Yesterday, I tried to explain why pro-GM environmentalists had misconceived the perspectives of their anti-GM colleagues as simply ‘scientific illiteracy’. In particular, I was amazed that Keith Kloor had turned a central tenet of environmentalism — the precautionary principle — into a central tenet of climate scepticism. Said Kloor, in his discussion of the principle:
We also aren’t 100 percent certain when global warming is going to arrive with a vengeance, much less do we know the particulars of numerous climate impacts. Should we wait for 100 percent certainty before proceeding with efforts to reduce greenhouse gases? Somehow, I’m guessing Suzuki would say no. As would many other scientists.
That is of course the problem with the precautionary principle. In… erm… principle: it works both ways. But in practice, the application of the precautionary principle works in favour of the environmentalist’s preoccupations. It doesn’t subject the precautionary principle to the precautionary principle, but to whatever intervention is already being made — i.e. the emissions of substances into the natural environment — and says that there is no need of scientific understanding to begin to regulate that intervention. And as I pointed out yesterday, it is a fundamental of global environmental politics and treaties, such as the Rio Declaration and the UNFCCC process. It was first used in the formulation of the Montreal Protocol to limit emissions of CFCs:
The Parties to this Protocol,
Being Parties to the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer,
Determined to protect the ozone layer by taking precautionary measures to control equitably total global emissions of substances that deplete it, with the ultimate objective of their elimination on the basis of developments in scientific knowledge, taking into account technical and economic considerations and bearing in mind the developmental needs of developing countries,
Noting the precautionary measures for controlling emissions of certain chlorofluorocarbons that have already been taken at national and regional levels,
HAVE AGREED AS FOLLOWS:
Rather than being ‘scientifically illiterate’, then, anti-GM environmentalists were simply doing what environmentalists — including the newly pro-GM camp — have always done: emphasised uncertainty about what the effects of industrial processes on the environment will be in an argument for controlling that technology. They were appealing to the very same ideas that pro-GM environmentalists had long appealed to: that natural processes are fragile, and highly sensitive to change. But what the pro-GM environmentalists had forgotten is just how much their own perspectives were fixed on exactly the same ground: the precautionary principle. The environmental commentators lining up to identify themselves as pro-science and pro-GM have done nothing, over the years, to confront the rank alarmism and naked exploitation of the precautionary principle in the climate debate, and have therefore allowed the idea of fragile ecosystems and our total vulnerability to climate change to fester. Indeed, they have milked it themselves. They have only themselves to blame.
It is interesting, then, to see this incoherence manifest itself in the Telegraph’s Tom Chivers latest salvo against his comrades, taking aim at their use of the precautionary principle:
The “precautionary principle”, the idea that a new technology or policy should not be employed until we can be sure it is safe, sounds very reasonable. But as always, it’s more complicated than that. Everything we do entails not doing something else; in this case, not using nuclear, in the short term at least, means more coal, more shale gas, more fracking, to maintain energy demands (and cutting energy use would cause its own problems, of course). Is that safer? Nuclear power has risks, of course it does. But so does everything, and nuclear power has clear potential benefits. The trick is to calmly and sensibly assess those risks and benefits, not pull up the drawbridge out of misguided fear.
Environmentalism is the epitome of the politics of fear. It’s no use allowing fear to dominate the environmental debate — for decades — and then to say ‘oh, your fear is misguided’. In reality, Chivers is telling his comrades, ‘my fear is better than your fear’. Environmentalism’s incoherence manifests itself as a squabble between its adherents — a cascade of special pleading, in which the arguments they had previously deployed against ‘climate sceptics’ are turned on themselves. So it turns out that a great deal of the environmental movement really were ‘scientifically illiterate’, and ‘anti-science’, after all.
This reflects something long argued here. Shrill environmental rhetoric has been the growing thorn in its own side. The angrier and louder environmentalists have got, the more they have done to beset their own progress. The Joe Romms, 10:10 campaigns and George Monbiots of the world have done more to expose the real character of environmentalism than anything the sceptics have been able to throw at them. Greens are left fighting a rear-guard action… against themselves. It would be a comedy, if it wasn’t the case that the world was so invested in environmental policy-making. It is instead tragedy.
While we might welcome moves by some environmentalists to counsel their fellow greens about the incautious application of the… erm… precautionary principle, their attempts to remove themselves from the mess they have made do not show any evidence that they understand it, or can ever really escape it. Continuing his own attempts to reconcile the pro and anti-GM greens, Sunny Hundal betrays his irreconcilably contradicted perspective on today’s Liberal Conspiracy blog:
Why do most politically active right-wingers Conservatives and UKIPers deny climate change? It seems to me the science is irrelevant; they deny it because they hate the political implications of global warming and the cost of mitigation. They’ve convinced themselves that AGW is a far-left conspiracy to raise their taxes and change their lifestyle.
