Taking Property Rights Seriously: The Case of Climate Change

SOCIAL POLICY & PHILOSOPHY, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer 2009

22 Pages Posted: 31 Jul 2008 Last revised: 16 Apr 2012

See all articles by Jonathan H. Adler

Jonathan H. Adler

Case Western Reserve University School of Law; PERC - Property and Environment Research Center

Date Written: July 1, 2008


The dominant approach to environmental policy endorsed by conservative and libertarian policy thinkers, so-called "free market environmentalism" (FME), is grounded in the recognition and protection of property rights in environmental resources. Despite this normative commitment to property rights, most self-described advocates of FME adopt a utilitarian, welfare-maximization, approach to climate change policy, arguing that the costs of mitigation measures could outweigh the costs of climate change itself. Yet even if anthropogenic climate change is decidedly less than catastrophic - indeed, even if it net beneficial to the globe as whole - human-induced climate change is likely to contribute to environmental changes that violate traditional conceptions of property rights. Viewed globally, the actions of some countries - primarily developed nations (such as the United States) and those nations that are industrializing most rapidly (such as China and India) - are likely to increase environmental harms suffered by less developed nations - nations that have not (as of yet) made any significant contribution to global climate change. It may well be that aggregate human welfare would be maximized in a warmer, wealthier world, or that the gains from climate change will offset environmental losses. Such claims, even if demonstrated, would not address the normative concern that the consequences of anthropogenic global warming would infringe upon the rights of people in less-developed nations. A true FME approach to climate change policy should be grounded in a normative commitment to property rights. As a consequence, this paper suggests a complete rethinking of the conventional conservative and libertarian approach to climate change.

Keywords: Environmental Law, Environmental Policy, Free Market Environmentalism, Climate Change, Property Rights

JEL Classification: H11, K11, K20, K32, K40

Suggested Citation

Adler, Jonathan H., Taking Property Rights Seriously: The Case of Climate Change (July 1, 2008). SOCIAL POLICY & PHILOSOPHY, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer 2009, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1174467

Jonathan H. Adler (Contact Author)

Case Western Reserve University School of Law ( email )

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