Climate, Caution, and Precaution

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.


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Dave F

Not even close to reading this. In fact I just wanted to say that the +4 Umbrella of Caution can only be wielded by those who are lawful neutral…

Dave F

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.
I eagerly await the response to this. I’ve found that the adaptability of the human race is actually quite astonishing. I live in the are of Ohio between Dayton and Cincinnati. One of the more prominent events here, which I though of immediately following the North Dakota floods of last year, is the flood of Dayton in the early 1900s.
Read about it and the response to it, and the capability of man to overcome nature becomes apparent. I especially like the “false” glacier ideas and fog nets outlined above. These three events show that the local population will adapt to the local conditions to survive.

in a nutshell: The precautionary principle is Pascal’s wager repackaged.

Carl Chapman

For some people, society pouring money down a bottomless hole is a desirable outcome. I’m talking about Al Gore, the Carbon Exchange, Goldman Sachs and others who are at the bottom of the hole scooping up that money.


Bjorn Lomborg is is a proponent of this way of thinking. Even if you do buy into the idea of AGW, it’s a common sense way of dealing with the issue, and perhaps actually accomplishing some good along the way. It’s a free market, freedom enabling mindset. Which is exactly why the powers that be will never go along with it.
Anthony, a Happy New Year to you and yours, and many thanks for your great work! Thanks also to the many learned commenters here, I learn much from scrolling through the back and forth in this section.

Steve Schapel

Many thanks, Willis. An excellent and creative article that extends our ability to look at the situation rationally. Hopefully some of those in the alarmist camp will eventually allow themselves to be exposed to these kinds of ideas.


Precautionary principle= don’t act without determining consequences.
Idiot principle= act without determining consequences.
Which principle are people following?


Another great post Willis! Happy New Year sir and may logic and reason prevail more this year than the last.
I know it’s OT for this post but I would be curious to hear your thoughts on CO2 IR wavelength absorption saturation as a limiting factor. It seems to pop up on occasion and the one serious article I’ve read on it used GISS as the reference for its calculated sensitivity.
Also, a crazy idea to start the New Year: Subsurface (but still near surface of the 1-6 foot variety) temperatures are essentially naturally smoothed averages for the surface temperature. I’d be curious if a measurement of this type could be used… for example, as a QC check for surface station instrument measurements.

John Trigge

Good article.
I will ensure my (Australian) PP-advocating politicians are sent a copy.

anna v

Well said. If humans followed the precautionary principle the way it is interpreted by AGwarmers we should never lle in our bed: over 90% of people die in a bed.
As for the ingenuity of humans to get water where needed, have a look at the ancient Qanats of Persia.


Dave F (22:56:25) :
Not even close to reading this. In fact I just wanted to say that the +4 Umbrella of Caution can only be wielded by those who are lawful neutral…
Dave, most people will not understand this line, but it is a travesty that I do … 🙂
Anywho… great piece Willis, and echoes my feelings about the misuse of the precautionary pinciple in AGW debates. Lomborg is spot on, and we have an opposition party leader in Australia that could get a lot of mileage selling this way of thinking.
Money would be more wisely spent on the PP to avoid possible large extinction should Apophis decide to pay earth a close visit in 26 years… at least that would be an appropriate measure to combat the known possible threat.
John Trigge:
Beat me to it… do you wish to write the Abbott or shall I? 🙂 Maybe we should chip in and send him a copy of Lomborg’s book.

Peter of Sydney

The Precautionary principle requires one essential ingredient: a solution that has at least a fair chance of working to solve the possible problem. The solution in this issue is to reduce CO2 emission by at least 50% now, not in 10, 20, 50 years time. They couldn’t even agree to a 1% reduction in 50 years at the Copenhagen summit. So, what’s the point of talking about the Precautionary principle if they are not prepared to believe their own nonsense and act accordingly? It’s all one big con.
Ok, let’s think about this for one tick. Let’s assume the man-made global warming alarmist crap is actually true. The only way to avert it is to reduce CO2 emmission now, not by introducing a new tax that only makes the rich get richer and the rest of us poorer, but to start building nuclear, solar and other forms of power generation systems. At the same time there must be a complete ban on building any more coal fired power stations. Now tell that to countries like India and China. They will tell you where to go quick smart. SO, either we are all doomed or the AGW is a hoax and we’ll be OK. Take your pick.

