Controversies continue over the appropriate regulation of a variety of technologies, activities, and consumer products, including nuclear power, chlorinated water, pesticides, hormones in beef, and emissions of greenhouse gases. An underlying fundamental, almost philosophical question is, how should regulators, acting as society’s surrogate, approach risk in the absence of certainty about the likelihood or magnitude of potential harm?
Proponents of a more risk-averse approach have advocated a postmodern concept called the “precautionary principle” to reduce risks and, ostensibly, to protect our lives and our planet. A common formulation of it is that governments should implement regulatory measures to prevent or restrict actions that raise conjectural threats of harm to human health or the environment even in the face of incomplete scientific evidence as to the probability or potential significance of these dangers.
The application of the precautionary principle—which is not really a principle at all, but rather a kind of tautology amenable to various contortions—is sometimes represented as “erring on the side of safety” or “better safe than sorry,” implying that the failure to regulate risky activities sufficiently will result in severe harm to human health or the environment, and that excessive regulation is inconsequential.
These assumptions, which are often both specious and dangerous, underlie attempts to lower the emissions of greenhouse gases in order to reverse global warming, or at least slow its rise. This application of the precautionary principle is typical: Because it does not take into consideration the credible worst-case impacts that could result from applying the principle—which can deprive consumers of life-enhancing and even life-saving products—it can actually increase risk.
Even assuming that there is really a warming trend that’s largely due to human activities, any interventions we might devise to lower emissions significantly will impose monumental costs. Reductions in the burning of fossil fuels sufficient to have even a modest impact would cause energy costs to skyrocket, stifle economic growth, and plunge the world into chaos.
In any case, discernible effects on warming would be decades away. Actions to reduce emissions should only be undertaken if they’re likely to be cost-effective, and should be limited to measures that have secondary desirable effects as well; an example would be a shift from fossil fuels to nuclear power.
Often it’s wiser to try to adapt to or mitigate a problem than to intervene to remove the causes of the problem. Consider, for example, the solution that the U.K. adopted to prevent the flooding of London by surge tides that occur under certain meteorological conditions, and because tide levels have been rising by 60 cm (two feet) per century.
Rather than trying to eliminate the surge tides at their source or the rise in tide levels, between 1974 and 1984 the U.K. constructed the Thames Barrier, an innovative monumental system of movable flood gates that prevents flooding. And, consider the concentration of U.S. domestic oil exploration and refining in the hurricane-prone Gulf of Mexico: We cannot prevent hurricanes, but we could move oil-refining capacity to regions less susceptible to natural disasters.