On the Precautionary Principle

Guest essay by Neil Lock

Today, I’m going to look at a mantra much trumpeted by environmentalists; the precautionary principle. I’ll seek to make a case that, since the early 1980s, this idea has been perverted. To such an extent, that the principle now has an effect all but opposite to its true intention. I’ll trace how this happened, and try to outline how we might fix the resulting mess.

What is the precautionary principle?

The precautionary principle, even in its original, pre-1980s form, is an elusive beast. There’s no generally agreed wording of it. But its essence can be summarized as “better safe than sorry,” or “look before you leap.” Though some – myself included – go further, and see it as akin to the Hippocratic oath for doctors: “First, do no harm.”

In this form, the principle is very sensible advice. Before they put a new product on the market, for example, sane business people will test it thoroughly to check it has no bad side-effects. If they don’t do this, and something goes wrong, they will face lawsuits, and perhaps worse.

But some wish to take the principle further. Today, it’s often interpreted to mean that if there’s a risk of something bad happening, particularly to the environment or to human, animal or plant health, then action should, or even must, be taken to avoid or to minimize that risk. And on this excuse, policies have been made that have imposed huge costs on all of us.


On examination, this new form of the principle doesn’t fit well with our common-sense ideas of how to deal with risk. For in thinking about risk, we recognize two kinds: risk to ourselves, and risk to others. As far as risk to ourselves goes, each of us must make our own decisions. We do it all the time; just about everything in life involves some degree of risk. We judge, rationally or otherwise, whether a particular risk is justified for us. And we decide either to take the risk, or not. For example, every time we go in a plane, there’s a risk it may crash and kill us. We weigh this up, consciously or not, against the gain we expect from making the journey. We look, and then we leap; or not. And most of us come out with the same decision: We get in that plane.

Today’s version of the precautionary principle is worse than useless in assessing risk to ourselves. For it would have us either avoid risks altogether, or focus on minimizing them. But a life without taking risks is, at best, the life of a vegetable. And a life spent focusing on risks is a paranoid one.

Risk to others is a more difficult subject. Sometimes our actions may have negative impacts on others; on their property, on their health, even in extreme cases on their very lives. Now, all individuals are responsible for the consequences of their actions to others, unless those actions were coerced. And it may be that in a particular case the harm, which an action causes others, exceeds what reasonable people will bear in a spirit of mutual tolerance. In such cases, in a sane world, we should be required to compensate those we have harmed. In environmental terms, that’s the basis of the idea of “polluter pays” – one with which I heartily agree.

There are, therefore, good reasons to invest in minimizing risk to others. I gave already the example of a company putting a new product on the market. In making decisions on such risks, particularly if the damage caused may be great, it makes sense to assess the risks, and their consequences and costs if things go wrong, as objectively as possible.

Rationally, we will invest in minimizing such a risk as long as the likely gain from the reduction of risk exceeds the cost involved in reducing it. Beyond that point, we have only two options; we either go ahead and face the consequences, or we scrap the whole thing. If we tried to use the precautionary principle as often interpreted today, however, we would have to spend forever more and more to allay less and less likely, or less and less serious, risks.

Weak and strong precaution

In the original (weak) form of the precautionary principle, the burden of proof is always on the party wanting to make change. If one party wishes to stop or restrict an activity of another party on the grounds that it causes risk to them or to others, it’s up to the accuser to show that the risk is real and significant. It’s also up to the accuser to show that the change they propose is both necessary and beneficial. And the cost effectiveness of any such change must be taken into account. For it isn’t reasonable to expect anyone to spend more on reducing a risk, than the gain which results to those whose exposure to the risk is reduced.

However, many environmentalists, politicians and regulators favour a stronger form of the principle. In its strong form, it can be used to regulate or prohibit any action that has actual or perceived risks, even if those risks cannot, or cannot yet, be accurately quantified. Further, the burden of proof is inverted, so that the proponent of an activity must prove that it is harmless. And the costs of preventative action are not to be taken into consideration. Thus the strong form of the precautionary principle is, simply put, a power grab and a tool for tyranny. A long, long way from “First, do no harm.”

A history of corruption

The perversion of the precautionary principle into an excuse for tyranny began in the early 1980s. And it was the United Nations that did it. The World Charter for Nature, a 1982 UN resolution, included an extreme formulation of the precautionary principle. It stated: “Activities which might have an impact on nature shall be controlled,” and “where potential adverse effects are not fully understood, the activities should not proceed.” The Charter was passed by 111 votes to 1, with 18 abstentions. The USA was the only country voting against.

Fast forward a decade, to the Rio Declaration of 1992. Principle 15 states: “In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. 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.”

At first sight, this looks like a walk back towards the weak form of the principle. But there’s a catch; and a big one. If you don’t have a high degree of scientific certainty about the size and the likelihood of a problem, how can you assess whether or not a proposed counter-measure is cost-effective? You might (or might not) be able to estimate the costs of the measure accurately; but without high scientific certainty, you can’t accurately estimate the benefits to compare them with! And so, sneakily, the activists bypassed the cost effectiveness condition that was supposed to be built into the principle. The world’s politicians bought it; and they sold us all down the Rio.

Then there was the much touted Wingspread Declaration of 1998. This came out of a conference of academics, politicians and activists, convened by an organization, only formed in 1994, called the Science and Environmental Health Network. Whose mission statement reads: “In service to communities, the Earth and future generations, the Science & Environmental Health Network forges Science, Ethics and Law into tools for Action.” An activist organization, no?

Here’s how they re-defined the principle: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.” We’re back to the strong form, aren’t we? And worse. For when they talk of “the public,” they don’t mean us ordinary people. What they mean is that government shouldn’t have to bear the burden of proving its accusations; so we’re all guilty until proven innocent. Clever about-face, eh?

By 2002, the UK’s Inter-Departmental Liaison Group on Risk Assessment had perverted the principle still further. They saw its purpose as “to create an impetus to take a decision notwithstanding scientific uncertainty about the nature and extent of the risk.” And they wanted to invoke the principle “even if the likelihood of harm is remote.” They said, too, that “the precautionary principle carries a general presumption that the burden of proof shifts away from the regulator having to demonstrate potential for harm towards the hazard creator having to demonstrate an acceptable level of safety.” And they misused an aphorism attributed to Carl Sagan, saying: “‘Absence of evidence of risk’ should never be confused with, or taken as, ‘evidence of absence of risk’.” Bureaucrats seeking more power, no?

What does all this add up to? First, the activists have inverted the burden of proof, and require the defendants (that’s us, who want to do things like heat our homes and drive our cars) to prove a negative. Proving a negative is often impossible. How, for example, would you prove there are no fairies at the bottom of your garden? Second, they want the judge to rule, and to find us guilty, before all the evidence has been heard. And third, even if there’s no evidence at all that our activity causes any harm to anyone, they wouldn’t accept that fact as evidence! In essence they have decreed, in contradiction to the norm of presumption of innocence, that absence of evidence of guilt is not evidence of absence of guilt. We’ve been had, haven’t we?

Post-normal science

Beginning in about 1993, an idea called “post-normal science” started to take root in academe. This claimed to be a new way to use the outputs of science, in situations where standard methods of risk and cost-benefit analysis were insufficient. These situations were described as: “facts uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent.”

But what post-normal science actually is, is a hard question to answer. It describes itself as a “problem solving strategy.” It seeks to replace the hard edged objectivity of properly done science with something much woollier, that it calls “quality.” It seeks the involvement in the decision process of “all those who wish to participate in the resolution of the issue.” And through its concept of “extended facts,” it allows ideas which are not facts to be treated in the debate on an equal basis with facts.

In my view, post-normal science merely provides a way for glib, persuasive activists to direct policy debates towards outcomes which suit their agendas, even when the facts do not support those outcomes. It’s little different, either in intent or in effects, from the perversion of the precautionary principle into an activist tool. It’s not a form of science, but of nonscience. And it has been used to blur and to obfuscate the interface between science and policy.