Lady in Red

Happy New Year!
Yes: Bjorn Lomborg is simple, makes sense, doesn’t make Goldman Sachs
rich trading carbon credits…. Help people, today.
(I think I have just been banned, hopelessly, from Tamino’s Open Mind site for asking too many silly questions….
(In my mind, the PP is much worse with Big Banks: We need to break ’em up,
stomp on ’em, re-introduce Glass-Stegall….)
The mindset you introduce, however, is valuable in either case: truth, simple right.
Did I say: Happy New Year. It’s the only one we have.

Doug in Seattle

Yes, it is a Dirty Little Secret.

Mike McMillan

I think the umbrella is an excellent example of the PP, especially in some parts of town. Notice how the knuckles are protected from abrasion in case you should accidentally brush them against something. And it may rain.
I’m afraid of sharks, so I never swim in the Mississippi river. PP and low cost.
And I don’t recall anyone other than the Soviets invading Afghanistan. We just sent some advisers in riding horses to help something called the Northern Alliance chase the thugs out. And bombed a little bit. 🙂

Gillian Lord

Bulldust and John Trigge
Yes, write to the Abbott. He needs all the help he can get. I have spent all Christmas on it.


Great starting position for 2010 Willis


There is a big difference between “pure” and “applied” science. Pure science often deals with controlled experimental exnvironment whereas applied science deals with all the uncertainties and vagaries of the real world. Applied science has been dealing with the precautionary principle since the dawn of history. Engineers and applied scientist use mundane term called ” factor of safety” and as a joke “factor of ignorance”. The factor of safety could be unrealistically high especially if the impacts on human health is unknown. Toxicology tests are made on animals and projected to humans and divided by the factor of safety. For example the allowable level of impurities in drinking water could be equivalent to a person drinking a truckload every day. However, the factor of safety has a specific numerical value that is adjusted as more information is available. If the particular chemical is later found to less toxic, the factor of safety is reduced. If its is found more toxic then a complete ban may be imposed. The PP just like any UN coined terminology is high sounding, highly political, very irrational and vague to a point of being meaningless. To put PP into practice, the proponent has to result to accepted political propaganda or demagoguery techniques such as those use in the CRU and the IPCC. That is bully out opposing views, silence criticism, create an atmosphere of panic, and transform the cause to political belief. Cost effectiveness together with the rational discourse are eliminated.


Thanks for another thought provoking article, Willis.
There are many example of how mankind has had massive negative effects on the environment by taking precautionary measures to cure one problem, only to find that the remedy has caused a worse problem in another direction.
This is due to a fundamental lack of understanding about how the total system operates and until we the wisdom to fully understand the complexity, no action must be taken.
I get very concerned when I hear about the true CAGW believers who are think that engineering the climate will become the only way to ‘save the Earth’.
Megalomania is a very dangerous psychosis.

Cold Englishman

Very sensible, and well argued article Willis.
The ‘no regrets’ definition reminds me of the early sixties, when as a young engineering surveyor volunteer, I found myself in central Africa, working on highway schemes, infrastructure, mapping, hydroelectric projects, you name it. Was it worth it? Well to me it was, the experience was rewarding, and maybe there are a few folk, who can now trade more easily, who have electricity and better communications and health, just maybe. But on balance, I suspect that most of the wealth created by me and others now lies in a Swiss Bank.


Quote: “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.”
Not quite. The oceans haven’t yet risen by 20 ft, as predicted by the Reverend Al Gore. 🙂


The warming doom wasn’t true in the 30’s, and it certainly isn’t true now.
The cooling trend wasn’t irreversible in the 1890’s and 1950’s, and it probably won’t be this time either.
One of these trends, we will get one that goes a step beyond. Wouldn’t it be great if we had already been adapting, practicing precaution, instead of singing The Sky is Falling Kumbayas?

