light as portrayed by the Climate Industrial Complex.

Fascism is as fascism does. In this case it's liberal.

And yes, I'm anonymous; I don't want you bastards coming for me.

Neven said...

This is a great posting that cuts to the heart of the matter.

Now, to feed the troll: I'm not an Al Gore fan, but is it really true that he's buying beach-front property?

tim maguire said...

I don't know where he's buying real estate, Neven, but it is true that Gore stands to make a fortune from the laws he is pushing (and he has reluctantly admitted this before congress).

As for this silly post, freedom is hardly the last arrow in our quiver. The climate itself is as it contually reminds people of the difference between climate models and actual climate.

Anonymous said...

Wow, you really don't get it Kurt. In one page, you managed to display to the world a fundamental misunderstanding of US constitutional history, economics and climate science. Two questions for you: 1. How much climate change will the current climatet bill prevent (In degrees F please)? - Shouldn't we know what we are buying with all that money.

2. Can you name three tangible goods that you use on a regular basis that did not require fossil fuels to create/manufacture?

Kurt Cobb said...

It always great to get first-time readers and I'd like to respond to for their effort in making comments:

1) In this piece I do not advocate for any specific legislation. But I am no fan of cap-and-trade. I prefer a carbon tax and in the United States it should be used to replace the payroll tax which is demonstrably unfair to middle and lower income workers.

2) The anonymous commenter who indirectly calls me a fascist should re-examine his definitions carefully. Fascism is defined as an alliance between big business and big government. There are no bigger businesses than those behemoths in the oil industry. Of the world's 10 largest companies, 6 are oil companies. And they collectively along with the coal companies have huge lobbying organizations that have had a stranglehold on government policy in the United States. What's really closer to fascism? A government run by huge fossil fuel companies or one in which the broader interests of the country and the world are taken into the account?

3) As usual climate change deniers such as Jack Savage merely assert that human activity is not one of the causes of climate change. But saying it's not so doesn't make it not so. They don't argue the science because they can't.

4) The creators of the website which so graciously brought me so many critical commenters, Climate Debate Daily, is either misguided or a front for the fossil fuel industry. It pretends that there is a vigorous scientific debate about the existence of man-made climate change. This is poppycock! There is, however, a vigorous political debate about what we should do, how much it will cost, who should bear those costs, and how those costs should be assessed. In my view all of the legislative proposals to date are far too timid and I expect even these will be watered down through the efforts of the fossil fuel lobby mentioned above.

5) It is sad that people who would never let their children cross the street without looking both ways will risk their futures and the futures of their children's children on the say-so of the fossil fuel lobby whose only interest is to sell their remaining inventory of fossil fuels.

6) A second anonymous commenter wants to remind us that practically everything we use involves fossil fuel inputs. That's precisely what has to change. Thanks for making my case!

7) Here is a nice piece on the tactics of the climate deniers. Many of these tactics are in evidence in the comments above.

Anonymous said...

With the U.S. Government taking over, directly or indirectly large amounts of the American financial and manufacturing base, Fascism it is, even by your own definition..

Thanks for making my point for me.

Kurt Cobb said...

To the above anonymous commenter,

You are again confused in your definitions. Fascism is an alliance between privately owned big business and big government. What you describe, the ownership of industrial and banking corporations by the government, would be described as socialism. In this case the government dictates what these firms will do. In fascism, the corporations dictate much of what the government does. You have things exactly backwards.

That said, I don't think it's a good idea for the government to prop up failed industries and I particularly don't think it should be propping of Wall Street fatcats with huge outlays of taxpayer dollars. I would contend that the taxpayer financed bailout of the money center banks in the United States smacks of fascism rather than socialism since the very managements that brought us the crash are allowed to stay in place and and even collect bonuses while taking little or no direction from the government. It is a testament to the enormous stifling hold that Wall Street bankers have over the political process. They screw up big time and we, the taxpayers bail them out. Who's in charge in this scenario?

Anonymous said...

Kurt Cobb:

I see, so your definition of fascism would then disinclude Hitler and Mussolini, as neither of those dictators were directed by industry. Interesting... not defendable, and quite illogical, but interesting.

And later you state that "the United States smacks of fascism rather than socialism". And you decry the collusion of Big Business and Big Government, but yet have no qualms regarding the Climate-Industrial Complex using the stalking horse of AGW to intrude and control peoples lives. But this time it's OK because they have such a noble cause and the ends justify the means. Again, your contradictory views are quite evident.

I think you need to watch some shows like "Band of Brothers" and see what real people went through so that you could have the freedom of being so self-absorbed and to counsel to trade others freedom.

And on this path you will find neither climate salvation nor freedom, just the gaping maw of NGO's demanding their tithe as the new high priests and the realization that George Orwell was there first.

John F. Opie said...