Here are my own thoughts on the situations post-normal “science” claims to address. If facts are uncertain, you must put more effort into clarifying them. If values are in dispute, that increases the need for the decision to be, and to be seen to be, absolutely objective. For if not, those on the losing side of the debate will have good cause to become resentful. If stakes are high, that increases how much you should be willing to spend on making the decision as objective as possible. And if decisions are urgent, you must use the precautionary principle – properly. Look before you leap. First, do no harm. Don’t do anything that damages innocent people.

How to fix the problem

In my view, those that have perverted the precautionary principle, and have tried to discredit science and to substitute it by nonscience, have acted in bad faith. To fix this, we first need to restore the precautionary principle in the public understanding to its proper meaning, of “Look before you leap,” or “First, do no harm.”

Second, we must seek to compensate those who have been unjustly harmed by bad policies made as a result of these perversions. If we accept the idea of “polluter pays” – and we should – then why should we not also accept the idea of “politicker pays?” Should we not hold those, that have acted in bad faith in support of those policies, responsible for the effects of what they did to us? Should we not require each of them to compensate us for their share of the bad things they did to us? And if any of them have committed offences such as perjury, should we not be seeking to prosecute them too?

To sum up

Over the last 35 years or so, the precautionary principle, “Look before you leap,” has been perverted out of all recognition. It no longer tallies with our common sense ideas of risk. At the instigation of the United Nations and other activist groups, the principle has been re-cast into a strong form, which inverts the burden of proof and has become a tool for tyranny. There has also been a movement to obfuscate the interface between science and policy. These perversions have helped politicians to make environmental policies that have harmed all of us.

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January 22, 2018 3:51 am

the Precautionary Principle is what they dredge up when they have zero science to back up their rhetoric.

Always pretty much the last resort in their losing argument.

Reply to  AndyG55
January 22, 2018 5:31 pm

Absolutely right – there are numerous examples where environmentalists invoke the precautionary principle when rational risk assessment and objective cost-benefit analysis do not meet their preconceived notions. The precautionary principle is now applied is dangerously irrational and anti-science.

Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy
Reply to  AndyG55
January 22, 2018 8:33 pm

The city of Hyderabad affected severely [deaths & property loss] with 1908 September floods to river Musi that passes through the city. The ruler on the advice of Sir M. Viswaswarayya,a legendry Engineer, built two reservoirs, one on the river Musi [Osmansagar Lake] and another on its tributary Easa [Himayatsagar Lake]. Since 1930, these two reservoirs have been used for drinking water supply to Hyderabad [through gravity]. Later with the apathy of rulers the quantity and quality of water flowing in to these two lakes affected severely. The governments issued a GO111 in 1996 to protect the water in terms of quantity and quality flows in to these two reservoirs. Within a month time, the very same government violated GO111 and permitted to establish a polluting industry in the catchment area. Environmental groups approached the High Court. They gave favourable judgement to government. Then environmental groups approached the Supreme Court of India. After getting reports from three independent .institutions in India, ordered to close all the polluting industries in the catchment area and pronounced “precautionary principle” to protect the drinking water resources. Even with this judgement violations haven’t stopped but increasing day by day. In 2007 I filed a PIL in the High Court. Government submitted a memo ratifying the GO in toto but yet illegal activities did not stop. To provide shelter to violators, Police Department come forward to adapt them. After I questioned them, they withdrew their adaptation idea. Now water flows reduced drastically and pollution increased steeply. So, no rule of law applies against human greed!!! Government is interested to bring water from far away places to meet the demand at huge cost, depriving local water needs.

Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy

Reply to  AndyG55
January 22, 2018 9:24 pm

By their ‘logic’, it would be advisable to simply arrest all those in high crime neighborhoods to prevent possible crime.

Ian Magness
January 22, 2018 4:05 am

A very well thought out and argued article Neil. Thank you.

January 22, 2018 4:13 am

Thank you, Mr. Lock. The precautionary principle has been one of my favorite topics for a few decades, because it has been the final argument in every debate I have ever had with a warmist. After all of their other arguments have been refuted and found wanting, out comes the strong version of the Precautionary Principle as their last defense.

My line has been that the Precautionary Principle is self-contradictory, because using it in its strong form usually does great harm! The quintessential example is Europe’s refusal to by agricultural products from any nation that used DDT for any purpose, resulting in millions of needless malaria deaths. In this case, the use of the Precautionary Principle resulted in an evil that exceeds the death toll of the Third Reich, Communist Russia and China combined. That is a lot of evil.

The Precautionary Principle is not precautionary or a principle when used like it is today. As you say, Mr. Lock, it is a weapon of tyranny! Thank you for highlighting this deception. It is very important that people understand what is really happening when it is invoked.

Reply to  jclarke341
January 22, 2018 6:24 am

Organic farming violates the precautionary principle since organic farms take a lot more land to grow the same amount of crops, resulting in more land being converted to croplands.

Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  MarkW
January 22, 2018 10:34 am

Over-reliance on pesticides and nitrogen-based fertilizers does have a consequence that is not immediate. visible. They show up years later, typically as pest resistance arises and fertilizer run-off leads to downstream eutrophication of water bodies, and both then can and do lead to real measurable harm. So much of China’s inland waterways now are dead or foul from eutrophication due to fertilizer run-off (in addition to industrial pollutions).

I’m not saying I disagree with you. But there is a balance and policy needs to address this “Problem of the Commons.” Our air and waterways are “common” resources, which we all share regardless of social or economic status. There is no sole or single ownership. And they are natural resources that all the biosphere plants and animals share.

Thus the “Problem of the Commons” is one commonly invoked, with good reason, from environmentalists. Failure to address the arguments of the “Problem of the Commons” is were this essay by Neil Lock falls short. It is a good essay that addresses the abuses of the The Precautionary Principle by the Alarmist Climate Pseudo scientist activists, but addressing the PotC arguments would strengthen it considerably.

Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  MarkW
January 22, 2018 10:55 am

Today’s environmental movement uses twin corollaries to foist a tyranny and socialist ideology on humanity.

The Precautionary Principle is actually the 2nd, lesser corollary. The first and principle proposition of environmentalism is “The Problem of the Commons.” That is, Air and water are the common resources of our planet. Real pollution must be addressed by policy and enforced by law. Real pollution are things like heavy metals contamination, waterway eutrophication due to fertilizer run-offs, dispersal of sulfur compounds into the air, selenium enrichment of irrigated soils, etc. These are real problems. These are the problems the EPA should be addressing with good science to policy, with sound Cost-Benefit analyses to support those policy actions.

The real crime the environmental movement and CC alarmists are committed is labeling Carbon dioxide as a pollutant. As long as they are allowed to commit that crime, then invocation of the Problem of the Commons and the Precautionary Principle is their ticket to an unchecked political agenda.

Reply to  MarkW
January 22, 2018 2:47 pm

Resistance of pests can be dealt with using new pesticides.
Farmers don’t over use fertilizers. It costs too much money.
Fertilizer run-off comes almost entirely from urban and suburban lawns.
The only way to get rid of the problem of the commons is to get rid of the commons. Turning the commons over to the government always makes the problem worse, as your example of China demonstrates.

BTW, almost all of the problem with polluting of the so called commons, could be gotten rid of by bringing back riparian rights.

Reply to  MarkW
January 22, 2018 4:36 pm

Plus the listeria and salmonella problems with the produce.

Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  MarkW
January 22, 2018 5:31 pm

“Resistance of pests can be dealt with using new pesticides.”

New pesticides: only trivially true. Extremely difficult and costly in practice in the real world where safety and regulatory approval is required in the the most Trumpian of worlds.

Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy
Reply to  MarkW
January 23, 2018 3:00 am

This is not always true. First let me present food waste: FAO reported food waste as 30% for the globe; my estimate for India is more than 40%. Progressive farmers in India received national and international awards for achieving excellent yields over chemical input yields. As Indian government is more interested to support multinational companies chemical input technology under irrigation. Already several farming groups are getting excellent yields with good diet.

Recently government declared not to cultivate Bt-3 but companies are illegally selling the seed and creating panic among farmers and as well to governments. This is the power of multinational companies. They have least respect for law and their sole object is profit.

Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy

January 22, 2018 4:15 am

I like your article – thanks for posting! I doubt, though, that there was ever a benign version of the precautionary principle. See:


“The precautionary principle is a marvelous piece of rhetoric. It places the speaker on the side of the citizen—I am acting for your health—and portrays the opponents of the contemplated ban or regulation as indifferent or hostile to the public’s health. The rhetoric works in part because it assumes what actually should be proved, namely that the health effects of the regulation will be superior to the alternative. This comparison is made possible in the only possible way—by assuming that there are no health detriments from the proposed regulation.” – Aaron Wildavsky

In other work, my dad described the PP as one that insisted on trial without error, that is, no trials at all.

January 22, 2018 4:15 am

I like your article – thanks for posting! I doubt, though, that there was ever a benign version of the precautionary principle. See:


“The precautionary principle is a marvelous piece of rhetoric. It places the speaker on the side of the citizen—I am acting for your health—and portrays the opponents of the contemplated ban or regulation as indifferent or hostile to the public’s health. The rhetoric works in part because it assumes what actually should be proved, namely that the health effects of the regulation will be superior to the alternative. This comparison is made possible in the only possible way—by assuming that there are no health detriments from the proposed regulation.” – Aaron Wildavsky

In other work, my dad described the PP as one that insisted on trial without error, that is, no trials at all.

January 22, 2018 4:17 am

The Precautionary Principle should also always be used upon itself.

Reply to  jp
January 22, 2018 4:30 am

Indeed it should! The late Michael Crichton made the same observation. He was a severe critic of the PP, noting that no criticism of it could be too harsh. His remarks appear in the appendix to “State of Fear.”

Reply to  jp
January 22, 2018 4:19 pm

If you mean to evaluate the costs and risks of the proposed fix, I agree emphatically. But if the expected cost of the fix is compared to the expected cost of the “crisis”, the crisis may be revealed as not so important. And the crisis mongers will have none of that.

January 22, 2018 4:21 am

and totally misrepresents PNS.

Reply to  Steven Mosher
January 22, 2018 6:26 am

Typical Mosher, drive by insult without a hint of logic.

Dave in Canmore
Reply to  MarkW
January 22, 2018 8:26 am

Somebody still reads Mosh’s comments? I thought most people here skipped over the content-free comments. 😉

Juan Slayton
Reply to  Steven Mosher
January 22, 2018 7:22 am

What is PNS? Not found elsewhere in this thread. Not in Climate Audit acronym list. Dr. Mosher, if you want to be understood….

D. J. Hawkins
Reply to  Juan Slayton
January 22, 2018 8:16 am

Post Normal Science

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  Juan Slayton
January 22, 2018 8:17 am

Dr. Mosher?

Juan Slayton
Reply to  Juan Slayton
January 22, 2018 8:26 am

Clyde Dr. Mosher?

Just applying the precautionary principal. If I don’t know, assume the best…. : > )

Reply to  Steven Mosher
January 22, 2018 8:38 am

This one stung, eh Mosh?

Reply to  Michael Moon
January 22, 2018 9:38 am

DJ Hawkins, you hit it on head with the PNS……ROFL

Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  Steven Mosher
January 22, 2018 11:14 am

The Mosh tosses in another turd grenade.
But on a plus, at least he acknowledge PNS exists to be totally misrepresented.

PNS, like its vampire-squid climate change spawn, needs a stake driven through its heart.

Tim Lutz
Reply to  Steven Mosher
January 22, 2018 5:07 pm

so, please represent PNS for us

Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  Tim Lutz
January 22, 2018 5:39 pm

BEST is the embodiment of PNS. Represent it PNS is what they do 24/7, 354.

Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  Tim Lutz
January 22, 2018 5:42 pm

354: BEST team takes a dozen days off each year so they can renew their scientists credentials before returning to their PNS.

(honestly a fat-finger mistake, but I thought I could make it humorous.)

Michael 2
Reply to  Steven Mosher
January 23, 2018 11:25 am

“and totally misrepresents PNS.”

This would be a good time to represent PNS.

Dr. P.
January 22, 2018 4:31 am

During the last ice age [CO2] may have dropped below 200 ppm, a level at which plants are very sensitive to drought and just above the level (150 ppm) where they die. Eighty to ninety per cent of the last million years has been spent in an ice age. The earth has never experienced a runaway greenhouse effect despite [CO2] being above 1000 ppm for most of earth’s history and perhaps as high as 7000 ppm. There may have been two separate incidents of snowball earth conditions. — What does the precautionary principle say now about [CO2]?

Reply to  Dr. P.
January 22, 2018 7:23 am

Bingo! The comeback to an alarmist citing the precautionary principle is,

“Yes. Exactly. And nothing sucks like an ice age. If we can prevent the next ice age, we should do everything in our power to make sure it doesn’t happen, or at least delay it as much as possible.”

Reply to  Mike Slay
January 22, 2018 10:29 am

““Yes. Exactly. And nothing sucks like an ice age. If we can prevent the next ice age, we should do everything in our power to make sure it doesn’t happen, or at least delay it as much as possible.”

Hardly as an IA is 10’s thousands of years away.


“The amount of solar radiation (insolation) in the Northern Hemisphere at 65° N seems to be related to occurrence of an ice age. Astronomical calculations show that 65° N summer insolation should increase gradually over the next 25,000 years.[24] A regime of eccentricity lower than the current value will last for about the next 100,000 years. Changes in northern hemisphere summer insolation will be dominated by changes in obliquity ε. No declines in 65° N summer insolation, sufficient to cause a glacial period, are expected in the next 50,000 years.”

Reply to  Mike Slay
January 22, 2018 12:36 pm

“an IA is 10’s thousands of years away.”

Oh darn. tone says its thousands of years away……. (he must have used a climate model) ;-).

That is a SURE sign that it is imminent.

Everyone buy blankets !!

Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  Mike Slay
January 22, 2018 5:53 pm


Total [pruned] what you wrote.

You can have no idea when the onset of the next IA will begin because:
1) it will be subtle and not recognizable for several centuries,
2) while we know IA’s end abruptly with Milankovitch Cycle timing to 65 deg NH insolation, the onset is much more obscure between which parameter: obliquity, eccentricity, or precession is the dominant parameter that brings on the NH glaciation.

The next IA onset could be within 500 years or out to the next 10,000 years. Any time in-between those at this point is as good as any other.

[The mods assume IA is Ice Age. .mod]

Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  Mike Slay
January 22, 2018 6:09 pm

Sorry Mods.
I get carried away when I see someone present, with such an air of certainty, a climate event into the next 50,000 years.

Reply to  Mike Slay
January 22, 2018 6:13 pm

“And nothing sucks like an ice age.”

Yet here we are, only just a tiny temperature rise out of the COLDEST period in 10,000 years, and people are panicking blindly about “global warming”!!

It really is totally crazy, wouldn’t you agree, tone??