Here’s another perspective on the PP. I have no qualifications on this topic, so fill in your own likelihoods of each of the following statements being true.
1. The “globe” is warming p=?
2. The warming is caused by human activity p=?
3. Humans now or will soon have the capability of reversing the warming p=?
4. The cost of reversing it will be less than those of not doing so p=?
Note that the values of p for 1 and 2 are irrelevant, even though probably over 90% of the discussions focus on them. The only things that matter are the p values for 3 and 4. Not being a climatologist, my opinion is irrelevant, but I suspect that no one can produce a defensible estimate of p for 3 at this time. If we don’t know whether we can reverse the warming, the p for 4 is also irrelevant. If we do know that it is reversible, then it does comes into play. However that p value might still indicate that coping with the warming is a better approach (much to some people’s chagrin).
Note that the above is not really complete. We should also factor in the possibility that intervening might cause more damage than the coping alternative.
Where can I get a good price on a fog net? Does it come with a 10-year warranty?


“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.”
Indeed! I mean, we were going to have to maintain and raise living standards ANYWAY, and who knows…
Maybe some other catastrophic event will take place, in which case we’d be caught with our pants down in “retooling” civilization.
Maybe, despite any real problem that might materialize, our current sources of energy are the only cost-effective way that would save as many human lives as possible.
Maybe any real problem would turn out to not be C02, but rather something else!
But these points and many others that I’ve argued with various greens over the years are wasted time and wasted breath. They want themselves and others to be afraid, to “atone”, and they want that massive ego-trip of self-righteousness that comes from being “the good shepherd”.
Oh well. Human nature will over-run there plans. They may think that in promoting all this greenery that they are changing human nature, but when all is said and done…
…nothing has changed about human nature! They’re damming something that cannot be dammed up! They are not in controll of anything!
About a year before Climategate was “household” word, I predicted that something big was going to happen (in terms of AGW issue) in 2009, and probably late in the year as the growing economic hardships set in. That was my prediction for 2009 in the year 2008. My prediction for 2010 is that the whole plan will be all but forgotten. Human nature can do some amazing turn-arounds in such a short time.
Oh, and… Happy new year, all !!!

Truth seeker

“I know it’s OT for this post but I would be curious to hear your thoughts on CO2 IR wavelength absorption saturation as a limiting factor. It seems to pop up on occasion and the one serious article I’ve read on it used GISS as the reference for its calculated sensitivity”
Can you give a reference to this article ? This is something I have puzzled over as well but I can’t find any relevant information.

Martin Brumby

I absolutely agree that Willis’s approach is the right one. I wouldn’t even mind paying (yet) more for my energy bills if the money raised was genuinely going to pay for upgrading flood defences on the one hand (which we need irrespective of any ‘risk’ of Greenland melting) or providing affordable, reliable energy for the third world on the other.
And if that energy is produced by modern, efficient coal fired power stations using indigenous coal, then so far as I’m concerned, that’s great!
But what is now on offer is the destruction of the Western economies chasing a chimera. And incidentally transferring unbelievable amounts of money and power to Pachauri, to Maurice Strong, to the Carbon Exchanges, to Goldman Sachs, to the Goracle and to all the other crooked scumbags who are busily pumping up the AGW scam. And not forgetting the vote hungry scientifically illiterates like Obama, Brown, Milipede and Rudd (the Genius of the Antipodes).
These are the people we have to beat, not a few deluded Greenies. Some pepper spray will deal with them.
I’m not in favour of Capital Punishment. But I think I could put a brave face on seeing heads on pikestaffs around the keep of the Tower of London for some of the big money crooks whose activities are sucking hope out of the third world, terrifying our children and destroying what’s left of our economies.

In full agreement that CO2 is not the stuff which “will cause those doomsday scenarios”, but the precautionary principle (PP) needs to be applied on a global level with regard to the oceans.
Back in 1982 the “UN Convention on the Law of the Sea” stipulated in Article 197:
“States have the obligation to protect and preserve the marine environment.”
This obligation is international law since 1994, and the document has constitutional quality. If the States and we all would prevent manmade changes in the marine environment, serious anthropogenic changes in the global weather pattern would be much less likely to be happening. The Convention provides a whole section on Marine Scientific Research (Part XIII). Why did our forefathers seem to have understood the global natural commons much better as we? For example:
____Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519): “Water is the driver of nature”.
____ Johann-Wolfgang v. Goethe, (1749-1832)
“ Everything comes from water. Everything is maintained through water. Ocean, give us your eternal power”,
while more recently
___a letter to NATURE in 1992 (Vol.360, p.292) suggested to say:
“Climate is the continuation of the oceans by other means”.
___Instead, IPCC says: “that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver“, (The conclusions reflect the scientific consensus represented by, for example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and U.S. Global Change Research Program, wrote 18 US scientific societies to the Seanate on 21 October 2009). Details:
If climate would be regarded as driven by the oceans, understanding, protecting and preserving of the oceans and seas could get a chance to commence in serious, and subsequently protect the status of the atmosphere in the best possible way as well.
Happy 2010!

