On David D. Friedman’s view about climate change

This week David D. Friedman gave two talks at the University of Graz. The first has been on anarcho-capitalism and his proposal for a society organised without any form of public institution (cf. [1]). In his second talk Friedman argued why uncertainty in climate science denies any form of recommendation for climate mitigation and in particular for early action. In this blog post I will essentially focus on his second talk but give some conclusions why I think his proposal for anarcho-capitalism directly feeds into his ‘wait-and-see’ principle regarding climate change.

Argument I: What do we know – the bias of IPCC

What has been most striking to me was his argument regarding the credibility of climate change research. Currently the ‘best guess’ – to use his terminology – is represented by the Assessment Reports carried out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which regularly publishes the latest state of knowledge. Friedman unhesitatingly dismissed the work of the climate science community because in his view the research is distorted towards negative externalities. But he even went further saying that climate science is biased due to the prejudice that climate change exclusively will trigger negative externalities. But as a matter of fact, this potential deficiency has led to increased attention by the scientific community in order to outweigh merits and demerits of a changing climate:

The IPCC research process [2]-[3] “multiple stages of review”

“comprehensive, objective and transparent assessment of the current state of knowledge”

“priority is given to peer-reviewed literature”

The IPCC selection of authors [3] authors are selected on the basis of their expertise [and their] detailed CVs”

“composition of author teams aims to reflect a range of scientific, technical and socio-economic views and backgrounds”

“author teams […] include a mix of authors from different regions and from developed and developing countries”

The IPCC AR5 report in figures [2] q.e.d.

Friedman did not even mention (least of all appreciate) this approach of doing peer-reviewed falsification analysis. Furthermore, he particularly challenged the robustness of climate models applied in the five assessment reports. Evidently, ALL MODELS ARE WRONG (see [4] for a nice recap “On mismatches between models and observations”). Friedman knows it, but everyone seriously doing research knows the deficiencies but also the merits of modelling. To continue, his argument was that the ex ante projections from the applied models in the first AR did not match with ex post empirical observations. Even if this argument would be correct (which is not, cf. [5, TFE.3, Figure 1, p. 64]) his claim regarding the misspecification of the AR1 models does not translate into the subliminal claim that improved models in AR2-5 are completely flawed.

To elaborate more on doing projection (not prediction) research by means of modelling, Friedman argued that in face of uncertainty we can never incorporate all potential effects (regardless of the challenge they are related to). The net effect of positive and negative externalities is unclear in the narrow approach of modelling. I totally agree on that but the implications of such a passive attitude towards the ability to actively follow a precautionary principle are devastating. If fate is the only determinant for future well-being, why are there so many efforts and vested interests in shaping its own prospects?

In the case of climate change the challenges ahead are higher by order of magnitudes especially since ‘tipping points’ can cause positive feedback effects additionally triggering forcing [6]. As Hansen [7] puts it: “wait and see and clean up the mess post facto, will not work […] because of inertial effects, warming already in the pipeline, and tipping points”. Hence, “[to avoid] the unmanageable and [to manage] the unavoidable” [8] certainly represents a more rational approach than Friedman’s proposal.

Argument II: From average homogeneity to heterogeneous distribution

Friedman then went on arguing that human species is not optimally adapted to weather conditions because humans are populated in various climate zones over the world. Obviously, there is a range of optimal or acceptable conditions but the point is that, again, passing lower or upper boundaries of this range can lead to severe impacts on humans [9]. A plausible response is migration as a form of adaptation which also Friedman highlighted. But in his argument he essentially disregards any influence to the adaptive capacity of individuals simply assuming homogeneity. He never mentioned one of the decisive points with regards to adaptive capacity which is: where are affected people located on the global cumulative curve of income and wealth.

Several times, Friedman pointed to the ‘marginal’ change of global average temperature, again neglecting the distribution of change among space and time. In its latest “Statement on the Status of the Global Climate” the World Meteorological Organisation documents that the global average temperature in 2016 has been 1.1°C above the pre-industrial level earmarking a novel record after the preceding record year of 2015 [10]. In Austria the temperature increase has even reached a 2°C increase in the same period investigated [11]. For some regions, the observed temperature increase is yet above this level [5, Figure SPM.1, p. 6]. And most strikingly is Friedman’s emphasis on ‘marginal’ or ‘slow’ change in temperatures. For the rate of increase since the beginning of the industrialization this is simply not true [5, Figure 5.7, p. 409].

