In response to a post by William Briggs at:
I got to thinking about the so-called “precautionary principle.” The precautionary principle is one of the most common fallback positions advanced in support of the idea that we should pursue (mandatorily or otherwise) dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, even if there is a question about the underlying science. I posted the following comments on Brigg’s thread and decided to repost here, because I think this is an issue that is important for everyone to understand. My comments, as previously posted, follow:
I’m not sure the precautionary principle is a helpful idea, even in principle. Most in the CAGW camp who state that they are relying on the precautionary principle simply don’t understand it. There is even a very popular video on YouTube that makes the explicit argument that we don’t need to know the underlying science or settle the debate, because the precautionary principle mandates that we should act to reduce GHS’s in any event. However, what is misunderstood is that the very application of the precautionary principle requires that we make some conclusion in advance about the possible underlying outcomes.
Specifically, many CAGW advocates seem to think that the possible outcomes (broadly speaking) are (i) catastrophic natural disasters and untold suffering, versus (ii) a relatively small up-front pain in the form of additional taxes (or if they are really putting on a positive spin, no negative at all, as it is couched in terms of “creating new green jobs” or “stimulating” the economy). Given this view of the possible outcomes, one might indeed come to the conclusion that we should act quickly to reduce GHG’s under the “precautionary principle.”
However, many climate realists would argue that the possible outcomes are (i) minor nuisance warming, or potentially even beneficial warming, versus (ii) massive tax increases and significant wealth distribution to traders and brokers (or if they are really putting on a negative spin, crippling economic results). Given this view of the possible outcomes, the “precautionary principle” would dictate that we should definitely not act to reduce GHG’s. (Some realists would argue, as does Briggs, for further study, but this call for additional research is simply the application of a further risk/benefit analysis ($ spent on further research, versus expected benefits of the research).)
The bottom line is that it is impossible to apply the precautionary principle in any logical fashion without first grappling with the thorny and challenging questions of what the potential outcomes are and what the real costs and benefits are of specific approaches.
I’m just talking so far about a simple view of the ultimate outcomes (which is the way I have typically seen CAGW advocates use the precautionary principle argument), and I am ignoring the fact that the probability of any particular outcome would also have to be taken into account in determining what action the precautionary principle dictates.
The fact is that even with this wonderful “precautionary principle” we are still right back to where we started in the first place: we need to determine, on a substantive, scientific basis, what the potential outcomes are and what can and should, if anything, be done about it.