Distributism and Global Warming

Not a Single Cube of Ice

In November of 2008, the cargo ship Camilla Desgagnés delivered supplies to the Arctic village of Kugluctuk. It did so by traversing the Northwest Passage and was first commercial voyage through the passage in recorded history. Normally, the Northwest Passage can be traversed only by powerful ice-breakers, if at all, but on this voyage they did not see a single cube of ice. It is likely that the passage will soon be open to regular commercial shipping, and on a year-round basis. This is likely to cause some problems for Canada, since it claims sovereignty over the passage, a claim which no other nation (including the United States) recognizes. It could even be a causus belli, if Canada decides to defend its claims.

Canada's claims are not my subject; I am concerned with the meaning of this voyage. The voyage of the Camilla Degangés should be sufficient to prove the reality of global warming, which has cleared the passage of ice. At one time, perhaps, it was possible to deny global warming, or to claim that the evidence was not weighty enough to reach a conclusion, but the voyage of a ship of 5,000 metric tonnes should be weight enough to settle the question. But while it settles the question of whether there is global warming, it does not settle the questions of the causes or the cures.

The major question is whether global warming has its roots in human industrial production, and the tons of pollutants spewed into the natural environment. To be sure, there have been changes in the climate within human history prior to the Industrial Revolution. There was the Medieval Warming Period which allowed the expansion of Viking power, and the “Little Ice Age” which ended it. Nevertheless, it would also be a mistake in logic to conclude that because there are natural causes of climate change, there can be no human causes as well.

I must confess up front that I am not smart enough to reach any informed conclusion about the subject; the scientific debates exceed my poor knowledge by several orders of magnitude. But I would be very much surprised to learn that you could dump unnatural chemicals into the environment, or natural chemicals in unnatural amounts, and not have any effect. To expect nature to handle a chemical it has never seen, or to rebalance chemicals it has already balanced, is to expect too much of the natural order. Of this I am sure: The burden of proof must rest on the polluters. Those who wish to use the air, the rivers, the ocean, and the land as public dumps should be forced to demonstrate, on sound evidence, that it will do no harm. Those who would limit such dumping do not have to prove a thing, other than that such dumping is not natural; it is up to the dumpers to prove that nature can take it.

Suspicion about “Environmentalism”

I believe that conservatives express great skepticism about global warming for two reasons at least. One, it is frequently connected with theories of “overpopulation,” theories which by now should have been thoroughly debunked, and two, they view it as an attack on capitalism and a back-door route to global socialism. These are legitimate grounds for suspicion. Concerning the first, if population control is the solution, then China, with its one-child policy, should be well on the way to solving its pollution problem. But in fact, the reverse is the case. China's pollution problems are growing with its demographic problems, not shrinking. Indeed, the one-child policy has made China's problems all that much worse. No matter how bad things get in the United States, they will still be better than what happens in China.

It is not too many people, but too many wasteful people that are the problem. One can confirm this with a little thought experiment. Imagine that the population of Africa is doubled at an instant, but their levels of consumption are held constant. It is likely that there would be little, if any, environmental effect; Africa has more than enough resources to support a much larger population. But now, imagine that the population is held constant, but their consumption levels are raised immediately to that of the Americans or Europeans. This is likely to result in an environmental catastrophe. This thought experiment is being tested in fact as both China and India aspire to American forms of consumerism.

Pollution as a “Property Right”

The other problem is that conservatives see environmentalism as an attack on capitalism and industrialism. However, even if that were true at one time, the reverse is happening now, namely that capitalism itself is being proposed as the solution, through the means of establishing pollution as a property right. This is the meaning of the “cap and trade” system. Government will give the biggest polluters the biggest rights to pollute, and then slowly withdraw the rights, leading to a market in pollution rights. And since the market knows all things, sees all things, the market will solve the problem without any further government involvement.

It is hard for me to imagine a worse solution than making a pollution a “right,” essentially a legal right to poison your neighbor. When you create such rights, you are likely to get more of a thing, not less. And since there are such huge measurement problems, not to mention a host of loopholes, cap and trade will create a vast and profitable market without materially reducing pollution. Indeed, creating a property right in pollution creates a constituency to continue that right, and extend it. The “trade” part of cap and trade will be real enough; the “cap” part is likely to be ephemeral. (For a good left-wing analysis of this program, see Annie Leonard's The Story of Cap and Trade; while you are at her site, see The Story of Stuff.)

