The Protean precautionary principle

Ben Pile is a throughly admirable climate skeptic but he usually writes in such an intellectual way that he gives even me a bit of a headache -- and with 200+ published academic journal articles and an interest in non-English poetry I have some claims as an intellectual myself. The following excerpt from one of his articles is pretty clear however -- with a bit of judicious re-paragraphing.

I myself always answer advocates of the precautionary principle by agreeing with it -- and pointing out how near we are to the end of a warm interglacial -- which leads to the imperative that we should be preparing urgently for global cooling

Shrill environmental rhetoric has been the growing thorn in its own side. The angrier and louder environmentalists have got, the more they have done to beset their own progress. The Joe Romms, 10:10 campaigns and George Monbiots of the world have done more to expose the real character of environmentalism than anything the sceptics have been able to throw at them. Greens are left fighting a rear-guard action… against themselves. It would be a comedy, if it wasn’t the case that the world was so invested in environmental policy-making. It is instead tragedy.

While we might welcome moves by some environmentalists to counsel their fellow greens about the incautious application of the… erm… precautionary principle, their attempts to remove themselves from the mess they have made do not show any evidence that they understand it, or can ever really escape it. Continuing his own attempts to reconcile the pro and anti-GM greens, Sunny Hundal betrays his irreconcilably contradicted perspective on today’s Liberal Conspiracy blog:
Why do most politically active right-wingers Conservatives and UKIPers deny climate change? It seems to me the science is irrelevant; they deny it because they hate the political implications of global warming and the cost of mitigation. They’ve convinced themselves that AGW is a far-left conspiracy to raise their taxes and change their lifestyle.....

Should people concerned about the growth of nuclear weapon technology, or (hypothetically) human mutation, ignore the potential consequences? Not really. It’s the job of elected representatives to voice those concerns and ask (possibly ignorant) questions. They may even campaign to stop funding. The court of public opinion drives democracy – to ignore that opinion is dangerous. The Monsanto problem should not be dismissed away, at least not for elected representatives of the left.

So democracy is good, when its about the things Sunny Hundal wants it to be about: Monsanto, nuclear proliferation, and so on. But democracy is not so good when it asks questions about the ‘political implications of global warming’. Nobody who challenges climate change orthodoxy could be, as Sunny is, concerned about the implications for democracy.

In other words, he rightly points out that political arguments are promiscuous with ‘scientific evidence’, but doesn’t notice himself hiding his own prejudices behind ‘science’, which allows him to determine that only some concerns are legitimate.

Environmentalists have always hidden their political project behind science, and speculated about to what motivates other people to see things differently… The only answer they can produce is that everyone else — even their own pals — is ‘scientifically illiterate’.

Environmentalists, between them, claim to have the monopoly on science and democracy, but are promiscuous with both. ‘Democracy’ has weight when environmentalists are hiding behind ‘public opinion’, and science is invoked in spite of it. Fundamentally, it is the precautionary principle which has allowed environmentalists to vacillate. It has been used to circumvent democracy, or to say that people are not capable of understanding the issues (i.e. risk), and then used to amplify risk, no matter what ‘science says’.

The precautionary principle applies to any technology, no matter how long it has been around, and presumes in favour of regulating it, notwithstanding that ‘scientific evidence’ may not be able to substantiate any claim that it is dangerous. Under the precautionary principle, a weak, theoretical risk is magnified by its potential impact. A nuclear accident can be widespread. Thus, nuclear power is regarded as certainly more ‘risky’ than conventional means. Similarly, under the precautionary approach, and under climate agreements, controls on the emissions of CO2 from industry are sought, not because any substantial evidence exists that they are harmful, but because we cannot say how harmful they will be.

Look carefully at the arguments for things such as containing global temperatures beneath 2 degrees, for instance, and it turns out that 2 degrees is not a limit detected by science, but is instead a arbitrary horizon of uncertainty. Before 2 degrees, we can be more sure of our assumptions. Beyond it, things become less certain, and theoretical risks are magnified. There may well exist very reasonable scientific measurements which show how a rising proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere will produce an increase in temperature. But then there is the difficult matter of how this relatively modest increase will be exacerbated by feedback mechanisms. And then there is another question about how much that warming will turn into effects throughout the climate, and in turn how much that will effect other natural processes before it is experienced by human society.

In each leap, what counts in the policy-makers perspective is not what has been shown, but what the putative risks are. Causal chains, beginning with CO2 emissions scenarios turn into story lines, each with a measure of probability attached to them. Under the precautionary principle, policy makers are obliged to take the worst case.

And under such an obligation, the likelihood of 20-30 cm of sea level rise by 2100 becomes 10 meters. Slightly warmer nights and slightly longer summers with slightly more warmer days becomes desertification and mass extinction. Slightly milder winters with slightly more precipitation becomes floods of biblical proportions. Slightly different weather patterns become the denuding of fertile grounds, and the mass migration of hundreds of millions of people looking for shelter, water and food.

To point out that this is what the precautionary principle does to ‘scientific evidence’ — even while acknowledging that climate change is a problem — is to be ‘scientifically illiterate’, or to be ‘anti-science’, or to be a ‘denier’.

So the journalists who are now rounding on anti-GM and anti-nuclear campaigners are doing so at the risk of undermining their own perspectives. I am happy to agree with them that the benefits of nuclear and GM outweigh any reasonable estimation of their risks.

But they are naive about their own arguments. The sensible estimation of risks is completely confused by the precautionary principle — risk analysis without numbers — whether the issue is GM, nuclear, or climate change.

That they are pulling the rug out from under their own feet should give us no cause for celebration yet: few of them are capable of reflecting on their own incoherence, and fewer still are reflecting on the implications for the absurd and far-reaching policies that have been created in order to ‘save the planet’. And the process of building supranational political institutions continues apace, as if there were nothing wrong with the precautionary principle — the fundamental of that institution building — at all.


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