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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Battle of the Planet

The Institute of Ideas have put the video of The Science and Politics of Climate Change debate from this years Battle of Ideas festival online.

We’ve given Mike Hulme of the Tyndall Centre a bit of stick in our time, but he’s very good in this – “The real issues are about why we disagree about what to do about climate change, and science cannot provide us with the script from which we all read from” – as are Chris Rapley of the British Antarctic Survey, Hans Von Storch, and Joe Kaplinsky. It’s a very cool and positive debate, and they discuss their differences in good humour, avoiding the angry exchanges and accusations that too often accompany the meetings of different opinions on climate change politics and science. It’s well worth watching in its entirety.

Battling On

The Institute of Ideas are putting online a series of essays called ‘Battles in Print‘ to complement their yearly Battle of Ideas festival of debates. One of the essays was written by us. You can read it here. And here’s a preview of Climate science: truth you can wear on your hands,

’We are armed only with peer reviewed science’, declared the banner at the head of the Climate Camp march along the proposed route of the third runway at Heathrow in August. And in one sense they were – literally. The protesters were wearing gloves made from photocopied research papers and waving them at the police and television cameras as though nothing more needed to be said. For anyone still labouring under the misapprehension that behind the gloves was a careful argument for why the runway should not be built, Climate Camp spokesperson Timothy Lever was on hand to put them straight. ‘It’s not us saying you need to stop flying’, he said, ‘it’s the science that is telling us that we all need to fly less.’

One of the 70+ debates likely to be interesting to anyone concerned with the rise of environmentalism is The science and politics of climate change, which features:

Professor Mike Hulme, professor of climate change, University of East Anglia; founding director, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research
Joe Kaplinsky, science writer
Professor Chris Rapley CBE, director, Science Museum; outgoing director, British Antarctic Survey
Hans von Storch, director, Institute for Coastal Research, GKSS Research Centre; professor at Meteorological Institute, University of Hamburg

Check out the full program for a host of other debates which will also be interesting, whichever side of the warming debate you find yourself on.

We have exceptionally busy over the last two months, which means we’ve been unable to post anything new for a while. But please keep an eye on the site, as we’re hoping things will return to normal shortly.