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Jun 1, 2010 (Vol. 30, No. 11)

Precautionary Regulation Is What's Rotten in Denmark

Emission of Greenhouse Gases Is the Latest Target of this Often Misused Principle

  • Arguably, we should focus our efforts and resources on becoming more resilient and adaptive. As pointed out in an article in Nature by University of Colorado environmental studies professor Roger Pielke Jr., Ph.D., and his collaborators, “vulnerability to climate-related impacts on society is increasing for reasons that have nothing to do with greenhouse-gas emissions, such as rapid population growth along coasts and in areas with limited water supplies.” 

    The researchers cite the example of the Philippines, where policy-makers are wringing their hands about a possible gradual climate change-mediated rise in sea level of from 1 to 3 millimeters per year while they ignore the primary cause of enhanced flood risk—“excessive groundwater extraction, which is lowering the land surface by several centimeters to more than a decimeter [about 4 inches] per year.” Perhaps more attention should be paid to ways to reduce groundwater extraction, such as desalination, wastewater treatment and recycling, collection of rainwater, and the cultivation of crop plants that require less irrigation.

    In a similar vein, the authors observe that “nonclimate factors are by far the most important drivers of increased risk of  tropical disease,” although such risk “is repeatedly invoked by climate-mitigation advocates as a key reason to curb emissions.” They cite a study that found that without factoring in the effects of climate change, “the global population at risk from malaria would increase by 100% by 2080, whereas the effect of climate change would increase the risk of malaria by, at most, 7%.”

    Dr. Pielke and his colleagues criticize “the political obsession with the idea that climate risks can be reduced by cutting emissions,” because it “distracts attention” from other, more cost-effective approaches. However, for many activists, emissions reduction has become an article of faith in the church of radical environmentalism: Its high priest, Al Gore, has dismissed adaptation as “a kind of laziness, an arrogant faith in our ability to react in time to save our skins.”

    He couldn’t be more wrong. Adaptation is often both sensible and cost-effective, as in fire-retardant seat materials in airplanes and airbags in automobiles.

    Doctrinaire activism and command-and-control policy-making are inimical to resilience, jeopardizing our survival as individuals and our success as a society. But politicians tend to be short-term thinkers, their purview often limited to the next election, and many of them seem to care less about the public interest and more about scoring political points. Moreover, many of them are just not very smart, and they’re particularly challenged in the realms of science and logic.

    If individually and collectively we are to meet economic, environmental, and public health challenges, we need plenty of options and opportunities for innovation—and the wealth to pursue them. But in large and small ways, unimaginative, short-sighted politicians and venal activists have conspired to limit our options, constrain economic growth, and make real solutions elusive. Those who would apply the precautionary principle to climate change—or to nuclear power, chemicals, or genetically engineered plants—take note.


Readers' Comments

Posted 06/18/2010 by Ben Grant

Agreed, John and Peter. While Dr. Miller is speaking from the fringe, this is an editorial piece that appeals to simple reason. He identifies a scientific problem, proposes a solution, and supports it with recent, valid, global examples—all within the context of using real science to solve real problems. I could be mistaken, but isn't that what genetic engineering and biotechnology are ultimately about? If not, point me toward the nearest pack of Gorean lemmings.

Posted 06/11/2010 by Bill Reis

Rationality? So there is nothing to worry about, industry will take care of everything - they obviously know best. A sad commentary that GEN publishes such drivel, particularly when climate change is so far off-topic for this publication.

The science is there, the results are in. Whether a physician/molecular biologist believes it or not, climate change is as real as evolution and the Gulf oil spill. What to do about it - if anything - is a legitimate topic for discussion, but the facts won't go away no matter how many times the fringe denies them.

Please cancel my subscription. No science here.

Posted 06/11/2010 by John Budny

I thought rationality and common sense were all but dead, but I detect a pulse here, a slight fog of the mirror below the nostrils.  Can it be that we might find solutions with eliminations?  Yes, it is Miller Time but make haste!  Before you know it, beer will be banned as a source of fugitive emmissions of carbon dioxide when a bottle is opened!  So sad.

Posted 06/09/2010 by Peter Kissinger

It's Miller Time and I find that stimulating. We will not accomplish much at all if our focus is only on what might go wrong and who then personally may have caused it.  It certainly is the case that fear of fear itself is not enabling.  Why a species that thrills in sky diving and roller coasters would take these positions is baffling.
Most great things have involved taking chances.  Then again, it has been only a very few to make the impossible become routine.  Thank you Tom Edison, Wilbur Wright, Lee Hood, Ed Jenner, Eli Lilly, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Chuck Yeager, Neal Armstrong, and many of my good friends.

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