Reply to  Dr. P.
January 23, 2018 1:37 am

The Earth has been cooling for the past 3000 years, with sun cycles 24-27 we can expect a new Grand Minimum. We are much closer to the end of the Holocene…

January 22, 2018 4:41 am

the “Precautionary Principle” was pervert from the start.
It never was for those involved to take precautionary steps “to avoid or to minimize risk of something bad happening”, which was just common sense, and already embedded in law all over the world as soon as law existed : you are not supposed to harm other people, their belongings, or even the cosmos (witchcraft, anyone?).
It was about imbuing the Government with the power to PREEMPTIVELY do whatever it wants, provided it can evoke some possibility of risk. That’s what make it so appealing for politicians.
Whenever you heard “Precautionary Principle” you know that some stupid hysteria is happening: banning GMO, fighting cellphones “waves” so that tin-fold hat wearer be happy (which they never will, anyway: what’s to expect from people wearing tin-fold hats?, mass slaughtering cattle because it mightsuffer from BSE (in UK, ~4000 cows diagnosed the year 4 millions were slaughtered) — a disease that kills roughly as much in a year as a single day of driving
You won’t find a single sensible use of the PP, except some common sense action that would have been supported by everyone even without the PP

Reply to  paqyfelyc
January 22, 2018 8:08 am

Yes, this gets to the heart of it. There needs to be a standard for determining what constitutes a realistic risk. As it stands now we are very close to “the precautionary principle needs to be applied to any risk that can be imagined”.

January 22, 2018 4:53 am

Another way of looking at it is the way medical science treats risk. In health fields generally, It’s often the case that zero tolerance and strong measures provide the better course of action against things like viruses, many diseases and so on.

But this approach doesn’t work in the ennvironmental and natural world with things flying, resource development and so on. There is no such thing as ‘zero risk’ with regards to development, so one doesn’t stop drilling in Alaska because of small risks, the way someone might deal with a cancer or a virus.

Another example is the concept of ‘holy land’, which has been unconsciously adopted by many environmentalists. Their arguments against resource development are often very similar to religious ideas, ‘one can’t drill here or there because it might defile the land’ etc etc, ‘the risks are too great’ etc. What they often don’t see is that not everybody accepts the idea of land being ‘holy’ or needing some Kate kind of protecting to begin with. Religious arguments too often masquerade as scientific ones.

Reply to  Thingodonta
January 22, 2018 7:41 am

in medicine a set of numbers is generally kept from the population.. the number needed to treat (NNTT) and the number needed to harm (NNTH).

Say asprin is used, it’s mechanisms are widely known and it’s success for treating specific ailments is high, it has a low number to treat, meaning you give it to a person and it works – so number to treat is (guestimated) to be 1. 1 person gets it, 1 person benefits.. conversely something like prostate screening has a high number, you’ve got to undertake the test on many people for it to benefit just one – this is not good.

Number needed to harm is obviously the reverse, you want a really high number for this – so it can be given to a large population before harming one person.

It’d be nice to see rather than the precautionary principle used as a sledgehammer, those advocating it be asked to present their arguments in terms of NNTH and NNTT

dan no longer in CA
January 22, 2018 4:53 am

If the precautionary principle were operative, you would need to join every religion and cult because: What if one of them is right? In particular, everyone must join at least one of the cults that demands you hand over all your wealth.

January 22, 2018 4:58 am

The simple version: You don’t pay a million dollars to insure a thousand dollar asset.

If you’re going to apply the precautionary principle, you have to accurately account for everything.

Example: Ever since I started keeping cats there have been no dragon attacks within ten blocks of my house. If you live within that area and have daughters you don’t want devoured, you should pay me a thousand dollars a year toward the upkeep of the cats.

Noel Davies
January 22, 2018 5:01 am

Hear Hear! Well said

Noel Davies
January 22, 2018 5:01 am

Hear Hear! Well said

January 22, 2018 5:03 am

On the precautionary principle we humans should properly have remained on four legs.

An excellent article.

January 22, 2018 5:04 am

I wish the term post-normal science would quit being used. The correct terminology is post-modern science. The former term was coined by post-modern scientists to avoid the negative stigma of that term. First rule in fighting against your opponent is to neutralize his framing of the argument.

Reply to  icisil
January 22, 2018 8:38 am

Plus many.

Peta of Newark
January 22, 2018 5:08 am

and apart from endlessly raving about dirt on here. what else is peta’s pet peeve?
A: A concern, a wonderation, random thoughts, observations, snippets of Interweb, actual T-shirt buying etc etc about what actually is at the root of all this. The Very Root.

Totally reinforced from my purchase of a new VW recently. Its owners manual is unreadable because of all the safety warnings. Every paragraph of ‘instruction’ is bracketed by 2 paras of Safety Warning. The Owner’s Manual is itself, a Safety Hazard.
Where I’m sat right now, paranoid about keeping Fire Doors open, letting all the expensive (this is the UK after all) heat out of the place. Lord help us, its next door to where the Pilgrim Fathers planned their little excursion and hasn’t burned in all the time since. Why is it expected to burn any second from now?


And a life spent focusing on risks is a paranoid one.

What sort of people are paranoid – Depressed People

What’s depressing them?
I initially thought it must be booze. Lets face it, climate alarmism is a ‘western thing’ and folks in the ‘west’ consume vastly more alcohol than folks from the ‘east’
But there are perfectly valid experiments that refute that hypothesis. Certainly what was the USSR
So booze is not the universal depressant but may still be a contributing factor.
Likewise marijuana.

But what is used as a remedy for insomnia, what causes one to take ‘power naps’ in mid afternoon and why is coffee (power stimulant) usually taken after a ‘large meal’?

Carbohydrate. Glucose. Sugar in all its forms.
Just to fit ever so neatly and stop me going wildly off-topic, we read:

Over the last 35 years or so, the precautionary principle, “Look before you leap,” has been perverted out of all recognition

Just roughly, how long ago was it when saturated fat in our diets was demonised, along with animal protein?
Late sixties ~ ish? And how long for that ‘research’ to gain traction, to grow legs as it were?

Ah but you say, processed starch (carbohydrates) are ‘staples foods’. We’ve been eating them for 10 millenia+
But that’s hardly long enough for us to properly evolve to really metabolise that stuff – as proper herbivores can.
Now is it?

Ah but you say, we cannot all eat the (imagined) Hunter Gatherer diet, there’s too many of us.

Hammer meet Nail

Therefore, we are current;y in a time of truly epic mass starvation – starting from shortly after a (the) midwife slaps our arse and we get a plastic dummy. loaded with fake milk, stuffed into our faces.
Our brains are being starved from that moment onwards. Then we go onto a diet that is epically short of animal protein and has fat replaced by sugar. An addictive, psychoactive depressant chemical.

Is it not arguable that Malthus’ prediction is actually, right here and mow, playing out? We are actually starving. We are starving ourselves of (saturated) fat and animal protein.

Even worse, the actual damage to our brains and our thinking leads us to believe that eating ever more sugar is actually a remedy for what are imagined problems.
Positive feedback anyone?

Back to the laboratory – laboratory rats and how they eat each other when there are too many put into one cage.
Ha you say, people don’t eat each other. (Soylent Green not quite yet)

Oh yeah.
What do lawyers do?
Is it really a coincidence that the country in this world with the greatest number of obese & diabetic people also has the greatest number of lawyers (per capita)

Lots to think about innit.
But you can’t be bothered can you.
The sugar monster says it wants feeding and the booze monster tells you to just go down the pub and chill.
Or, wait patiently in line outside the turkey packing plant in November or December. Just the same.

Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  Peta of Newark
January 22, 2018 6:06 pm

“Its owners manual is unreadable because of all the safety warnings.”

That’s not the PP at work.. That’s the tort bar perverting our legal system such that companies must go to extreme contortions to limit liability exposure in a legal environment controlled by tort-bar lawyers turned politician. (like Senator Pocahontas Warren).

Michael 2
Reply to  Peta of Newark
January 23, 2018 11:31 am

“Ah but you say, processed starch (carbohydrates) are ‘staples foods’. We’ve been eating them for 10 millenia”

You age remarkably well! Alas, I have not been eating carbohydrates for 10 millenia.

“But that’s hardly long enough for us to properly evolve to really metabolise that stuff – as proper herbivores can.”

