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Caveat Emptor: I believe the Precautionary Principle is bunk.

What is the Precautionary Principle? It’s a doctrine that turns the tables on where the burden of proof in a policy ought to fall (it’s not just an argument, it’s a policy response). I’d suggest that in “typical” discourse and policy, the burden of proof falls on folks that are intending to take some particular action. Implicit in this argument is that the there is some underlying value that we agree upon. For example, if it is to be agreed that autonomy is a value unto itself, then our default political position on taxation seems to be “no taxes, unless you can demonstrate the value of doing so.” Or something to that effect.

When it comes to the Precautionary Principle, this is turned on its head. In this case, the burden of proof rests with the “do nothing” crowd. Take the case of Global Warming. If this is something that is going to cause great harm to many people then the burden of proof stands with folks who claim that it is not harmful (notice what this leaves out … the possibility that it is “harmful” but that folks can deal with it …). Only if it can be overwhelmingly demonstrated that there is little (what does this mean?) risk can we really relax the precautions we were going to take.

Let’s not argue with this idea — if we were to argue we’d appeal to the fact that such a principle implies that we are committed to doing something in all cases because we can never provide the counterfactuals in any of these cases. Let’s ignore for the time being that there can be infinitely many things that might be catastrophically bad for people and that the principle would proscribe doing something about everything.

I assert that the precautionary principle is popular because it gives proponents a tool to not have to rely on the science to make assessments to support their favored outcomes. What, exactly, does “do something” mean? If a global warming alarmist tells you that “reduce CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050 over 1990 levels” is required by the precautionary principle and you ask, “why?” they will have to rely on science to answer the question. But once we walk down that path, then it is hard to avoid dealing with the questions, “is reducing CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050 a good way to do this?”

Why do I bring this up? Because the Precautionary Principle has been invoked when it comes to Fracking. There has been a moratorium on new leases for fracking in New York since 2008, and it has to this day not been ended. For four years the common claim is that we cannot allow gas drilling in New York until more scientific studies are done on the impact of fracking on drinking water safety and other related environmental issues. We’ll delve into the details of those as the summer progresses, but for now, it suffices to say that this is indeed a direct application of the Precautionary Principle. Since fracking carries some risk to people, the “smart” course is to prevent the action from happening unless a consensus decides that fracking is safe. Of course, there is no objective measure as to what “safe” is, so there is no way to predict whether this moratorium will ever (or should ever) cease.

But doesn’t this put the Precautionary Principle folks in two pickles? First, if Global Warming is presenting us with risks that are unconscionable, and we are supposed to take every precaution to prevent the planet from heating up, then shouldn’t all marginally better programs be approved? Isn’t it pretty clear that natural gas is a much better energy source than what it is replacing (including all life-cycle effects)? After all, research has already shown that natural gas expansion in the last decade has reduced carbon emissions by up to 1 billion tons. Here is where some of those gains have come from.

So, by following the precautionary principle at the local level suggests that we ban fracking and continue to get our energy from coal and the rest of the grid makeup because fracking may cause harm to groundwater. But following the precautionary principle at the macro level suggests that we voraciously pursue fracking and in fact perhaps mandate more fracking and with each BTU of energy found from fracked gas we close down an equal amount of coal production.

So what does the Precautionary Principle tell us to do? We should both frack and not frack? Sounds like a bad old campaign problem.  The related discomfort this poses is that perhaps to answer the conundrum someone is going to have to appeal to the science again, but that was precisely what the precautionary principle aims to avoid having to do. What kind of a consensus must be reached here and who makes the decisions?

We’ll continue our exploration (sorry for the pun) of fracking questions tomorrow by pointing out another uncomfortable inconsistency.

4 Responses to “To Use Precaution or Not to Use Precaution, That is the Question … Or is It?”

  1. Harry says:

    The precautionary principle was invoked along with the Urgency Principle — that is, that we had better hurry up and get Kyoto going, and if it cools from our predictions, and if it keeps warming, we did not do enough. This is the same argument Paul Krugman makes about government spending.

  2. Harry says:

    Sorry. Meant to say that if it cools from what we predicted, we can take credit.

  3. Trey says:

    Nice article, as was the one on Greece.

    Here’s Pielke Jr on the PP:


  4. […] Seriously, pumping ionized radiation into my body? Into childrens’ bodies? Where are all of those folks who believe in the Precautionary Principle? We are having another one of those “Uh Oh” inconsistency moments again, aren’t we? If terrorism poses a potentially grave threat we should take all precautions against it, of course those precautions are posing grave threats to our health too? Which one wins? And what does this tell us about the usefulness of the Precautionary Principle? […]

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