Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
One of the arguments frequently applied to the climate debate is that the “Precautionary Principle” requires that we take action to reduce CO2. However, this is a misunderstanding of the Precautionary Principle, which means something very different from the kind of caution that makes us carry an umbrella when rain threatens. Some people are taking the Precautionary Principle way too far …
Figure 1. Umbrella Exhibiting an Excess of Precaution
The nature of the Precautionary Principle is widely misunderstood. Let me start with the birth of the Precautionary Principle (I’ll call it PP for short), which comes from the United Nations Rio de Janeiro Declaration on the Environment (1992). Here’s their original formulation:
“In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capability. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”
This is an excellent statement of the PP, as it distinguishes it from such things as carrying umbrellas, denying bank loans, approving the Kyoto Protocol, invading Afghanistan, or using seat belts.
The three key parts of the PP (emphasis mine) are:
1) A threat of serious or irreversible damage.
2) A lack of full scientific certainty (in other words, the existence of partial but not conclusive scientific evidence).
3) The availability of cost-effective measures that we know will prevent the problem.
Here are some examples of how these key parts of the PP work out in practice.
We have full scientific certainty that seat belts save lives, and that using an umbrella keeps us dry. Thus, using them is not an example of the PP, it is simply acting reasonably on principles about which we are scientifically certain.
There are no scientific principles or evidence that we can apply to the question of invading Afghanistan, so we cannot apply the PP there either.
Bank loans are neither serious nor irreversible, nor is there partial scientific understanding of them, so they don’t qualify for the PP.
The Kyoto Protocol is so far from being cost-effective as to be laughable. The PP can be thought of as a kind of insurance policy. No one would pay $200,000 for an insurance policy if the payoff in case of an accident were only $20, yet this is the kind of ratio of cost to payoff that the Kyoto Protocol involves. Even its proponents say that if the states involved met their targets, it would only reduce the temperature by a tenth of a degree in fifty years … not a good risk/reward ratio.
Finally, consider CO2. The claim is that in fifty years, we’ll be sorry if we don’t stop producing CO2 now. However, we don’t know whether CO2 will cause any damage at all in fifty years, much less whether it will cause serious or irreversible damage. We have very little evidence that CO2 will cause “dangerous” warming other than fanciful forecasts from untested, unverified, unvalidated climate models which have not been subjected to software quality assurance of any kind. We have no evidence that a warmer world is a worse world, it might be a better world. The proposed remedies are estimated to cost on the order of a trillion dollars a year … hardly cost effective under any analysis. Nor do we have any certainty whether the proposed remedies will prevent the projected problem. So cutting CO2 fails to qualify for the PP under all three of the criteria.
On the other side of the equation, a good example of when we should definitely use the PP involves local extinction. We have fairly good scientific understanding that removing a top predator from a local ecosystem badly screws things up. Kill the mountain lions, and the deer go wild, then the plants are overgrazed, then the ground erodes, insect populations are unbalanced, and so on down the line.
Now, if we are looking at a novel ecosystem that has not been scientifically studied, we do not have full scientific certainty that removing the top predator will actually cause serious or irreversible damage to the ecosystem. However, if there is a cost-effective method to avoid removing the top predator, the PP says that we should do so. It fulfils the three requirements of the PP — there is a threat of serious or irreversible damage, we have partial scientific certainty, and a cost-effective solution exists, so we should act.
Because I hold these views about the inapplicability of the precautionary principle to CO2, I am often accused of not wanting to do anything about a possible threat. People say I’m ignoring something which could cause problems in the future. This is not the case. I do not advocate inaction. I advocate the use of “no-regrets” actions in response to this kind of possible danger.
The rule of the no-regrets approach is very simple — do things that will provide real, immediate, low-cost, tangible benefits whether or not the threat is real. That way you won’t regret your actions.
Here are some examples of no-regrets responses to the predicted threats of CO2. In Peru, the slums up on the hillside above Lima are very dry, which is a problem that is supposed to get worse if the world warms. In response to the problem, people are installing “fog nets“. These nets capture water from the fog, providing fresh water to the villagers.
In India’s Ladakh region, they have the same problem, lack of water. So they have started building “artificial glaciers“.These are low-cost shallow ponds where they divert the water during the winter. The water freezes, and is slowly released as the “glacier” melts over the course of the following growing season.
These are the best type of response to a possible threat from CO2. They are inexpensive, they solve a real problem today rather than a half century from now, and they are aimed at the poor of the world.
These responses also reveal what I call the “dirty secret” of the “we’re all gonna die in fifty years from CO2” crowd. The dirty secret of their forecasts of massive impending doom is that all of the threatened catastrophes they warn us about are here already.
All the different types of climate-related destruction that people are so worried will happen in fifty years are happening today. Droughts? We got ’em. Floods? There’s plenty. Rising sea levels? Check. Insect borne diseases? Which ones would you like? Tornados and extreme storms? We get them all the time. People dying of starvation? How many do you want? All the Biblical Plagues of Egypt? Would you like flies with that?
Forget about what will happen in fifty years. Every possible climate catastrophe is happening now, and has been for centuries.
So if you are truly interested in those problems, do something about them today. Contribute to organizations developing salt resistant crops. Put money into teaching traditional drought resisting measures in Africa. Support the use of micro-hydroelectric plants for village energy. The possibilities are endless.
That way, whether or not the doomsayers are right about what will happen in fifty years, both then and now people will be better prepared and more able to confront the problems caused by the unpleasant vagaries of climate. Fighting to reduce CO2 is hugely expensive, has been totally unsuccessful to date, will be very damaging to the lives of the poorest people, and has no certainty of bringing the promised results. This is a very bad combination.
Me, I don’t think CO2 will cause those doomsday scenarios. But that’s just me, I’ve been wrong before. If you do care about CO2 and think it is teh eeeevil, you should be out promoting your favorite no-regrets option. Because whether or not CO2 is a danger as people claim, if you do that you can be sure that you are not just pouring money down a bottomless hole with very poor odds of success. That’s the real Precautionary Principle.