The Precautionary Principle

Global Warming denialists have lost the ethical battle.

It’s fascinating to see people newly awaken to the issue of global warming.  They often stand with wide open eyes, stammering about the enormity of the problem.  Each seems to harbor an unstated foundation: the Precautionary Principle - Every mother tells her young child  “If you are ever unsure about whether something might hurt you - then don’t do it.” 


  This rule applies to gathering wild mushrooms, using chemical insecticides, and talking with strangers.  Now mother’s rule can also apply to global warming: when our activities threaten to harm human health or the environment, then precautionary measures should be taken.  Even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not scientifically fully established.

…The principle implies that there is a responsibility to intervene and protect the public from exposure to harm where scientific investigation discovers a plausible risk in the course of having screened for other suspected causes.  The protections that mitigate suspected risks can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that more robustly support an alternative explanation. In some legal systems, as in the law of the European Union, the precautionary principle is also a general and compulsory principle of law.   from Wikipedia

This strongly ethical statement elegantly applies to global warming as seen in the introductory video to the Manpollo project.  It asks   “Given the risks and uncertainties of global warming, what is the best action to take?” 

Concluding that since the stakes are so high, we need to act appropriately despite any uncertainty.  Why is there anything less than full agreement?

  Intentional commercial pressures stifle unified action on global warming and feed the ideological resistance.  It is easy to blame the persistent but effective PR campaign pushing global warming denial , producing bad science and promoting the false notion that the problem is not really serious and humans cannot do anything about it.  Such blather - funded and promoted by the carbon fuel industry - is readily accepted by the carbon devoted public.  But cheerleading for carbon loyalty is so far outside of ethical principles that it amounts to encouraging species suicide.  Professional denialism is a short term business tactic.   By contrast, the insurance industry deeply understands global warming and expects to profit from it.  They follow the science closely in order to stay in business.  Carbon fuel companies feel compelled to do the opposite.

This is why professional global warming deniers are beginning to be so reviled, because beyond denial, they reject the precautionary principle - hence losing the ethical battle and reveal their ideological and corporate colors.  This was expressed recently by Patrick Michaels of the CATO institute who has been promoting the business-as-usual line “Nothing to worry about here, move along”.  The CATO institute is a paid messenger of the Coal Industry.

One prefers to see the well-behaved skeptic/denier retain some human ethics while expressing doubts about global warming.  It seems wise to add a phrase like “since the stakes are so high, we better proceed with caution and act prudently no matter what the science says”.   When the CATO institute treats us to the blatant advocacy of carbon capitalism then it touches the twin evils of scientific duplicity and amoral actions.   

The newest denialist tactic is to demand a change in terminology. Some global warming treaties have had to abandon the term: ‘precautionary principle’ changing instead to the ‘precautionary approach’.   Possibly because a principle can be a legal foundation for law, whereas approach is diffuse and carries no commitment.  My mother would never have allowed her edict to be called an approach, and I hope all mothers will stick with principle.

Up until now our civilization has thrived on high risk innovation that ignores principles of precaution.  Risk has been the essence of Western capitalist growth.  And it is no longer working, either in matters of finance or atmosphere.  Risk should be managed, controlled or insured.  We have either ignored or strategically ignored the fundamental axiom of respect for the future of human life.

Today, all the basic questions about global warming science are sufficiently settled to make public policy.  This is not rocket science. So much has been written by universities and science foundations that any reasonably dedicated person can come to understand the basic science.   Today, no sane and sober scientist will deny global warming

or that it is is caused by greenhouse gasses.  However public opinion remains vulnerable to mass media marketing schemes, and humans maybe hardwired to ignore the threat. And very big and serious lobbyists have redoubled their efforts.   But now we enter an era where the real impacts of global warming will directly touch all populations and denialist challenges will mean little before real heat, real melting, real privation and sea level rise.

The Precautionary Principle continues to guide us as we grow to understand that the cost of mitigating climate change is far less than the cost of adapting to change .  Denial, or to refuse to act on either is a short-sighted, immoral choice.

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