Oddly enough, the Declaration of Independence is the key to showing that what you call the Freedom Lobby is not going to go away:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Do you hold that this is not self-evident? Are the environmentalists "better" folks than those who remain skeptics? Do those who don't agree with you deserving to be bereft of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Will you decide what those words mean?

Answer me those.

Anonymous said...

From the second anonymous. Kurt, agreed that a honest political debate needs to happen. By labeling so called "skeptics" as flat earthers, the AGW lobby is clearly trying to extinguish all debate. My point regarding our fossil based society - Advocates of the AGW scare have concluded (without debate) that the world (not just the US) needs to reduce CO2 output by 50-80% in the next 30-50 years, for the good of mankind. This is the real debate. Such a reduction is equivalent to an almost equal reduction in GDP for the world over the same time span. Fossil fuels have enabled mankind to develop more in the last 100 years than they have in previous 10,000. Standards of living, prior to fossil fuel use, remained nearly unchanged from ancient Rome through the 18th century. And that was only for the lucky and the rich. Hydrocarbons are the reason your life is not nasty, brutish and short. Developing nations want to improve also and will not be able to develop without cheap power. Right now, alternatives are not cheap and legislation will not make them cheap. China and India will talk the talk on carbon reduction, but here's what they really think:

"I'll think about curtailing use cheap power to raise standards of living when the big worry of my population is whether they will get a new iphone this year instead of whether their kids will die because they don't have clean water."

I guess my thesis in this debate is that we should focus on problems like clean water, hunger, disease, poverty, preservation of fisheries, cleaning the ocean, etc., before we spend a dime on trying to control the weather. It is sad that people who worry about their kids crossing the street would risk their future prosperity on legislation that would not affect the predicted warming, based on the IPCC's conclusions.

And if you want to attribute my arguments to the coal lobby, please do your homework. The amount of money that Al Gore's company has spent on climate change BS marketing alone ($300 million) dwarfs any research or marketing funded by fossil fuel companies. Billions are spent each year on climate research, virtually none of which is alloted to research that might support my side. Talk about money fueling an issue. If you follow Gore, you are a sucker.

Anonymous said...

Environmentalism is the new religion of the atheist. Its not born of science, but a mutation of mans natural instinct to do good by God. Although you are honest in your intentions, you are quixotic none the less.

If you really cared about the human race you would be helping poor people get cheap electricty, rather than trying to keep them in the dark. You wouldn't even have to help them get power, you would just be helping them, but no your at the helm of the star ship enterprise, saving the "planet".

Bottom line.. you will fail and be put on a shelf next to the pet rock. Not because your wrong necessarily, but because you fail to respect the natural order of the universe. In your arogant and rather immature manner you snub your nose at the world enmass.

Conservation and efficient living are virtuous endeavors and fit nicely into "societies contract." Most people I know, including myself, recycle, "waste not want not". But turing c02 into a pollutant and putting the breaks on our economy will do more harm to humans than the planet getting warmer of the next 100 years.

Live Free or Die!

Kurt Cobb said...

Most of the self-styled skeptics have managed to prove my point. They label their opponents "enemies of freedom," a tactic designed to smear and degrade the other person rather than engage in genuine debate. None of them mention the fundamental rights of free speech, freedom of association or free exercise of religion without interference or preference by the state. Nor do they mention free elections or representative government. None of this seems to concern them. It is as I have said. The freedom they seek is to use as many resources as they can lay their hands on at whatever rate they please no matter whom it imperils. Essentially, all they seek is the freedom to consume.

Kurt Cobb said...

To the second anonymous,

You make many useful points about the importance of fossil fuels to our way of life and their effect on living standards though you underestimate the contribution to a rising standard of living of new technologies and agricultural methods and the development of world trade prior to the widespread use of fossil fuels.

It's clear that several of the commenters including you have failed to notice in this piece the reference to world peak oil production to be followed by peak coal and natural gas production. If these events are near and I believe they are, then we will be forced to transition away from fossil fuels. It will not be a matter of choice. If you read other pieces on my weblog, you will see this is a major theme.

Even if you believe that climate change will not be very severe or that fossil fuel emissions are one of the key causes, you will not escape the vice of peak hydrocarbon production. The sooner we act to move away from fossil fuels, the less the disruption will be when the peaks in oil, gas and coal occur.

Some of those concerned about peak hydrocarbon production believe that there is not nearly as much oil, natural gas and coal left as the IPCC projects. They are not climate change skeptics; they simply believe we won't be able to put enough carbon into the air to create the scenarios outlined in the IPCC models.

I'm inclined to agree with them. But I think we are already near to some tipping points and so it is essential that we not use up all the remaining hydrocarbons, but instead make the transition as soon as possible, a transition that we will have to make anyway or which will be forced upon us in a very disruptive way in the near future by geologic limits.

