Soon after the initial euphoria of landing a man on the moon for the first time in history, NASA’s status as a premier government agency began to quickly decline with the end of the Apollo program in 1972. With the end of the Shuttle program in 2011 and a reliance on Russian and private contractors to conduct space operations, the agency has only continued its decline into apparent irrelevance.
With the moon program more than four decades in the past and a manned Mars mission nowhere in sight with such limited capabilities, NASA has turned towards a much more familiar place: Earth. In a series of Facebook posts over the past few weeks, the agency has put a major focus on studying the effects of man-made climate change through programs like Earth Right Now.
The issue of climate change is typically seen as a dichotomy with liberals advocating for government intervention to resolve the issue and conservatives denying the notion that it is an issue at all. Libertarians would be wise to take a third approach, acknowledging the effects of climate change while advocating for a free market approach to solving the problem.
Almost every reputable scholar studying the issue agrees that rapid changes to the Earth’s climate over a short time frame is caused by human action. However, solving the problem is more contentious. Advocates of government intervention point to the “tragedy of the commons” to say that even when every individual acts rationally and in their own self-interest, this will not be in the best interest of humanity as a whole. The late human ecology professor Garrett Hardin wrote the following in response (full article here):
Even when the shortcomings of the commons are understood, areas remain in which reform is difficult. No one owns the Earth’s atmosphere. Therefore, it is treated as a common dump into which everyone may discharge wastes. Among the unwanted consequences of this behavior are acid rain, the greenhouse effect, and the erosion of the Earth’s protective ozone layer. Industries and even nations are apt to regard the cleansing of industrial discharges as prohibitively expensive. The oceans are also treated as a common dump. Yet continuing to defend the freedom to pollute will ultimately lead to ruin for all. Nations are just beginning to evolve controls to limit this damage.
Hardin astutely points out the terrible effects of government involvement in the savings and loan crisis as well as publicly-funded roads in the following two paragraphs of the article. Yet on this issue, he acknowledged that solving this problem without state intervention would be challenging. With recent technological innovations, however, the need for state intervention to mitigate climate change has been all but eliminated. Electric cars are faster and cheaper than ever, and the cost of solar power continues to plummet. Entrepreneurs should and will continue to find new ways to protect the environment while also contributing to the economy, as opposed to the government trading one for the other. Pollution will decrease not because of government mandates, but simply because it isn’t economical to do so.
While the free market can come up with ways to tackle the issue of climate change on its own, another challenge is actually monitoring of how the climate is changing. While innovation is reducing the harmful effects that humans have on the environment, government is still in charge of tracking the climate’s fluctuations. NASA has been doing a considerable amount of work on this front, including the ARISE mission to fly a C-130 aircraft over the Arctic to analyze how the recent ice loss affects the climate there. The agency has found that the Arctic has been heating rapidly throughout the 21st century while the Pacific Ocean has remained relatively cool. Although it’s not understood why this is the case, this mission and other satellite data will be used to study the issue further.
But even in this regard, there can be a profit motive for tracking the Earth’s climate. NASA has worked with the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) to develop technological solutions to the state’s severe drought. Both the water department and the outside technology consulting should be privatized to give Californians better access to water by ensuring that it remains in abundant supply and is inexpensive. Doing so would also allow technologies like desalination to experience the same rapid price drop that solar power has experienced.
A solution to climate change is possible, and it doesn’t require government – or denial of science, for that matter. All that is necessary to solve environmental issues like climate change and drought is a free market with entrepreneur-driven solutions.