Monday, 9 September 2013

Alternative to The Precautionary Principle?

First published at Online Opinion, cross post via  license under a Creative Commons License


I've written about the Precautionary Principle before. With that title it was adopted at the 1992 Rio conference on climate, and it has been used a great deal by proponents of the need to 'combat climate change' internationally. Built into it is Pascal's Wager about the correctness of believing in God, and it has analogies in the medical precept 'first do no harm'. I didn't like it when I first came across it, partly because it was dressed up as a 'principle' and partly because of the capital letters, which suggested importance and longevity.

Image sourced [here]

I've come across a most interesting paper by Max More, an English philosopher and futurist, which offers instead a 'proactionary principle'. There's a lot in it, and it's well worth reading. I'll discuss his alternative in a later post, but use this one to show his demolition of the precautionary principle. It is clear and accessible.

'The precautionary principle has at least six major weak spots. It serves us badly by:
  • assuming worst-case scenarios
  • distracting attention from established threats to health, especially natural risks
  • assuming that the effects of regulation and restriction are all positive or neutral, never negative
  • ignoring potential benefits of technology and inherently favouring nature over humanity
  • illegitimately shifting the burden of proof and unfavourably positioning the proponent of the activity
  • conflicting with more balanced, common-law approaches to risk and harm.

  • First, the precautionary principle always assumes worst-case scenarios. Any release of chemicals into the environment might initiate a chain of events leading to a disaster. Genetically modified organisms might cause unanticipated, serious, and irreversible problems. By imagining the proposed technology or project primarily in a worst-case scenario, while assuming that refraining from action will have no disastrous consequences, the adherents of the principle immediately tilt the playing field in their favour.

    Second, the precautionary principle ignores background risk, distracting our attention from established dangers to health. Nature itself brings with it a risk of harms such as infection, hunger, famine, and environmental disruption. We should apply our limited resources first to major risks that we know are real, not merely hypothetical. The more we attend to merely hypothetical threats to health and environment, the less money, time, and effort will remain to deal with substantial health problems that are highly probable or thoroughly established. The principle errs in focusing on future technological harms that might occur, while ignoring natural risks that are actually occurring.

    Third, adherents of the precautionary principle assume that proposed regulations and restrictions will cause no harm to health. Yet the very application of the principle itself can endanger our health. Consider, for instance, the consistent correlation between the health of a nation's citizens and their standard of living. Widespread application of the precautionary principle, by hampering economic activity, will tend to reduce living standards and thereby worsen health. In addition, major efforts to eliminate small, speculative risks can unleash far greater and more likely harms.

    Fourth, the precautionary principle fails to treat natural and human threats on the same basis. Users of the principle routinely ignore the potential benefits of technology, in effect favouring nature over humanity. The principle does not account for the fact that the risks created by technological stagnation are at least as real as those of technological advancement. As biochemist Bruce Ames of UCLA has demonstrated, almost all of our exposure to dangerous chemicals comes in the form of natural chemicals. Yet fear and attention are primarily directed toward synthetic chemicals. A particular chemical has the same effects regardless of whether its source is natural or synthetic. Despite this, scientifically unsound activists treat human-derived chemicals as guilty until proven innocent, and naturally occurring chemicals as innocent or insignificant.

    precautionary principle: until you're sure, be prudent
    Fifth, the precautionary principle illegitimately shifts the burden of proof by positioning advocates of proposed activities or new technologies as reckless, in contrast with the 'responsible' advocates of 'precaution'. The content - even the very name - of the precautionary principle positions environmental activists and Luddites as friends and protectors of the common person. The innovators are made to prove safety, having already been portrayed as indifferent to the common good and interested only in profiting.

