Some who adhere to the global warming theory use the Precautionary Principle (PP) as a reason to act. Their claims are that even if the science is not guaranteed as to the cause and effect of our emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) that the PP dictates that we act to reduce our emissions. That is, if Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) theory has a potential to be wrong, because we cannot have 100% certainty as to the effects of our emissions of CO2, then we must act anyway because the PP applies.
Surprisingly there is no specific definition of the Precautionary Principle.**
Wikipedia has this: “The precautionary principle is a moral and political principle which states that if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action.”
According to Bill Durodie in ‘An Apology for Capitalism’, “One of the more authoritative [definitions] versions comes from the 1992 Rio ‘Earth’ Summit. It contains a rather cumbersome triple negative, to the effect that not having evidence is not a justification for not taking action. If we undo a couple of the knots, then as two negatives make a positive, we are left with ‘action without evidence is justified’. That’s it, in a nutshell. The precautionary principle is, above all else, an invitation to those without evidence, expertise or authority, to shape and influence political debates. It achieves that, by introducing supposedly ethical elements into the process of scientific, corporate and governmental decision making.”
Is the use of the PP as a reason for acting to change climate change justified? The Wikipedia definition has two important aspects: morals and politics. Both of these are highly abused and twisted depending upon the political bent of the people wheedling the PP sword.
Does the PP require us to act to stop climate change? I would argue no. There are two simple reasons for this.
First, does invoking action actually change the course of climate change? According to Wiki “burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action.” Thus those who advocate taking action to curb climate change need to show us that taking action will actually achieve the desired goal. It’s not like some potential new drug coming to the market where the company needs to show that it is safe. There is no action on the part of the advocates of caution there as they just prevent the drug from coming on to market. What the advocates of PP on climate change want is for positive actions to take place. This includes spending billions on things like the carbon trade system and billions more on carbon sequestering. Thus the burden of proof falls on them to show that these actions they propose will actually work, and not do more harm than good.
Second, what is the cost of the proposed actions? Does the cost of action out trump the “costs” of inaction? This is a common sidestep by those who advocate action by saying the cost of inaction will be much more. But the economy is so complex, so interdependent, that there is no way that such evidence can be shown. Furthermore, economic models are notorious for being grossly wrong, worse than climate models.
In conclusion, we should forcefully challenge any claim that the PP be used as a reason to act against climate change. We must demand that they show that the use of the PP, and their actions, can be justified.
London, Ontario, Canada
** Gary Marchant and Kenneth Mossman explain in their book ‘Arbitrary and Capricious: The Precautionary Principle in the European Union Courts’, (International Policy Press, 2005) that the more than sixty European Union judicial opinions mentioning the PP, with perhaps a single exemption, do not attempt to define the PP and that the European Union Courts are well aware that the PP is not defined in European Union legislation, in specific regulatory enactments, or by the EU courts themselves (pg.31).
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