Dave P said...

I'm very confused by your definition of Fascism. I do not see that definition in any of the resources that I have read. As you have so clearly stated, that fact that you said it does not make it true.

In fact, the American Heritage ® definition does not even mention business in its article.
It also states that it is a political philosophy which advocates a dictatorial and oppressive form of government and “suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship”.

Isn’t this what the advocates of global climatic change are doing?
The so called ‘deniers’ are trying to continue the debate but the advocates deny their right to present the information and even ostracize the critics from the ‘The Community'.

You say that there is no debate in the scientific community. Once again, the statement is not true just because you so. The fact is you choose to ignore and berate the people who disagree with you rather then engaging in productive and use debate of the facts.

Anonymous said...

Kurt Cobb;

Again, you jump to so many conclusions I'm amazed that you still have legs. You are eager to paint someone who disagrees with you as an enemy of the world, and somehow opposed to Ma and apple pie.

Most, if not all, Skeptics oppose pollution, are in favor of sustainability, decry waste and are generally good citizens. We just don't believe in the socialist-fascist manifesto masquerading as Global Warming Science that is being rammed down everyone's throat.

We put Global Warming Science in the same camp as phrenology, astrology, metaphysics, homepathy, and scientology. And that is where it belongs.

Kurt Cobb said...

To be clear about where I get my definition of fascism, I get it from one its expert practitioners, Benito Mussolini who said: Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.While the United States in the last eight years exhibited some features of a fascist state, I think it can be more appropriately classified as a plutocracy. Rich people are calling nearly all the shots at every level.

What puzzles me about so-called climate change skeptics is that all of them seem to fear government power, but they seem to share no similar fear about the power of large corporations. Anyone genuinely concerned with liberty ought to be concerned when too much power is concentrated in the hands of either. Right now corporate power dominates our society so much so that it has convinced a significant segment of the population that corporations have nothing to do with climate change. This is mind control on a vast scale. And, it is largely due to the fact that the climate change skeptics limit their skepticism to climate science and don't seem the least bit skeptical about the corporations which have invented arguments out of thin air to deceive people about the scientifically demonstrated causes of climate change. We now know that the companies that perpetrated these deceptions did so knowingly. They ignored the findings of their own scientists:

For more than a decade the Global Climate Coalition, a group representing industries with profits tied to fossil fuels, led an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign against the idea that emissions of heat-trapping gases could lead to global warming.

“The role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood,” the coalition said in a scientific “backgrounder” provided to lawmakers and journalists through the early 1990s, adding that “scientists differ” on the issue.

But a document filed in a federal lawsuit demonstrates that even as the coalition worked to sway opinion, its own scientific and technical experts were advising that the science backing the role of greenhouse gases in global warming could not be refuted.

“The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied,” the experts wrote in an internal report compiled for the coalition in 1995.

The coalition was financed by fees from large corporations and trade groups representing the oil, coal and auto industries, among others.

Anonymous said...

George Monbiot is your source of information?

I've read several of his articles and depth of his lack of knowledge of science is staggering. Equally as staggering is his socialist toadying to the Climate Industrial Complex.

Let's just call a spade a spade. When the Berlin Wall fell and Marxism was discredited, the only place left for totalitarians, fascists and socialists to go was into the Green movement as it held the best promise of being anti-capitalist and anti-free enterprise.

I find it ironic that if corporations conspired to limit competition in the same fashion that the UAW conspired and still conspires, the leaders of the corporations would be jailed, but in the case of the UAW, they are awarded with lifetime government backed pensions and health care.

All this while the Mom and Pop investors who are the backbone of our economy, the ones who worked hard, saved and had the guts to back GM with their hard earned money have instead seen their savings vaporized and handed over to the UAW and the New GM (Government Motors Corporation). Who is helping them out?

Kurt Cobb said...

If the above commenter had bothered to click on the excerpt from the news story I provided concerning the fossil fuel lobby, he/she would have been taken to the New York Times and there he/she would also have been able to access the court documents which are from the Global Climate Coalition, an industry front group.

George Monbiot, alas, was not the source of this information. It was the fossil fuel companies themselves.

Anonymous said...

Kurt Cobb;

So using your logic, NGO's such as Greenpeace, the Sirra Club, Al Gore's god knows how many companies, the WWF and on and on are perfectly free to publish their views as you happen to agree wit them.

But someone who disagrees or defends themselves is not. I love your sense of free speech; people are free to agree with you as often as they want.

Glad we got that straightened out.

Anonymous said...

wow ya''re chatting on and on about "being free!" Then shouldn't we be free to express out opinions? like, that global warming isn't manmade? and you're insulting me by saying im "scared of the government" which by the way i'm all. i was laughing so hard while i was reading this. hehehe. if you don't have any real facts, then don't feel free to say such baloney. buhbye!