So how long will it take for you to evolve to metabolize cellulose? I suspect there is no “we”, my evolution might not be proceeding at the same speed as your evolution.

January 22, 2018 5:17 am

Here is a precautionary tale:

Climate Skeptics are Modern Day Churchills

The Britains, having ignored the warnings of Churchill for years, eventually got punched in the face by reality, and they were completely unprepared. They almost lost a vast majority of their army at Dunkirk, a defeat that was followed up by Britain losing their “invincible” Pacific stronghold Singapore. What contribution did the Left-Wing Labor Party make to the struggling nascent war effort? The publically attacked Churchill as a “Dictator indistinguishable from Hitler.” The Left-Wing Labor Party, of course, had no answer, they just saw the political opportunity in Churchill’s struggles. Today, we are building Wind and Solar Farms in preparation for continued warming during one of the coldest winters on record, and ice core data demonstrate that the greatest risk facing society is the inevitable ice age, not CAGW.

Reply to  co2islife
January 22, 2018 6:38 am


“The publically attacked Churchill as a “Dictator indistinguishable from Hitler.””

In much the same way as Trump is being relentlessly attacked by the left now.

As a Brit, I was as horrified as anyone else when the final candidates for the presidency were him and Clinton but when he was elected, I figured he couldn’t be any worse than her.

However, as far as I’m concerned, so far, Trump has covered himself in glory and I’m a convert.

There is nothing worse than a leader who won’t make decisions and, right or wrong, Trump makes them in the full knowledge that cleaning up any fall out is no worse than clearing up the fall out of indecision.

In Britain’s time of need, the country needed a warrior as a leader, which Churchill was. In America’s time of need, it needs a businessman to get it out the mess career politicians created, and I now believe Trump is that man. The world will be a better place for his intervention.

Reply to  HotScot
January 22, 2018 10:18 am

Yep, when Hitler was seeking oil fields, Churchill wasn’t building wind and solar farms.

michael hart
January 22, 2018 5:23 am

“The Charter was passed by 111 votes to 1, with 18 abstentions. The USA was the only country voting against.”

That was the real giveaway, right there. When voting patterns are getting up into Saddam Hussein-esque territory, you know something is up.

January 22, 2018 5:51 am

Induce enough fear and anything could be a risk. Pick a risk. Spend enough resources over enough time and use fear as a primal motivator and the risk will be perceived as real and precautions/actions must be taken against it. The fear can grow exponentially from there. From the Salem witch trials to McCarthy’s Red Scare – or even, heaven forbid, global scorching.

Reply to  Tim
January 22, 2018 6:43 am

tim- this is what has been taught at berkeley, the cradle of the activist ‘industry’ that has replaced manufacturing as the main ‘business’ of the usa.
i watched it spread. of interest to me was that they won all the arguments because they were based on the concept of ‘rights’ (no matter how tenuous that may have been). in the process the concept has been deformed into a blank check on the property of others.
and that’s one lesson the losers never seem to have learned. so they continue to lose.
the winning argument is ‘my mofo rights’; not a debate.

Reply to  Tim
January 25, 2018 10:27 am

McCarthy wasn’t wrong. He just didn’t communicate effectively.

January 22, 2018 6:38 am

A Problem occurs when the Precautionary Principle is applied to the Solutions of CAGW as they are now being used.

There is a CHANCE – the percent never clearly stated! – that the earth’s global average temperature will increase slightly – how little an increase that slightly is is never clearly stated! – due in part to man’s release of carbon dioxide gasses into the atmosphere. There is a CHANCE – percent never clearly stated – that severely restricting the release of some part – what part never clearly stated – of this CO2 may – percent never clearly stated – reduce the slight increase of the temperature at some time in the future – that indefinite future year never clearly stated.


The BENEFITS of using the energy freed by using this CO2 are NEVER released.
The BENEFITS of the added CO2 into the atmosphere are never released.
The BENEFITS of a slightly warmer global average temperature are never released.

The HARM caused to 7 billions of innocent people caused by NOT USING the available energy due to fear of potential future global warming is 100% guaranteed to occur for 85 years.

In addition, there is a 100% Guaranteed Chance of death to hundreds of millions of innocent people from starvation, hunger, thirst, disease and parasites in today’s world for 85 years.

Reply to  RACookPE1978
January 22, 2018 7:34 am

Quite so. This point is made most eloquently in Alex Epstein’s “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.”

January 22, 2018 7:34 am

Precautionary principle combined with linear no-threshold model could give overzealous environmental agencies reason to regulate many innocuous substances, including CO2.

January 22, 2018 7:51 am

On the precautionary principle, we should stop a-borting, recycling millions of viable human lives annually, because catastrophic anthropogenic global warming may cause global infertility within a decade.

Reply to  nn
January 22, 2018 1:32 pm

Or, on the precautionary principle, we should stop aborting millions of human lives because one of those lives could grow up to be a world changing genius. Prove to me, post moderns, that there is no genius amongst them.

January 22, 2018 7:59 am

As Eric’s previous article pointed out, this week “precaurionary principle” amounts to Pascal’s religious wager on the existence of God, heaven and hell. Far from the realm of science:


This issue bears a similarity to Pascal’s Wager on the Existence of God. Pascal, it may be recalled, argued that if there were only a tiny probability that God truly existed, it made sense to behave as if He did because the rewards could be infinite whereas the lack of belief risked eternal misery.

Reply to  ptolemy2
January 22, 2018 8:28 am

Please ignore “week” in the first sentence – added randomly by iPhone spellchecker.

Reply to  ptolemy2
January 22, 2018 9:55 am

I agree that we are talking about a perversion of Pascal’s Wager. As presented, I do believe that Pascal’s Wager refers to a personal choice. Today’s perversion makes it a collective choice, which is why it is tantamount to a power grab.

Smart Rock
Reply to  Jpatrick
January 22, 2018 4:33 pm

Pascal’s wager must surely have been intended as a joke. How can anyone decide to believe in God, or not? You can believe, or not believe, and your belief or non-belief may change over time consequent on your experiences and indoctrination, but deciding doesn’t have any place in those changes. I could decide to pretend to believe in god and do all the right things like going to church regularly, taking communion, praying, picketing outside abortion clinics, and so on and so on, but would any of that actually make me a believer? If god existed, as advertised by mainstream christianity, he would be able to see my innermost thoughts, see through my hypocrisy, and quite possibly decide to zap me with a judicious lightning bolt for my sins.

Or she.

Michael 2
Reply to  Jpatrick
January 23, 2018 11:39 am

Pascal’s Wager pertains to behavior. Certain of the scripture seems to require only a profession of belief presumably that’s all that is needed to secure eternal happiness.

The wager presumes upon this feature of belief; the outward profession, not the inward holding. There is no inward holding nor can there be in a god that cannot be described or defined, is transcendental, exists outside of time and space, is so large he fills the universe yet so small he fits in your heart.

So you go with the outward profession. Say a few words, instant salvation! My atheist father can, and does, nevertheless say the Lord’s Prayer — just in case!

Russ Wood
Reply to  Jpatrick
January 24, 2018 8:09 am

Terry Pratchett had a similar comment about “Pascal’s Wager”. When the “wagee”(?) woke up after death, he found himself surrounded by Discworld gods, all armed with clubs, and saying “And THIS is what we think about smartasses…”

Neil Jordan
Reply to  ptolemy2
January 22, 2018 10:13 am

Pascal”s Wager works if the cost of being virtuous (e.g. God exists) is small and has no disbenefits. If the cost of virtue (e.g. Green virtue signaling) is exceedingly high, then Pascal’s Wager collapses.
WUWT covered PP in 2016:
See my comment on July 11, 2016 at 10:49 pm
To summarize, risk is the product of probability and loss. If the probability of occurrence approaches zero and the consequence of the event (loss) approaches infinity, you have the zero x infinity quandary. The product is indeterminate, but L’Hôpital’s Rule gives the answer as zero risk.
PP collapses. As I noted in 2016, this is called the quagmire of marginal statistics.

