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Point of View : 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
  • Henry I. Miller, M.D.

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.

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.