The Precautionary Principle

Last night I was talking with a colleague about writing something on the “Precautionary Principle.”

This morning I see John Miller at the Corner writing about a Tom Friedman column pushing that very principle.

After raising Dick Cheney’s views on meeting low-probability threats from Al Qaeda and quoting Cass Sunstein on the precautionary principle, Friedman wrote:

When I see a problem that has even a 1 percent probability of occurring and is “irreversible” and potentially “catastrophic,” I buy insurance. That is what taking climate change seriously is all about.

If we prepare for climate change by building a clean-power economy, but climate change turns out to be a hoax, what would be the result? Well, during a transition period, we would have higher energy prices. But gradually we would be driving battery-powered electric cars and powering more and more of our homes and factories with wind, solar, nuclear and second-generation biofuels. We would be much less dependent on oil dictators who have drawn a bull’s-eye on our backs; our trade deficit would improve; the dollar would strengthen; and the air we breathe would be cleaner. In short, as a country, we would be stronger, more innovative and more energy independent.

But if we don’t prepare, and climate change turns out to be real, life on this planet could become a living hell. And that’s why I’m for doing the Cheney-thing on climate — preparing for 1 percent.

Miller responds:

The “precautionary principle” drives me batty. In principle (so to speak), I’m all for it. It’s a profoundly small-c conservative concept. It urges humility and restraint in all areas of life, including public policy, where it serves as a useful guard against the unintended consequences that so often accompany Big Plans.

Then there’s its actual application by guys like Thomas Friedman, who deploy it whenever they find it helpful to their political agenda and ignore it when they don’t.

In his NYT column today, Friedman says there’s a greater than 1-percent chance that our planet is in the midst of a human-made global-warming disaster. So he wants to take action, which he likens to buying an insurance policy. But the very same logic could be used against kneecap-and-trade and all of the other draconian schemes that the environmental left has concocted: There’s a greater than 1-percent chance that their hubris will impoverish the world through strangling regulations and accomplish nothing in the face of a phony problem. In this context, the precautionary principle urges us to avoid buying Friedman’s expensive and risky insurance policy.

It takes sound judgment to know when the precautionary principle makes sense and when it doesn’t. Everything else is just rhetoric.

What Friedman doesn’t seem to recognize is that cutting carbon emissions by 80% is highly likely to impoverish the world. And poverty kills real people–lots of them. So by government fiat we could achieve the “living hell,” the death and economic destruction, that he fears might happen if the Al Gores of this world are right about global warming.

Further, I suggest that people actually read the UN IPCC area reports on what might happen if global warming continues unchecked. Consider Chapter 14 on North American impacts. Given the corruption of the IPCC process, these should be taken with a grain of salt, but even these do not describe a “living hell.” We would have longer growing seasons and more rainfall over most of North America. The words “ski” or “skiing” appear five times in the report, but even there the report mentions snow-making machines offsetting the losses. (Perhaps because I don’t ski, I wouldn’t view even the total destruction of the ski industry as a significant contribution to a “living hell.”)

More seriously, the IPCC claims that there would be more frequent major storms, but the science behind that claim now looks more doubtful than it did when they wrote it. Among the many problems identified in the report, the biggest one would be threats to coastal communities from rising sea water — a problem to which North Americans would gradually adapt. (Unfortunately, this adaptation can be slowed by foolish governments pouring money into rebuilding areas below sea level, as the Bush Administration did in New Orleans after the floods.)

The “living hell” would presumably fall on areas of the globe where people are not rich enough to adapt to climate change. Personally, I doubt that impoverishing them further would help in this adaptation.

Of course, what the IPCC doesn’t adequately address is why warming would be so bad this time when warming periods in the past were on balance so beneficial to humans, plants, and agriculture. See, generally, Ian Plimer’s Heaven and Earth: Global Warming, the Missing Science.

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