Distributist Solutions

The proper answer to bad solutions is not no solutions; it is better solutions. Nor is denial an answer. Even if we are in a “natural” warming period, unrestrained industrial action can only make it worse. Distributism is capable of providing these better solutions, and recognizing the reality of pollution, for distributism itself is an exercise in realism. And distributist solutions are rooted in two sound principles: proper cost accounting and community rights.

Pollution is an “externality.” An externality is the cost of a transaction that is borne by someone not a party to the transaction. When a company dumps mercury into the river, there will be health problems downstream, a real cost. The price of a product should reflect all the costs, but this cost will not show up in the price. The people downstream of the plant will subsidize the company through increased birth defects; the company will get the benefits of using the river as a sewer, and the downstream babies will get the cost of a lifetime of problems. By definition, an externality cannot be handled by the market; it is external to the market. To ask the market to handle the problem is asking it to do something it cannot do, and that is asking for trouble.

The first step in any solution is not to see pollution as a right, but as a wrong. And the nature of that wrong is that it appropriates a community resource (such as the air, the river, the ground) as a private property, and does so without any compensation to the community. The community has every natural right to forbid this, or at least to charge for the use of these resources, up to their full value.

Proper cost accounting insures that all costs show up in the price of a product. In the case of externalities, the market cannot do this; it is up to the community. The community must put a price on its resources, just like any other owner of a resource must do. Some resources cannot be assigned any cost. In the case of mercury poisoning, it can only be forbidden. Other things can be priced, even at a price that restricts their use. Carbon outputs can be priced, and ought to be; the community ought to recover something for the use of its resources, and the overuse of certain things ought to be discouraged. Only proper cost accounting and the proper recognition of community rights can do this. It is amazing, by the way, just how many questions of social justice come down to questions of proper cost accounting. Indeed, one of the great uses of distributism is to ensure that costs are properly charged to cost causers.

Distributists should be leaders, not laggards, in dealing with these questions. Aside from the economic issues, distributism is rooted in Christian principles which dictate a reverence for nature. This reverence is not a worship of nature in the raw, but a proper respect for the created order over which man has proper dominion. This dominion is not a tyranny which allows us to abuse nature, but rather to care for it. We make nature serve human ends; this is right and proper. But in doing so, we do not violate its “natural” status; we do not convert the river into an open sewer, the ground into a cesspit. At that point, it is not natural, and quickly ceases to serve any human purpose, other than the purpose of letting a few humans get rich at the expense of their brothers.


Steven P. Cornett,  Sunday, December 20, 2009 at 10:23:00 PM CST  

Actually, that first statement is not quite true either. Much of the Northwest passage was accessible by Canadian ships up to the 30s.

The Town, for instance, was called Coppermine until 1996, and is on the border between the Northwest Territories and the recently created province of Nunavut. That means that the while there were ships that supplied the town, they were either the Canadian Navy or those of the mining company in question.

Like much else about the Global Warming issue, there is a lot of propaganda going out. This means that claims like this must be carefully parsed, because they are being carefully crafted to lead to the conclusion that highly restrictive statist solutions are necessary.

John Médaille Sunday, December 20, 2009 at 10:34:00 PM CST  

Actually, they were supplied from the West, not the East. No one has made a commercial East-West transit until now.

Joe Monday, December 21, 2009 at 12:49:00 AM CST  


I appreciate your perspective. As I've said on other occasions, I am deeply concerned with:

a) the hostility that global warming alarmists have towards open, critical debate (a sound theory should be able to withstand scrutiny),

b) the undemocratic nature of the institutions and processes that are allegedly addressing this issue,

c) the linkage to eugenics and population control that many leading figures in the secular "environmental" movement have.

You say in your piece that China's one-child policy hasn't worked. Well, tell it to the Chinese government - they are saying, to the world, that they would have been much greater polluters without it, they are saying that the 400 million fewer people they have due their program of forced abortion and infanticide has significantly reduced China's "carbon footprint." Whether it "works" or not, then, depends on a) your point of view, and b) is totally irrelevant, given that the goal really isn't to reduce air pollution, but "people pollution."