January 22, 2018 8:02 am

I saw this happen in fisheries, now it is guilty until proven innocent —- “…human actions would be considered harmful unless proven otherwise.” (Restrepo et al., 1999; also Dayton, 1998). My impression is that it was applied to situations where essentially trial and error seemed the only choice. The justification became that humans were the only part that can be controlled, that is, before we thought we could control climate. Actually controlling climate is a very old idea, more recently “mainstream.”

Restrepo, V. R., P. M. Mace and F. M Serchuk. 1999. The precautionary approach: a new paradigm or business as usual? pp. 61-70, IN, Our Living Oceans, Report on the status of U. S. living marine resources. NOAA Technical Memorandum. NMFS-F/SPO-41.

Dayton, P. K. 1998. Reversal of the burden of proof in fisheries management. Science. 279:821-822.

January 22, 2018 8:18 am

Having worked where the “precautionary principle” hits the road and has dramatic influence economically and safety-wise I greatly appreciate Mr. Lock’s essay. I worked in several areas where the left wished to regulate human activity, e.g., endangered species management, fisheries management, mosquito control, sewage control, etc. I will leave endangered species mostly for another day. Let’s say that the federal government listed a newly discovered species of seagrass as critical habitat for an endangered species all based on the “precautionary principle.” No one had ever seen the animal in question do anything but swim over the areas where this species was “believed” to exist much less eat it. The most telling case of the misuse of the precautionary principle I dealt with was relative to legacy adulticides used for mosquito control. In the early days of pesticide approval a government contracted laboratory had produced some fraudulent data use to “label” a series of pesticides. The fraud was not discovered until some 20 years later, long after the products had been in use. Even though no one could show harm above and beyond the obvious, pesticides kill organism of similar size and species, several mosquitocides were required to relabel; meaning years of testing, all extremely expensive. In fact the manufacturers could no longer support the label, meaning they didn’t make enough profit to justify the expensive re-testing. EPA of course demanded the most expensive testing and refused to look at “in the field” experience, i.e., when used by the label no one had ever shown harm. All this was based on the precautionary principle. Since then other pesticides used for mosquito control have fallen by the wayside. Those remaining in in the portfolio of professional mosquito control even though labeled under modern standards are under attack all based on the precautionary principle taken to the nth degree. The latest, demonstrate beyond any doubt that a given pesticide is not playing some role in honey bee hive collapse. Now the ultimate harm is that we have re-emerging arthropod vectored disease. And NO global warming has played NO role these are all diseases that have existed for a long time. So we have fewer tools in our control system. A big problem is that mosquitos especially domestic mosquitoes, those that have evolved to live around humans, have developed resistance. To combat resistance especially when attempting to control a disease outbreak we must have alternative pesticides. Because of precautionary principle as applied by EPA few companies are willing to spend the money for the extensive research need to label a new product.

Doug Huffman
January 22, 2018 8:20 am

Polymath Nassim Nicholas Taleb frequently addresses the Precautionary Princible in support of his warmest position. He is an expert in risk analysis, maybe not so much in general science.

I eagerly read him but always skeptically, as always skeptically.

January 22, 2018 8:26 am

The biggest risk seems to be that if the political left accepts the truth that they have been so wrong for so long about the effect of CO2 on the climate, people will start to question the correctness of their other positions.

Reply to  co2isnotevil
January 22, 2018 11:26 am

That would be nice, and it could happen, but I expect they’ll hold to their ground. They’ll claim “We never said the catastrophic consequences were likely, just that it was important to try to avoid them because they would have been, well, catastrophic. Now, thankfully, we have avoided them. Bully for us. In the meantime we have made wonderful choices for the environment.” This is why I believe it is crucial for us to require that the CAGW proponents state their case clearly and quantify the probability and magnitude of any risks they hypothesize.

January 22, 2018 8:40 am

Perhaps this fits in somewhere as an example, just posted on SEPP. I used to help a refuge biologist count nests. Gulls would dash in to a tern nest for the egg or young if we disturbed it. They are very aggressive and look like their social behavior is more because they are parasites.


Humans are totally responsible unless they are biologists. There is even a word for it–pseudoreplication, as in being part of the experiment. Hurlburt, S. H. 1984. Pseudoreplication and the design of ecological field experiments. Ecological Monographs. 54:187-211.

January 22, 2018 8:41 am

This is an important topic. Thanks for the article. I feel the PP is being used to justify several kinds of marginal behaviour that are now accepted in Western societies. For example, the whole “safety Nazi movement” seems to be based on abuse of the PP. Here in BC we spend vast amounts of money straightening roads so that the risk of falling asleep from boredom while driving replaces the risk associated with not being able to negotiate a curve in the road. Talking on a cell phone while driving apparently turns people into homicidal maniacs (in fact talking on cell phones is only one component of the very vague accident category called distracted driving) while the best determinant of the likelihood of an accident, that is, a previous history of accidents is largely ignored. PP based on imagined risk creeps into everything and makes response to real risk increasingly difficult. The government forces the majority to follow rules that are irrelevant for most to protect society from the shortcomings of a minority. The cost in terms of dignity and sometimes in dollars, is enormous.

Reply to  BCBill
January 22, 2018 8:55 am
Reply to  BCBill
January 22, 2018 5:07 pm

“The cost in terms of dignity and sometimes in dollars, is enormous”
You see this excessive emphasis on ‘safety first’ everywhere you look. A friend of mine recently retired from a successful career in an excavating business where they used heavy equipment to install water and sewer works. I asked him why he was retiring so young and selling everything at auction.
He stated that occupational health and safety regulations had become so onerous and time consuming that he simply did not have the stamina to deal with it and god forbid if my company was ever held liable for an injury or death. Not only could these powerful government sanctioned boards take everything I have spent a lifetime building, I could easily end up in prison; a risk I’m not willing to continue to take.

Russ Wood
Reply to  BCBill
January 24, 2018 8:11 am

AH yes – but the fines for drivers “talking on a cellphone” provide an adequate income for Johannesburg traffic police, and an extra excuse for them not being out catching dangerous drivers…

January 22, 2018 8:43 am

“…post-normal science merely provides a way for glib, persuasive activists to direct policy debates towards outcomes which suit their agendas, even when the facts do not support those outcomes. It’s little different, either in intent or in effects, from the perversion of the precautionary principle into an activist tool. It’s not a form of science, but of nonscience. And it has been used to blur and to obfuscate the interface between science and policy.”

This certainly does sound like a newer version of Lysenkoism to me.

Why is it that quackery*, bad science*, and very stupid, very harmful ideas* take hold of the public? Is this an indication of mental laziness, or because it’s faddish* and over with quickly?

*quackery – snake oil; *bad science – Lysenkoism; *very harmful ideas – don’t vaccinate your kids; *faddish – drink raw water that hasn’t been touched, filtered or purified, otherwise, go all-vegan

Reply to  Sara
January 22, 2018 9:27 am

Sara, I have pondered your question for decades since I had to deal with folks believing in bad science much of my career. I know part of it is a lack of critical thinking, especially among those below the age of 50. Most colleges just no longer teach real “critical thinking.” Certainly the teaching of formal logic and Western Philosophy are no longer required. History had become a joke. I knew a prominent lady who heads a not-for-profit that cannot understand cause and effect especially after she found some “scientific” article on vaccines. After all the article had statistics. Trying to get through to her I used my old statistics professors example of a false correlation, refrigerators cause cancer. She seemed incapable of understanding that just because 99% of people who got cancer ate something from a refrigerator and there was a significant correlation with the data, that refrigerators were not the cause of cancer. She still believes that vaccines, especially, though not limited to, children vaccines, are far more dangerous than the diseases they prevent. After all we seldom see those diseases any more. When the second in command of one of the major anti-vaccine groups child got whooping cough and changed sides, the lady in question was outraged. When the doctor in the UK was banned from medicine because of his fraudulent research she claimed it was all a giant conspiracy by the vaccine manufacturers. In other words when government regulators which she strongly supports proved the doctor’s misdeeds she refused to believe it was some evil corporation attacking the guy. How dare anyone contradict her long held beliefs.