Should people concerned about the growth of nuclear weapon technology, or (hypothetically) human mutation, ignore the potential consequences? Not really. It’s the job of elected representatives to voice those concerns and ask (possibly ignorant) questions. They may even campaign to stop funding. The court of public opinion drives democracy – to ignore that opinion is dangerous. The Monsanto problem should not be dismissed away, at least not for elected representatives of the left.
So democracy is good, when its about the things Sunny Hundal wants it to be about: Monsanto, nuclear proliferation, and so on. But democracy is not so good when it asks questions about the ‘political implications of global warming’. Nobody who challenges climate change orthodoxy could be, as Sunny is, concerned about the implications for democracy. In other words, he rightly points out that political arguments are promiscuous with ‘scientific evidence’, but doesn’t notice himself hiding his own prejudices behind ‘science’, which allows him to determine that only some concerns are legitimate. Environmentalists have always hidden their political project behind science, and speculated about to what motivates other people to see things differently… The only answer they can produce is that everyone else — even their own pals — is ‘scientifically illiterate’.
Environmentalists, between them, claim to have the monopoly on science and democracy, but are promiscuous with both. ‘Democracy’ has weight when environmentalists are hiding behind ‘public opinion’, and science is invoked in spite of it. Fundamentally, it is the precautionary principle which has allowed environmentalists to vacillate. It has been used to circumvent democracy, or to say that people are not capable of understanding the issues (i.e. risk), and then used to amplify risk, no matter what ‘science says’.
Tom Chivers cannot take the precautionary principle away from his anti-nuclear comrades without depriving himself of the same. Thus he re-invents the precautionary approach as applying only to novel technologies: ‘The “precautionary principle”, the idea that a new technology or policy should not be employed until we can be sure it is safe, sounds very reasonable.’ But nuclear power has been around for nearly 60 years — only 20 years fewer than the UK’s National Grid. The precautionary principle applies to any technology, no matter how long it has been around, and presumes in favour of regulating it, notwithstanding that ‘scientific evidence’ may not be able to substantiate any claim that it is dangerous. Under the precautionary principle, a weak, theoretical risk is magnified by its potential impact. A nuclear accident can be widespread. Thus, nuclear power is regarded as certainly more ‘risky’ than conventional means. Similarly, under the precautionary approach, and under climate agreements, controls on the emissions of CO2 from industry are sought, not because any substantial evidence exists that they are harmful, but because we cannot say how harmful they will be.
Look carefully at the arguments for things such as containing global temperatures beneath 2 degrees, for instance, and it turns out that 2 degrees is not a limit detected by science, but is instead a arbitrary horizon of uncertainty. Before 2 degrees, we can be more sure of our assumptions. Beyond it, things become less certain, and theoretical risks are magnified. There may well exist very reasonable scientific measurements which show how a rising proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere will produce an increase in temperature. But then there is the difficult matter of how this relatively modest increase will be exacerbated by feedback mechanisms. And then there is another question about how much that warming will turn into effects throughout the climate, and in turn how much that will effect other natural processes before it is experienced by human society. In each leap, what counts in the policy-makers perspective is not what has been shown, but what the putative risks are. Causal chains, beginning with CO2 emissions scenarios turn into story lines, each with a measure of probability attached to them. Under the precautionary principle, policy makers are obliged to take the worst case.
And under such an obligation, the likelihood of 20-30 cm of sea level rise by 2100 becomes 10 meters. Slightly warmer nights and slightly longer summers with slightly more warmer days becomes desertification and mass extinction. Slightly milder winters with slightly more precipitation becomes floods of biblical proportions. Slightly different weather patterns become the denuding of fertile grounds, and the mass migration of hundreds of millions of people looking for shelter, water and food. To point out that this is what the precautionary principle does to ‘scientific evidence’ — even while acknowledging that climate change is a problem — is to be ‘scientifically illiterate’, or to be ‘anti-science’, or to be a ‘denier’.
So the journalists who are now rounding on anti-GM and anti-nuclear campaigners are doing so at the risk of undermining their own perspectives. I am happy to agree with them that the benefits of nuclear and GM outweigh any reasonable estimation of their risks. But they are naive about their own arguments. The sensible estimation of risks is completely confused by the precautionary principle — risk analysis without numbers — whether the issue is GM, nuclear, or climate change. That they are pulling the rug out from under their own feet should give us no cause for celebration yet: few of them are capable of reflecting on their own incoherence, and fewer still are reflecting on the implications for the absurd and far-reaching policies that have been created in order to ‘save the planet’. And the process of building supranational political institutions continues apace, as if there were nothing wrong with the precautionary principle — the fundamental of that institution building — at all.