    Image sourced [here]

    Having illegitimately shifted the burden of proof, activists can impose their values without troubling themselves with evidence and without taking responsibility for the results of overly-precautious policies. For example, the Environmental Working Group opposed the use of pesticides, speculating about possible carcinogenic effects of trace amounts of their residues. They do not seem to have taken into account the probability that restricting pesticides would increase cancer rates.
    Activists get away with the burden of proof trick by managing perceptions of risk instead of examining the real risks. This move is particularly dangerous because we have limited resources to address a multitude of risks. We cannot afford to make decisions driven by manipulated perceptions. It's crucial that we rely on a comprehensive, scientifically grounded perspective when choosing which risks have the strongest claim on our attention.

    Sixth, and finally, the precautionary principle conflicts with the more balanced approach to risk and harm derived from common law. Common law holds us liable for injuries we cause, our liability being proportionate with the degree of foreseeable risk. By contrast, the precautionary principle dismisses liability and acts like a preliminary injunction, but without the involvement of a court, without the burden of proof, and without taking responsibility for harm caused by the injunction.'


    1. The reason that I published this post is that in my role on the board of Property Rights Australia I have seen a lot of evidence of injustice when the precautionary principle is used with a heavy hand.

      Then along comes the coal seam gas industry and in Qld the very same Beattie/ Bligh Labor governments that allowed the worst aspects of environmentalism to ride supreme over landowners property rights developed the principle of adaptive management in the place of the precautionary principle.

      Adaptive management just meant that we don't know the outcomes but we will rush into it and if something goes wrong we will work it out as we go.

      The author of this post has not as of yet published his promised second post on this subject.

    2. The Precautionary Principle was never signed, there is no written agreement.

      If the Precautionary Principle was applied within impact studies of Great Barrier Reef ecosystem excavation at Gladstone, then destruction of vital food web seagrass nurseries and key habitat areas would not be taking place.

      Very serious issues are involved.

      Whole coastal community economies and people are being impacted by a half baked gas export terminal fiasco, when there are sensible harbour site alternatives.

      There are numerous consequences to error, such as responding to CO2, the incorrect cause of AGW.
      Aspects of the Kyoto Protocol are causing severe consequence, increased cost burden of energy, cost emissions trading, CO2 tax.

      Why just blame CO2?

      Daily dumping of sewage nutrient loadings should be expected to be much higher than loadings from agriculture.
      Farm nutrients flow to the sea only for a limited time following considerable rain.

      Farmers are being blamed for nutrient overloads in river estuary systems, and so property rights are being taken away due to misinformation, no information. Has there been any evidence brought forward to discount city and town nutrient inflow into estuaries and rivers, coastal alongshore current is not even duly measured.
      Diligent farmers might do well to ask how science measures city nutrient loadings mixed with farm nutrient loadings.

      How can property rights law be diligently drafted and legislated and managed without due diligence?

      How can government use incomplete science to create an emissions trading scheme or new tax?

      It appears to me that warmth in unprecedented ocean algae plant matter fed with unprecedented city and town sewage nutrient loadings, has not been measured in AGW - Kyoto science.

    3. Dr Gordon Fulks, an astrophysicist with the same qualifications as (exNASA) James Hansen has written of the Precautionary Principle

    4. Bjørn Lomborg recently wrote in an article called, The Abuse of the Precautionary Principle

      "The original Rio Earth Summit version of the precautionary principle states roughly: if threats could be significant, don’t wait for complete information to avoid cost-effective actions. This is smart, and what we do everyday. If something is dangerous, we don’t wait to have the complete information before we act

      But since then, the precautionary principle has been progressively vamped up or weaponized. It is now being used to say you can’t do stuff unless you can prove it won’t be dangerous (guilty until proven innocent). The problem is almost nothing can be proven to be un-dangerous.

      The problem here is the abused precautionary principle is great as a political sledgehammer – carefully formulated, you can ban anything – but this is unreasonable. We have to weigh risks and benefits, not just issue blanket edicts about safe and dangerous.

      We need to stand up for common sense and rational policies on human health and the environment. We need to insist on proper risk assessments, through smart weighing of pros and cons."


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