Clyde Spencer
January 22, 2018 8:48 am

Chauncey Starr (1969) made the point that people are willing to tolerate risk in proportion to the perceived benefit of the risk. That is, people in the USA tolerate 30,000 automobile deaths annually because of the importance of cars to our way of life. His original paper plotted various activities that people engage in, versus the amount of money they willingly spend for the activity, such as skiing. He plotted the results on a semi-log graph; I discovered that plotting on a log-log graph yields an almost linear relationship. Note that the relationship is to perceived, not actual benefit. The perception can be changed by what the MSM writes (nuclear power is dangerous), or what the current fad happens to be (texting while driving).


January 22, 2018 9:07 am

The precautionary principle makes sense when the costs are known and small, and the risk while unknown is potentially huge.
In the case of climate warming, the costs are huge, while the risk is known and small to non-existent.

January 22, 2018 9:08 am

Climate zealots torture the precautionary principle by claiming that an investment should be made now to prevent a small probability event with an extremely high cost from happening. However, they always inflate the probability, underestimate the uncertainty, and inflate the costs should the event occur. Basically they assume the worst case scenario is the most likely or only scenario. Since the probability of armageddon is so low, and the perceived cost to humanity so high, just a small error in those estimates suddenly makes their conclusions economically reasonable, though of course they are not.

Besides, their precautionary principle abuse is only one sided. Couldn’t we also argue that we should be adding CO2 to the atmosphere at all costs to prevent an ice age? There is no end to the direction that the precautionary principle could be used to make poor decisions for humanity. That’s why I’d rather not have a cabal of elites decide what’s best for humanity at all.

Steve Zell
January 22, 2018 9:32 am

I’ve heard (from the Left) governmental actions against CO2 emissions compared to taking out an “insurance policy” to protect the earth, with the implication that “we all will die” or “our children will all die” if we don’t spend trillions of dollars now on renewable energy and sequestering carbon dioxide.

Except that when the costs and benefits are actually calculated, it’s equivalent to taking out a life insurance policy that pays a million dollars to the beneficiary if the insured person dies, but the premiums are a billion dollars per day. No one in their right mind would buy such a policy, but some policymakers have been misled into believing that the risks of global warming are virtually infinite, and avoidance of such risks justifies any cost.

The truth is, even if a warmer future climate causes some ice to melt and sea level to rise (slowly), the cost of seawalls can be calculated, and it’s not infinite, since seawalls have been built in the past. An extra hundredth of a percent (100 ppm) or so of CO2 in the atmosphere would not be catastrophic–let’s compare the cost of dealing with that to the poverty inflicted on billions of people by reverting to 18th century energy sources.

January 22, 2018 10:05 am

Thanks for this well written article.
“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.”
The industrial scale wind turbine incursion on rural residents was able to happen because of Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration of 1992. Many people have been/are being harmed be these turbines and are being viewed as ‘collateral damage’. This information is in the public domain.
Strong arguments can be made that these turbines are not “cost effective” or necessary and yet the Precautionary Principle, as altered in 1992, remains the ruling.

David Dibbell
January 22, 2018 10:18 am

Good essay. About the absence of evidence of risk vs evidence of absence of risk: I see plenty of evidence for the absence of warming risk concerning emissions of carbon dioxide. It’s called “weather”. A great example, often mentioned here at WUWT, is a thunderstorm, which illustrates powerfully to the honest observer that heat cannot be trapped successfully at the surface. The atmospheric heat engine is not de-rated one bit by carbon dioxide. The math is not hard. A one-inch-per hour rate of rainfall implies a 16,000 W/m^2 rate of upward heat delivery, to very high altitudes, unimpeded by the greenhouse effect.

Leo Smith
January 22, 2018 10:53 am

Once upon a time, there was a little boy prince, and his daddy king went to a soothsayer to read his fortune.

“Your son will die from a lion” said the soothsayer “before you do”.

So alarmed was the queen, that she confined the boy to the royal palace, and forbade any mention of Lions or anything to do with Lions, anywhere within the palace grounds.

One day the Young prince, bored with his confinement, took to exploring all the old unused rooms in the palace, and in one he discovered to his complete anger, hung a picture of a Lion. So incensed was he that he smashed his fist against the wall, where the nail from which the picture hung, pierced his hand, and he died from tetanus two weeks later.

I think this traditional tale illustrates the precautionary principle, when applied to climate change extremely well.

One imagines a modern day environmentalist in this situation…


“Do you KNOW what this will do to society if you Invent Fire?”

Jeff Id
January 22, 2018 11:26 am

Let’s move to socialism quick !! just as a precaution.

January 22, 2018 12:47 pm

The most effective argument I’ve ever seen on the Precautionary Principle is that it cannot even pass it’s application to itself.

If you cannot proceed with something until it’s proven it’s not harmful, then proving that negative also applies to the PP.

January 22, 2018 1:29 pm

“Better safe than sorry” for one group translates into “totally screwed” for another group, where the Paris Accord is concerned, … for example of how the precautionary principle can backfire to become its opposite.

Gunga Din
January 22, 2018 2:04 pm

Requiring a hard hat be worn in a construction area is a relatively cheap precaution.
To require everyone where an Ironman suit (complete with an arc reactor) is ridiculous to the point of “California Dreamin'” fantasy.
Enviros’ precautions fit the later, not the former.

Gunga Din
Reply to  Gunga Din
January 22, 2018 2:06 pm

“To require everyone wear an Ironman suit…”

January 22, 2018 2:24 pm

The precautionary principle is used to stifle debate and cut short further useful scientific inquiry into the real nature of the problem. CAGW enthusiasts love the precautionary principle as it gives them licence to inflict extensive suffering on peoples of the World without proving anything about their vague assertions that CO2 is Bad, Bad, Bad.

January 22, 2018 2:47 pm

One of the positive things about PNS is it reflects disillusion with the corruption of science well known to readers of this site. Left to itself PNS will probably spontaneously have to reinvent the very scientific method it scorns. How will lay people and activists judge one scientific fact from another? What is true and what is not? Perhaps someone will suggest comparing various competing ideas to real world observation. ☺

Gunga Din
Reply to  WhiteRabbit
January 22, 2018 3:26 pm

Left to itself PNS will probably spontaneously have to reinvent the very scientific method it scorns.

They already have. Theory, absent actual observation, is considered “fact”. Hypothetical possibilities are considered certainties. A computer program can now tell us what the temperature was somewhere where there was no thermometer within a hundred miles. The computer output is considered to be an observation. A “fact”.
Policy is based on and ideology benefits from such “facts”.

January 22, 2018 3:44 pm

The precautionary principle has been one that I have said is a potential excuse for some to believe and limit the output of CO2, however, over the last 20 years, the idea of the precautionary principle has eroded dramatically.

This is because we have learned a lot more in the last 20 years. First, we now have evidence of the last 70 years of the impact of higher levels Co2 on the environment and on our rapid increase in CO2 in the atmosphere.

After 70 years since WWII (1945) humans have put in 110ppm of CO2 increasing CO2 levels as much as happened during the ice ages. This is 94% of all the CO2 man has ever put into the atmosphere. Thus we have a confined time period in which we have run this experiment. The results for the first 70 years are in.

So far, about 0.35 -> 0.4C temperature change from 110ppm or about a 30% increase in Co2 levels.

