Social Philosophy and Policy

Research Article


Jonathan H. Adlera1

a1 Law, Case Western Reserve University School of Law


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 FME advocates 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, 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 industrialized nations—are likely to increase environmental harms suffered by other countries—less developed nations that have not (as of yet) made any significant contribution to 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. Yet 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. As a consequence, this paper calls for a rethinking of FME approaches to climate change policy.

Jonathan H. Adler is Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. His edited books include The Costs of Kyoto: Climate Change Policy and Its Implications (1998), and Ecology, Liberty, and Property: A Free-Market Environmental Reader (2000). He received a B.A. magna cum laude from Yale University, and a J.D. summa cum laude from the George Mason University School of Law.


The author would like to thank Lloyd Gerson, Indur Goklany, Andrew Morriss, Dale Nance, Ellen Frankel Paul, and Roger Pielke, Jr., for comments on various drafts of this essay, and Tai Antoine for her research assistance. Any error or inanities are the fault of the author alone.