The prospective impacts will vary in magnitude, direction, space and time [12-13]. But let’s focus a fortiori on a positive externality Friedman has been referring to. For the case of food security it is true that most crop yields could increase up to 20-30% [14]. But these numbers have been evaluated under controlled experiments in the laboratory. Where and when crop yield is expected to be increasing is again a question which Friedman did not further elaborate on. Additionally, there is evidence that the protein content of some crops decreases with higher temperatures [14]. Hence, distributional issues and implications are not within Friedman’s analytical approach. This is also reflected in his utilitarian and consequentialist view of the world: if the number of people dying from cold weather conditions decreases stronger due to global warming than the number of people dying from heat stress increases there is clearly a net benefit. Message to the individuals in the latter group: could you please stand up?

Argument III: Directed economic growth and path dependency

All the above makes the case for the complement of adaptation which is mitigation and in particular early action. It is true that at the moment many technological and behavioural changes complying with climate-neutrality are costly. But what Friedman essentially misses is that economic growth (and its associated benefits) not only has a rate but also a direction. For instance, the technologically driven cycle in the US originating in the ‘mission to the moon’ has been a political and social goal. Besides the development of rockets this mission-oriented approach has led to various kinds of state-funded offspring inventions and innovations ranging from telecommunication technologies, photovoltaics and so on [15].

Let me here bridge the gap back to Friedman’s first talk (and the blog post of Timon Scheuer) and then back again to climate change and the mission-oriented approach. In principle, his proposal for a stateless society – in which “private property, individual rights and voluntary co-operation” is solely brought about by bargaining between contract parties – is an interesting case to look at. In essence it is about completely decentralising the use of force or the threat of using force in order to enforce individual rights. A discussion of this proposal would fill several blog posts (again, cf. Timon Scheuer’s contribution). At the moment let me just argue that this proposal clearly feeds into his ‘wait and see’ principle. In his view, people are informed enough in order to react to changing social, economic and climate environments and, self-evidently, there exist ad hoc responses. But what about ‘tipping points’ and the associated irreversibility experienced post facto? Friedman’s anarcho-capitalist society reflected by self-interest at the micro scale and random walk at the macro scale is certainly not preparing in a way that the direction of change tackles the challenges ahead.


[1] Friedman, D.D., 1989. The machinery of freedom. Guide to radical capitalism. 2nd edition. Open source: http://www.daviddfriedman.com/The_Machinery_of_Freedom_.pdf [07.06.2017]

[2] https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/docs/WG1AR5_FactSheet.pdf

[3] https://www.ipcc.ch/news_and_events/docs/factsheets/FS_select_authors.pdf

[4] http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2013/09/on-mismatches-between-models-and-observations/

[5] http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/report/WG1AR5_ALL_FINAL.pdf

[6] Lenton, T. M., Held, H., Kriegler, E., Hall, J. W., Lucht, W., Rahmstorf, S., & Schellnhuber, H. J. (2008). Tipping elements in the Earth’s climate system. Proceedings of the national Academy of Sciences, 105(6), 1786-1793.

[7] Hansen, J., 2008. Tipping points. Perspective of a Climatologist. Available at: http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/2008/StateOfWild_20080428.pdf

[8] Scientific Expert Group on Climate Change, 2007. Confronting Climate Change: Avoiding the Unmanageable and Managing the Unavoidable, Report prepared for the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, eds Bierbaum RM, Holdren JP, MacCracken MC, Moss RH, Raven PH (Sigma Xi, Research Triangle Park, NC, and United Nations Foundation, Washington, DC.

[9] Parsons, K. (2014). Human thermal environments: the effects of hot, moderate, and cold environments on human health, comfort, and performance. Crc Press.

[10] WMO, 2017. WMO – World Meteorological Organization. Statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2016. WMO-No. 1189. Available at: https://public.wmo.int/en/media/press-release/climate-breaks-multiple-records-2016-global-impacts

[11] APCC. 2014. Österreichischer Sachstandsbericht Klimawandel 2014 (AAR14): Synopse – Das Wichtigste in Kürze. Austrian Panel on Climate Change (APCC), Climate Change Centre Austria, Wien, Österreich.

[12] IPCC, 2014. Summary for policymakers. In: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Field, C.B., V.R. Barros, D.J. Dokken, K.J. Mach, M.D. Mastrandrea, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, and L.L. White (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, pp. 1-32.

[13] Zenghelis, D., 2015. 10. Decarbonisation: Innovation and the Economics of Climate Change. The Political Quarterly, 86: 172–190. doi:10.1111/1467-923X.12239

[14] Schmidhuber, J., & Tubiello, F. N. (2007). Global food security under climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(50), 19703-19708. Available at: http://www.pnas.org/content/104/50/19703.full.pdf [07.06.2017]

[15] Mazzucato, M. (2013), “The Entrepreneurial State – Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths”, Anthem Press, ISBN 978-0-857282-52-1.