The further you go into this global warming debate, the worse it looks. No one wants to be stigmatized as a "conspiracy theorist", but there is evidence that demands a verdict, especially when the stakes are so high - a reordering of the global economy, a loss (not total but certainly partial) of national sovereignty and certainly local control over everything and anything carbon-related (which is a lot!), potentially disastrous consequences for the third world (think of the biofuels disaster), etc.

We simply can't afford to NOT be skeptical of this movement. I realize that your concern is with the Distributist attitude towards the environment, but we must also decide where we stand on what is taking place in Copenhagen and what will soon be undertaken by the governments of the world.

Anonymous,  Monday, December 21, 2009 at 1:06:00 AM CST  

I don't imagine there are any distributists who believe it's okay to pollute the environment, but I'm AGW sceptic myself.

And I'm extremely worried by the anti-human outlook of the climate change proponents and environmentalists generally.

Jeremy Monday, December 21, 2009 at 1:28:00 AM CST  


Are you aware of the Oregon Institute of Science and Industry's petition project on this subject? It was formed to prove that many scientists do not believe that Global Warming is caused by human release of C02. Currently, there are more than 31,000 scientists who have signed this petition, far more than anything the IPCC has ever summoned up.

Ivan Monday, December 21, 2009 at 9:04:00 AM CST  

Dear Sir,

I understand distributists hew to a narrow path between statists and capiltalists, putting a premium on honest dealing above other values. Precisely for this reason you should have a look at http://eureferendum.blogspot.com/ where Dr North (who is a well known scourge of scaremongers) lays out an effective case against Dr Pachauri the IPCC chairman. Other articles show convincingly show that the the main purpose of the Copenhagen meetings were to preserve the carbon credits market, whose main purpose seems to be the enrichment of Third World industrialists at the expense of the workers of the West.

Chris Campbell Monday, December 21, 2009 at 9:26:00 AM CST  

I think as Distributist, we need to rpesent teh Distributist solution, nothte Hudge/Gudge scare tactics and solutions...a lot of big money in Al Gore's chest...

Sadly as J.Pearce points out, Chesterton and Belloc were green long before anyone else...

One movie that is good and used tobe at Google video (maybe still there_ is the Great Global Wrming swindle..or some such title...it points out that solar flares are rarely discussed as a cause or that warming/colding is cyclical...

Nonetheless, huge factories and condensing the population (Agenda 21)has caused a great deal of pollution, something everyone can agree is a major problem-warming or not....and a Problem-action-solution for Hudge/Gudge

I myself lived in area where IBM dumped for yrs into the ground (go to Wikipedia, look up Endicott and also, Broome county)...now there is increased health concerns, lawsuits and some areas they have poles dug into the ground like coal towns in PA.

We Distributists really need to present our solution, which is really not "red", "green", etc....but humane, clean living.


Anonymous,  Monday, December 21, 2009 at 12:12:00 PM CST  

Apparently the "green weenies" are satisfied with aborting a child or pulling the plug on granny - now they want you to off Fido and Fifi to save the planet...

Polluting pets: the devastating impact of man's best friend

PARIS (AFP) – Man's best friend could be one of the environment's worst enemies, according to a new study which says the carbon pawprint of a pet dog is more than double that of a gas-guzzling sports utility vehicle.


Chris Campbell Monday, December 21, 2009 at 2:17:00 PM CST  

Here is a link to the movie I noted earlier:


Is-or was-on goolge and Youtube

Besorge Tuesday, December 22, 2009 at 4:09:00 PM CST  

Listen, I am not sure I believe the whole CO2 fiasco, but there is some evidence showing that many planets are also experiencing warming periods as well. Which means that the fact the Earth is warming can be correct, but because of CO2, I am not too sure.

There has been few things which have made me skeptical about this whole Global Warming, as you might remember better than me, there was once Global Cooling according to scientist. As soon as this was confirmed to not be true Global Warming began to become the next scare.

When I see Al Gore as one of the leading supposed heroes of this movement, it kind of makes me step back for a closer look. Just because someone does not believe in CO2 emissions at their current level causing global warming, does not mean they are not environmentalists. I have great concern for this planet, for the safe and proper use of our resources, but I have grown very skeptical about this 'Global Warming caused by CO2 emissions.