Lindsay H

Schmidt provides some entertainment with this article on CO2 and climate change from the 1950’s reprinting work by Plass.,y.2010,no.1,content.true,page.5,css.print/issue.aspx

Willis Eschenbach

Lady in Red (00:31:31)

(I think I have just been banned, hopelessly, from Tamino’s Open Mind site for asking too many silly questions….

Dear Lady, it is a badge of honor. I only lasted about three questions myself. That’s how you can tell the real scientists who believe in what they are saying and who are devotees of the scientific method, they censor opposing views … it’s the infallible mark of the truly inquisitive open mind.
Tamino is Grant Foster, and he’s a piece of work. Look him up in the CRU emails, he’s in there up to his ears. He circulated reviewers comments on a paper in contravention of scientific practice. He worked with others to pick reviewers for another paper, reviewers who would not look hard at the results but would pass it without critical review … or as Phil Jones characterised them, “All of them know the sorts of things to say – about our comment and the awful original, without any prompting.” He was involved in trying to pressure an editor about another paper.
“Open Mind”? I love the hubris of these guys, it’s too precious, “Open Mind” …

I would argue that the AGW hysteria is a great example of why the precautionary principle is bunk. I invite people to peruse the Proactionary Principle, which, unlike the Precautionary Principle, requires that people evaluate the cost vs benefit of all opportunity costs of choosing any course of action (including CO2 regulation). Using the proactionary principle, it becomes clear that carbon trading or taxing are both immoral and invalid options.


“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.”

This is the way to go. Even if AGW is valid we cannot possibly reduce man-made CO2 to any significant level that would make any measurable difference to the planet. Instead of pouring vast sums trying to reduce plant food we should go for the cost effective, no-regrets approach which have benefits today and in the future. As Willis Eschenbach “The possibilities are endless.”


After writing to our local MP about Climategate, the biased response of the mainstream media, and the threat to democracy of the whole AGW issue, I got a letter from him in which he did appear to recognise the need for the state of affairs at CRU to be investigated, but he also put forward the absolute necessity to pursue the precautionary principle with regard to CO2 emissions. I have just now forwarded him the link to Willis Eschenbach’s article. I really hope he reads it.


I just have never understood what all the panic is about. Life on this rock is carbon based and thrives at higher levels of CO2 and warmth. Cold and low CO2=Death. So what if we lose some beach front property? Think of all the new construction (and jobs ) that would engender further inland, and in places where we currently can’t build or farm because of the crappy weather. Natural warmth means less energy needed to stay warm thru artificial means. And on and on. I just don’t see a downside to more CO2 and warmth.
Maybe the new year will bring some sanity to our politicians. Nah.


Brilliant article Willis! I love it, common sense science and practicality! – I shall be forwarding some sections and the url to many people!


