The Return of the Precautionary Principle

Last Friday, we asked ‘what happened to the precautionary principle‘. Recent arguments dominating the public discussion on climate change seem to have been about the ‘scientific consensus’ achieving certainty, rather than advising caution in the face of doubt. Yet on inspection, this certainty isn’t real. It is the kind of certainty that there is about being uncertain. Like Donald Rumsfeld’s famously ridiculous ‘known unknowns’ – things which you know you don’t know about, and ‘unknown unknowns’ – things you can be certain you don’t know you don’t know about. Uncertainty can be spun into certainty… All it takes to talk bollocks is balls.

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Since that post, we’ve been looking for another good example of the precautionary principle being applied in an argument framed in terms of scientific certainty, like Naomi Oreskes does in her lecture on “the tobacco strategy”. We knew we were onto something when Jeremy Paxman introduced last night’s Newsnight discussion between the former UK Chancellor, Nigel Lawson and former director of the British Antarctic Survey, Chris Rapley, with the words “The danger from climate change is far more serious than previously thought, claims the top specialist at NASA”. In his bringing the precautionary principle to bear on a problem in the absence of evidence even existing, Chris Rapley did not disappoint.

At the beginning of the discussion, Rapley agrees with Lawson that the 21st century shows no warming trend. But this is not significant in the longer, 30-year time frame, he suggests…

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Quite how the last decade’s non-warming is supposed to corroborate climate models, we are not sure, especially since the Hadley Centre have postponed warming until 2010, and told us that the recent cold snap is natural variation caused by La Nina, which logically means that the 97-98 El Nino too must have been ‘natural variation’. In other words, 13 years of either natural variation or no warming are less significant to our understanding of the future climate than the previous 17 years. No cause for not worrying, “doing nothing” is not an option, Rapley reminds us…

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Catastrophe is just around the corner… Except it isn’t, because, as Lawson rightly points out, it is not obviously true that climate change means disaster. It just means change. Put another way, what Rapley is asking us to consider is not the facts of climate change, but the possibilities that might unfold, if climate change is being caused by humans. Waiting and seeing is not an adequate response, says Rapley, in the face of the possibility of such danger. But, as we have argued before, what determines the vulnerability of humans to climate is not the climate itself – civilisation endures a vast range of conditions – but our ability to organise ourselves against the elements.

The precautionary principle looms large in this argument. And Rapley finishes by again emphasising not what what we do know, but what we don’t.

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Here is the entire video uninterrupted:

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3 thoughts on “The Return of the Precautionary Principle”

  1. How about the last 180 years? From 1820 to 2008 when all the rapid heating occurred.

    Haven’t humans shown they can “successfully adapt” to temperature increases?

  2. Humans can successfully adapt to temperature increases and decreases. When North America was first populated, we were in the last years of an ice age, it was damned cold. The global warming crowd seem to think that humans (and everything else) evolved in a Goldylocks climate where the temperature never varied.

    Humans have adapted and will continue to adapt.

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