Besorge Tuesday, December 22, 2009 at 4:14:00 PM CST  


Besorge Tuesday, December 22, 2009 at 4:19:00 PM CST  


julian,  Tuesday, December 22, 2009 at 10:35:00 PM CST  

Certainly, there is a temptation to react to the resistance to discussing and inquiry that world powers who are pushing climate change solutions. There is something just plain phony about the religious zeal and protectionism that is so apparent. You can still smell a rat, even if you think Glen Beck is a quack. However, what is disappointing is that the global warming frames the answer in almost abstract terms, (carbon credits) that no one can really understand and respond to. This distracts from the real problem that governments, (both local and national) CAN address such as water pollution caused by industrial farming. Mountain top removal for coal is also another problem that quickly impacts local communities. Were the discussion really focused on earth and water pollution people could more easily relate to this because we SEE it for ourselves. In addition, we can apply real solutions and controls to prevent these abuses at a local level. Instead, so governments' proposed answer to global warming, (apparently directly advanced by livestock) is to i.d and tax livestock in a manner that only serves to further limit the ability of small, local, responsible farming. It is for these reasons as well as the eco-marketing that is crammed down my throat by the biggest corporate offenders, and not a nostalgic affinity for faux conservative Republicans causes, that I personally am resistant to the cult of Global Warming hysteria.

julian,  Tuesday, December 22, 2009 at 10:40:00 PM CST  

yeah, my first sentence wasn't very clear. what i meant, is that the Global Warming zealots have demonstrated a resistance to inquiry. That is concerning.

anyway, you get the point.

Chris Campbell Wednesday, December 23, 2009 at 7:13:00 AM CST  


you are correct that there has been evidence of "warming" on planets like Mars and outer moons/planets past Mars...

Supports more solar flares and a move toward end of the world, at hands and direction of God...

Interesting that man is not on Mars,et al, yet the warming is going on, no?

Steven P. Cornett,  Wednesday, December 23, 2009 at 8:44:00 AM CST  

Re: Chris Campbell,

Yes, it is, at least during the time it was actually warming. It hasn't for the last decade or so.

Still, it is important to ask about the reality (or lack thereof) of man-made global warming. Another important question is what other dangers are there that might be of greater importance, for which the Distributist solutions mentioned might be of aid. One important one to me is the feminization of the fish and other animals dependent on fresh water sources increasingly contaminated by the byproducts of contraceptives and other chemicals.

There is where conservation of natural resources meets head on with the Culture of Death.

Stephen Peterson Monday, December 28, 2009 at 5:50:00 PM CST  

Hi John,

Thank you for a well thought out article on this topic. With all the hype surrounding Copenhagen it is easy for someone to jump into the debate as either a ‘believer’ or a ‘sceptic’, or as I have been, to get confused by the issues and sit on the fence as an ‘environmental agnostic’. As you’ve said, the alternative to a bad solution isn’t no solution.
For centuries Catholics have had to walk the fine line between Protestant fundamentalism and militant Atheism. It seems like an easy solution for some to side with the fundamentalists because of the things held in common, but conveniently forget that the fundamentalists are the ones who send missionaries to South America to convert Catholics to “Christianity”. It is also sometimes easy to forget one’s pastoral duty to Atheists, remembering that often they are Atheists in the first place because of a bad experience they have had with fundamentalists.
Similarly, as Distributists, we have to remember that while climate change ‘believers’ threaten the fundamental right to life, our ‘sceptic’ friends aren’t really our friends either. The ultimate motives behind the ‘sceptic’ movement are hardly pure. They are motivated by big businesses who wouldn’t hesitate to rip apart our landscapes, pump poisonous fumes into our lungs and feed lead to our children in order to make a quick buck. They’ve only been able to convince us that the ‘believers’ are evil by concealing their own motives. The climate change debate is a clash of the titans. It is the old battle between big government and big business being fought once more in a new guise. As in Chesterton and Belloc’s time, the two mighty titans would have us support one against the other, but in the end they don’t care about the stray earthquakes and the fallout lightning bolts that rain down on us mortals. In the battle over the ‘truths’ of climate change it doesn’t matter who wins, we loose, not because they dislike us but because we are inconsequential to them.
If we are unable to step back from the debate and observe both sides critically, we are not really being distributists. By supporting climate change ‘sceptics’ in this debate all we do is lend our support to the giant of big business against big government. This is the same old fight between socialists and capitalists that has been raging all through the last century in a new form. We can either continue to be good distributists and offer an alternative ‘third way’ or return to the servitude of a titan.

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