You state the Precautionary principle as follows:
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.
Although analogies are dangerous and can lead to specific conclusions which would not apply in the situation to which the analogy is being applies, they can also provide a measure of insight.
Let us take it that global warming is a genuine danger and that some of the wilder scenarios are in fact correct. There appears to neither empirical nor sound theoretical support for these points, but lets us leave that to one side.
Let us now imagine a patient going to his doctor with a cough.
The doctor reasons as follows:
1) Lung cancer sufferers often have coughs
2) Lung cancer is a devastating disease and if not tackled early will almost inevitably prove untreatable and fatal.
Treatment for lung cancer will be a mixture of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Administering these is known to be extremely unpleasant, painful, debilitating and risky. There will unquestionably be a diminution in the quality of life of the patient as a result of the treatment alone.
Furthermore, given that around 40,000 cases of lung cancer are detected annually in the UK, if we assume that there is one GP visit per person per annum, and that 50% of people visiting their doctor will have some respiratory problem, then the number of cases detected will be something in the region of 40,000 / (50%*60,000,000) or 1 in 1,300.
However, on the basis of the Precautionary Principle as applied by the MMGW activists, the doctor should immediately apply all of these treatments with the utmost vigour, reasoning that even if this patient does not have cancer, the price paid will be well worth it, even if the consequence is that the treatment actually kills or renders the patient severely damaged. That such a perversion of the application of rational use of statistics and treatment that it is not credible that such a doctor would survive any kind of peer review of his practices.
But the big differences are that
1)Lung cancer is indeed a virulent and life-threatening disease
2)No doctor would begin violent and harmful treatment one the basis of a diagnosis based on a single piece of evidence which could indicate many other completely harmless conditions
3)In general, doctors are not paid to inflict the most devastating treatments on the basis of the weakest evidence, or evidence where the quality of the sources was highly compromised, or where they have exchanged emails with other doctors suggesting that they will suppress or modify the actual results of tests or fail to use 75% of data obtained.
There may be a case for the use of a ‘Precautionary Principle’, however, there is no evidence or reason to suppose that MMGW is such as case.


Whilst this makes a great deal of sense, I was curious about how your argument would read from a “greenie” perspective. After all, I was told by a greenie that the point of limiting CO2, regardless of whether climatology is right, is that it would force limits to consumption, which would in turn force a limit or reduction of “greed”. She was quite candid about this. My impression is that she was quite sincere, as she’d moved countries twice looking for a green job to do with limiting CO2.
So I pop over to The Ecologist web site today and notice an article with this quotation:

‘On the one hand FOE is concerned about human rights and environmental protection. On the other hand, you have PR projects funded by industries that destroy the environment and commit human rights abuses,’ says head of economics Ed Matthews.

That quotation seems to be one of the typical green views, basically that corporations are evil psychopaths. I think to many people, environmentalism is inherently “OK” because it resonates with their dislike of corporations. Here the Precautionary Principle is mostly about simply limiting the power of corporations. I’d say the PP becomes framed as,
“It is cost-effective for the consumer to pay 15% more for products, if a giant corporation is forced to prevent Bhopal style disasters that kill thousands of innocents and ruin ecosystems, and we won’t postpone legislation just because the corporations can hire so-called experts to muddy the data about the real damage.”
Along these lines, it is also more cost effective for the consumer, to classify CO2 as a “pollutant” as this simply speeds up the process of placing every corporation under tighter legislative controls, rather than having to painstakingly explore the case for every single chemical in turn, and wait decades for the legal fights to be resolved. Let’s just whack on a big tax and then use the money to clean up. Again, from the point of view of the consumer, this is more “cost-effective”.
(Of course, when carbon trading is linked back to Enron, that public support begins to crack at the foundations.)
Then there is the “deep ecology” view. As far as I understand this (not that I’ve made a study of it), deep ecology is a perspective from “outside”, gazing at the planet as a “blue marble” in space. When viewed from this perspective, there is just “the whole” and it can even seem spiritual; The One, The Way, Unity, God, etc. From this perspective, humanity is just one species, one part of the intricate and homeostatic whole, and the whole is more important than any part. Consider, what does this do to our “cost-benefit” analysis in the Precautionary Principle?
“The cost to multiple species, so serious a cost that they are threatened with extinction, is far greater than the cost to one species—to limit their own numbers—and this limit should be imposed even if there is insuffiecient data to determine when and how these multiple extinctions might occur.”
This can be applied at multiple scales. Consider the cost of eating tuna fish, where overfishing damages multiple ocean species, when you could just eat carrots. Or consider the cost of having three children, when the whole planet is heading into a virtually certain cataclysm when one day, things just run out. It really doesn’t matter when or how. It doesn’t matter if we manage to invent new technology that gives us another boost, just like the green revolution gave us a boost in the 60s. All that led to was increasing numbers, as we keep having kids, rather than stopping and being satisfied with our place in the ecosystem.
I guess that there are other currents of thought in environmentalism, but I wonder that these two, corporate-psychopathology, and humanity-as-cancer, are the two that seem to keep appearing. I wonder that in each of those perspectives, the PP becomes a rather different calculation. We can all agree on the PP, we just come to different answers.
Personally I believe there are answers to each of those versions of the PP (basically it is about what they each ignore). But my point is that, people’s worldview will interpret the PP and alter the calculation.
Like the greenie campaigner said to me, CO2 doens’t particularly matter, it is about what it can facilitate for the cause. So we need to tackle the underlying worldview, the “cause” of the cause.
As one strategy fails, greenines will simply regroup and reframe with new strategies. The Ecologist today has an article about “blackwashing” (doom scenarios), and how they are not working. They realise that the public is turning against them. They admit that their data about “extinctions” is partly made up, anyhow. But they restate their determination to continue, and that they will need new strategies, even if this makes them appear more moderate.
I think we need to engage them and demonstrate why the Precautinary Principle doesn’t work, not via our worldview’s interpretation (which I entirely agree with), but through their worldview’s interpretations.
We need to show why mankind is not a cancer from the perspective of Gaia, and why corporations are not all bad from a perspective of sensitive caring.
But if we can’t, then the greens largely have a point.