There were concerns about catastrophic releases of methane, species going extinct and many theories of various ways glaciers would collapse and produce significant sea level rise. All of these concerns have turned out to be disproved. That is to say, not just “haven’t happened yet” but not happening for thousands of years if ever.

When CAGW (catastrophic anthropogenic Global warming) was put forward many ideas were tossed out. To my knowledge, not a single theory of any potential catastrophic outcome has shown valid. Many have been outright disproved. We don’t see any increase in storm activity or severity. We don’t see the arctic ocean sea ice collapsing nor Antarctic mass decreasing.

There is always the possibility of something terrible happening at a higher level (Tipping points) but many of these have been tested and proved wrong. Further, we have a very good long term understanding and observation of the response of the atmosphere to injection of massive quantities of CO2. The atmosphere will react as it did in the past. Another 30% increase of CO2 will produce likely a 0.4C increase in temperatures. End of Story.

The Earth will not react differently to the next 30% of co2 than it has to the last. With 70 years to back us up and halfway to 2100, it seems incredibly unlikely that any scenario exists where a co2 increase in the range of 30-50% would cause a significant change in the way the atmosphere reacts to co2. To predict anything different would be unscientific. The atmosphere has reacted and we’ve seen the result. We don’t have to guess anymore.

We also have to understand the improbability of what CAGW enthusiasts try to argue with the precautionary principle. CAGW enthusiasts and climate scientists are arguing
1) That the perfect temperature of the Earth was obtained in roughly 1780 and that since then we have been raising the temperature of the earth in ways that are causing more negative effects than positive effects. This is a well known canard that almost always is false. It is extremely unlikley that 1780 or 1980 was the perfect temperature of the Eartth or living things. Living things have lived through temperatures 16F warmer and 16F colder over the whole Earth. Life has prospered in most of these ranges but if anything has clearly done better in warmer periods, some considerably warmer than today.

2) CO2 levels have been observed as high as 4,000 ppm or 10 times the levels of today and life did great. In fact, for the vast majority of the last 60 million years CO2 levels have averaged closer to 2,000ppm of CO2 or 5 times the current level and this is how we got to the world where human beings live. Experiments in greenhouses show that plants thrive more and more in CO2 levels much higher than today’s 400. In fact, up to 1200 ppm seems to be where plants are ideally ingesting Co2. They show the maximum productivity and health at these much higher concentrations which were common over the last 60 million years in which almost everything living today evolved.

For all these reasons and more the idea that the next 200 or 400ppm of CO2 will cause catastrophic consequences is robustly disproven. There is no scientific rationale for arguing that CO2 levels below 2,000 could lead to any significantly negative outcome and it is highly likely that the world would get better with CO2 levels closer to 1200 than current levels.

Will glaciers melt with higher temperatures and higher CO2? Yes. It will take thousands of years, tens of thousands of years, maybe a hundred thousand years to melt the Antarctic glaciers. Humans have no way to understand such long time periods. All of humanity has only been 5,000 years under civilization. Most structures on the Earth are considerably under 100 years old. To rebuild everything we have built while it would be expensive over a period of 1,000 years would be trivial and will be done anyway regardless of sea levels.

January 22, 2018 4:00 pm

How are the warmistas going to stop global warming without running smack-dab into their own precautionary principle?

January 22, 2018 4:32 pm

One of the big problems is a lack of sense of proportion. Fears of tiny risks lead to calls to shut down very important and beneficial activities. Precautionary actions can lead to worse side-effects.
I have known people who were so afraid of things they would not leave their house. Even more common is people who won’t let their kids go outside to play or go to a friend’s house to play due to fear. This is no way to live and we sure don’t want such people telling the rest of us how to assess risk.

January 22, 2018 4:39 pm

“If they don’t do this, and something goes wrong, they will face lawsuits, and perhaps worse.” They get sued anyway and for listed side effects. When there’s money to be extorted, some sleazy lawyer will be out there gobbling it up.

January 22, 2018 4:50 pm

Why is anyone worrying about CO2 when the most alarming trend is the rise in “background radiation” that is occurring every time a nuclear bomb is tested or a nuclear power plant melts down? This stuff doesn’t go away and it is not part of the cycle of life as CO2 is. Nuclear waste is the agent of death.

What Nagasaki, Fukashima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island have taught us is that eventually all the plutonium we have created is going to be vaporized into the atmosphere or washed into the oceans and we are powerless to stop it.

The say nuclear power is safe, but actually they fail at about the same rate the space shuttle did. (A bit better perhaps, 2 shuttles blew up in 100 flights whereas 5 reactors have melted down out of 400.) Only the space shuttle program could be abandoned and was. All the spent nuclear fuel is still sitting around in above ground or shallow burial storage of one sort or another. It won’t stay there. If something happens to the power grid that lasts longer than 2 weeks or so, all of those spent fuel pools are in trouble. (Because that’s about how much fuel is on site to run the backup generators. Once that’s gone the pools will boil off. Refueling in that situation isn’t an option because if the power grid is down you can’t deliver the diesel.)

Everyone is worried about an EMP device because it will take down the grid, if such a weapon actually exists of which I am skeptical. But a regular nuclear bomb strategically placed would do the same thing. After that, it is only a matter of time before the reactors melt down and the spent fuel escapes in the affected area. After that a “domino effect” will start as people have to evacuate contaminated areas and leave the reactors to their fate.

Reply to  Nonplused
January 22, 2018 4:54 pm

If it’s not one terrifying fear, it’s another. Life without a overwhelming fear is apparently impossible.

Reply to  Sheri
January 22, 2018 4:57 pm

I think a little fear here is appropriate as it is time to take action and bury this stuff a long way down and stop making more of it. The end game is clearly calculable if we don’t. Meanwhile we are wasting time on CO2.

Reply to  Sheri
January 22, 2018 7:29 pm

A little fear????

January 22, 2018 5:02 pm

The biggest problem with the precautionary principle is that it implicitly ignores any risk from the precautionary measures themselves. If logically applied the principle would in fact be self-prohibiting because of such risks.

January 22, 2018 5:10 pm

so far, being prepared for absolutely nothing of consequence is the winning bet.
although, armageddon fatigue might be worse than we thought…

January 22, 2018 7:33 pm

Too bad the precautionary principle wasn’t applied to mass immigration.

January 23, 2018 12:31 am

The PP makes no sense, because it makes a number of flawed assumptions. The first is that any problems caused by a new thing cannot be solved or reversed. But we can always adjust, ameliorate, mitigate or even reverse course and stop if we need to. The second flawed assumption is that the natural world is so fragile, its balance so delicate, that any damage is catastrophic. There is plenty of evidence (Chernobyl say) that that assumption is utterly false. This is the world of tipping points, the unprovable claims of Alarmists everywhere.

January 23, 2018 12:46 am

An average of 18 people in the UK and 51 in the USA are killed by lightning strikes each year. According to the precautionary principle as applied in modern times we should all be walking round in Faraday cages to reduce the risk to near zero. Think of the cost and inconvenience. A better solution is to avoid standing under trees during a thunderstorm, where a large proportion of the fatalities occur. Much cheaper and almost as effective. Much the same could be said about the proposed solutions to global warming/ climate change or whatever the current buzz jword is.

Tim Crome
January 23, 2018 8:57 am

In risk management there is a concept referred to as ALARP – As Low As Reasonably Practical. Use in climate questions would be a good idea even though I’m sure there would be a lot of discussion about what is reasonable.

January 25, 2018 7:13 am

Good subject, rarely discussed.

One phrase in the conclusion
was a writing masterpiece:

” … the principle has been re-cast into a strong form,
which inverts the burden of proof
and has become a tool for tyranny.”

I encourage the writer to use
shorter sentences, and simple words
whenever posible, for better readability.

The article inspired me to write
my own article
on the precautionary principle,
which if implemented correctly
based on real science,
would require continuing
to add CO2 to the air.

Article here:

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