Monday, May 26, 2008

Climate and the Precautionary Principle

We went to a memorial day barbeque today with several families from the ward, and I got into a debate (friendly, of course) with a brother about the greenhouse effect, global warming, climate change (whatever it's called now).
Anyway, we each had points and counterpoints. I'm a lawyer and he's a physicist, so it's not like either of us really knows what we're talking about. But I noticed that whenever I'd make a point, the response would be something like "yeah, we don't really know, but we shouldn't risk it."
I've encountered this attitude recently as I wrote my final law school paper. It is basically "better safe than sorry." The formal name for this philosophy is the Precautionary Principle. It's widely used in environmental circles as a justification to prohibit, regulate or tax any activity that could conceivably impact the environment.
the Precautionary Principle is insidious for at least two reasons.
  • First, it reverses the burden of proof - forcing one side to prove a negative. Instead of the environmental advocate gathering evidence of actual harm and using that evidence to advocate halting the damaging activity, all the activist has to do is come up with a scenario that will potentially harm the environment, and invoke the Precautionary Principle. The activist doesn't have to prove anything, the other side has to prove that their activities will be harmless. This is nearly impossible. I can't prove that driving to taco bell to get lunch will be harmless. This being the case, the precautionary principle says I should not do it.
  • Second, it is used selectively. Environmentalists use it to force industry to prove they will cause no harm, but activists don't take into account the harm caused by their own actions. DDT was banned because it may have harmed some birds, but this ban has allowed millions of people to die from mosquito-bourne malaria over the last 3 decades. One would think that if an action had the potential of killing millions, the precautionary principle would dictate that it not be taken. not so. Only environmental harm is fair game. (and humans are not part of the environment).
Just something to keep in mind next time you hear predictions of possible environmental catastrophe.