Allan M

By George, I think you’ve got it.
Here is an e-mail (non-CRU) which I sent to John Ray some while ago (you may not agree with it all):
After forty years of listening to greenie scare stories, (even believing some of them at one time) I think I am starting to see a pattern emerging. It seems to start as:
Plan A: The Scam
We have identified an ecological disaster and HUMANS ARE TO BLAME. But if you pay us lots of money and do exactly what we say, we may be able to fix it in time.
For some inexplicable reason, this does not convince everyone, so we need:
Plan B: The Precautionary Principle
Well, even if we’re wrong, you still ought to pay us lots of money and do exactly what we say.
For some inexplicable reason, this also does not convince everyone, so we need:
Plan C: The Tipping Point
OK. So nothing is happening and there isn’t any evidence, but there will be soon if you don’t PAY US THE MONEY!
This method seems to be a limp-wristed version of that used by Ronnie and Reggie Kray in the East End of London many years ago, and was known then as extortion, or, “demanding money with menaces.” (but now it is called “environmentalism.” I suppose at least we have a longer word.) Although the Kray’s methods seem to have been:
a. less verbose
b. arguably more cost-effective, and
c. they had the cojones to do their own dirty work.
The greenie extortionists, having failed at plan C, exhort the legal authorities to silence the dissenters. And if that doesn’t work they incite young, idealistic and naive people into acquiring a criminal record on their behalf. Maybe we should just say “BOO” to the greenies for a change. Being polite only lets them get away with it.

“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.”
Not disagreeing with the bulk of this article, but the above statement is incorrect, and should probably be removed. There is no scientific certainty that using an umbrella will keep you any drier than not using one ( ex. it might not rain), nor is there certainty that a seat-belt will save your life (ex. you might not get into an accident). PP certainly does apply to your decision to buckle up or bring an umbrella with you.

@Mike Lorrey
Thanks for pointing us to the Proactionary principle. I have updated my blog post about the PP.

Mention of the simple things brings to mind a clip on TV a while back which told the tale of a chap in some part of Africa who built water pumps using old bicycle parts.He managed to back the pumping into a game so all the small kids could take turns pumping,brilliant and affordable low tech. Can’t rmember where i saw it but it would be wonderful to see this guy get some backing.
PS Lady in Red,I know a place where you would be welcome 😉

I always tell my alarmist friends that the best way to reduce/end CO2 production is to make other ways of deriving the energy required for civilization without CO2 production cheaper (without taxes/subsidies).
And it won’t cost trillions. It will only cost billions. Which is a LOT. But billions we can afford. Trillions? Not so much.

