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Climate Change and Bad Neighbors

Jonathan Chait approvingly quotes from another blogger the argument that emitting carbon dioxide is like spraying water on your neighbor’s house and says, therefore, that principled conservatives, as defenders of property rights, ought to either demand that emitters stop or else reach an agreement with their neighbors for mutually acceptable compensation.

Metaphors applied to the specific ethical question of carbon emissions often employ some version of the thought experiment “polluting the neighbor’s yard.” In this example, it’s unclear whether the bad neighbor is meant to be an emitting society vis-à-vis a place like Bangladesh, or the owners of a power plant vis-à-vis others with whom they are in political society. If it’s the first, it’s important to remember that most people reading this blog live in a world of legally defined rights and obligations enforced by courts, police, and, ultimately, the monopoly on large-scale force held by government in the form of an army. But the relationships between nation-states and societies don’t have such clear delineations of enforcement and responsibility.

It seems to me that, when discussing carbon emissions, a better metaphor would be that of a large number of clans living in somewhat overlapping and disputed areas of a primitive forest. Over centuries, almost all clans have had massive feuds with almost all other clans, and many people have been purposely killed. There are constant low-level skirmishes, as well as alliances through marriage or simple treaties. Some of these clans tend to be more peaceful and trade a lot with their neighbors, while others tend to be more bellicose. Some clans have enslaved others, and fortunes have risen and fallen through time. At some point, one clan figures out how to use fire to make things. It becomes much, much wealthier than any clan has ever been. Although fire creates soot pollution that threatens to reduce crop yields for other clans, knowledge of how to use fire also becomes available to the other clans through imitation, and they use it. The people who live in this forest, as a whole, become much richer than they would have been had the original clan never figured out how to use fire.

Is it obvious to you that the original clan has an absolute ethical obligation to stop using fire, develop new technology that burns without soot, or agree to pay whatever the other clans demand? It’s not to me.

Going back to the Chait’s metaphor, if he means it in the second sense (an emitting entity, such as a power plant, vis-à-vis others with whom they are in political society) the actual legal principles aren’t exactly what they are implied to be. As you might imagine, disputes like one neighbor spraying water into another’s yard occur frequently, but there is a large body of law in the United States that doesn’t require several million bilateral negotiations between property holders each time a stereo knob is turned up, an exterior is repainted, or a tree is cut down--or for that matter, every time a power plant wants to expand.

This body of law builds upon a complicated set of principles going back as far as the misty origins of common law. As one example, there is the idea that the first person to begin using a previously unclaimed natural resource thereby creates a property right that would provide at least some legal protection. This proceeds from the idea, articulated but not originated by Locke, that when I “mix my labor” with a previously unclaimed resource, then I own it. Bove v. Donner-Hanna Coke Co. (1932) is a classic case of a court holding that an entire industrial area had an effective right to continue to emit increasing amounts of particulate emissions into the air because of known historical behavior.

None of this is to say that legal doctrines don’t exist that allow us to reconcile these competing interests effectively, or that there is not some difference of kind rather than degree between these cases and an action with literally global scope, or that these principles are not just cover for power politics. But I do think that any serious attempt to address the question at hand has to confront the actual implemented meaning of property rights, rather than just make the obvious point that, for property to have meaning, it must have some protections from wanton depredation by neighbors.