Tom in Florida

“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.”
Let’s apply this to the firm of Hansen, Mann, Schmidt & Jones and why they need to keep the myth of AGW alive.
1) Their life style would take a serious hit.
2) They may not get another position with equal or greater funding.
3) Hide the decline.
It’s as easy as 1-2-3.


to paraphrase the third law:
action, reaction and do nothin’

amicus curiae

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.
I agree with a STRONG rider NOT to accept GM as a solution,
the truth is there were and are many drounght cold low light whatever crops, Monsanto in particular have gained control of small and isolated sources and destroyed them.
they use some they now control as sources to enhance, at massive cost to the farmer, and also to the environment.
the insane high chem and fertilizer useages these so called saviour crops? rely on are our worst nightmares come true.
To me PP is do not harm and enhance what is natural -to defend , rescue.
work with nature not against it, so much easier.
A Happy New Year to all from a surprisingly cool Aus

There is no precautionary principle to match commonsense, humility, and a little bit of fact-finding. Especially when big sums of money are involved.
Willis, thanks, I’m fed up to my back teeth with this panacea being presented as safe and beneficial, when it’s actually dangerous and harmful, if one does even an elementary check.
Someone recently quoted another principle that scuppers PP but I forget what. Anyone know?


PP is a Political Policy, not a scientific one based on “real” issues. It is an “excuse” to do whatever the great minds at the global and national leadership levels want to do about anything that strikes their fancy. It is a waste of mental energy and personal and national wealth to ascribe reasonableness or precaution –or spend a penny– in any case that uses “the existence of partial but not conclusive scientific evidence”. My hangup is the term “scientific”. It used to mean something. It no longer does. Climategate has so abused the word that it now means nothing whatsoever; its a joke. For something to have anything approaching the old fashioned definition of scientific basis it must first have qualified minds in the field(s) being addressed. Today, we see socialologists, gynacologists, etc., etc., pontificating about anything but their field of study and some stupid politician or media type calling them scientists (as if they were qualified to speak on any subject that crossed their little minds). This issue is about power, political power, pure and simple. How do you sway 6+ billion people to do something YOU want them to do, get a “scientist” (any PhD will do) to tell them the simply have to. Sick!
PS: “conclusive scientific evidence”? Sorry, it died of overheating and exposure to too much CO2 and AGW.


I never understood the application of the PP. Acting without all the facts (in the case of not waiting for scientific certainty) can be more damaging than doing nothing at all. I have continually argued against it, especially since some of the AGW’ers’ “geoengineering solutions” seem more likely to kill than global warming itself. And a warmer climate would not hurt us. An Ice Age or a prolonged period of cooling, on the other hand, would kill quite a few of us.
Just my two cents.


“Support the use of micro-hydroelectric plants for village energy.”
What of the poor snail darters!?

See, here is the thing, Willis Eschenbach. You are talking common sense in an irrational world. Remember, the goal of these people is not to make life better for the poor or to fix the world’s climate problems. The goal of these people is to make money and to become powerful. Solving a problem dries up the source of income. That is because if the problem is solved, you can’t display the face of a poor child or of a poor polar bear or of a poor something on the ads used to generate money.
Which of these two do you think gets more money:
-“Poor Pedro lives in the slums of Peru. Please send us money to so we can help Pedro’s slum adapt to global warming.”
-“Poor Pedro lives in the slums of Peru. Thanks to your help, we have installed fog nets to make sure Pedro’s family has clean water. Please keep sending us money.”
You see, no problem = no funding. If the problem is solved, people will think “Why should I send money? The problem is fixed.” Very few will think, “This group did what they promised and did a good job too. I will send them more money to help others.”
These people are really scam artists. They exploit the poor’s despondent looks for their own financial gain. They show pictures of cute or popular animals like they are going to be extinct tomorrow. They play on emotion to pilfer your money. It is not, nor has it ever been, about fixing the problem.
Mr. Eschenbach, you make a lot of sense. I learned a long time ago, humans are emotional creatures and not logical creatures. I have seen it many times, with a deep-seated emotion, not even God himself could change someone’s opinion. Most people aren’t that extreme, but far too many people will hold onto an emotion until they have no choice but to acknowledge otherwise. The key is to reach the people who would listen to reason even if it goes against their opinion.


Draconian measures to limit CO2 actually violate the Precautionary Principle rather than fulfill it. Comparable to Willis’ ecosystem analogy, crippling the fossil fuel economy is like removing the “top predator” in a food web. The effects will cascade all over the place and degrade the system. Precautionary efforts would seek to increase the alternatives before instead of cutting off the primary controller in the system.