What Happened to the Precautionary Principle?

by | Apr 4, 2008

It only seems like yesterday that the Precautionary Principle was the standard currency of Environmentalist rhetoric. But like acid rain and global cooling, the precautionary principle seems to be disappearing from the Green lexicon. Increasingly, Environmentalists are drawing on the putative certainties of science – “The debate is over”, “The science is in” – rather than its inherent provisionality, to support their politics.

Take Naomi Oreskes’ belief that prominent denialists who created the “tobacco strategy” are now involved in undermining the scientific case for action on climate change, by “creating” doubt.

In 1979, Fredrick Seitz became an advisor to the R.J. Reynolds Corporation. His job was to direct a medical research program to confound the links between tobacco and cancer. Between 1975 and 1989 RJR Nabisco Company, the parent company of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco spent $45 million on this program. And from 1978 onwards, Seitz was its director. The focus of the program was to (quote) identify highly promising young investigators who are underfunded at present, and to fund them to do research that could be then used to argue that the scientific evidence was uncertain. 

What Oreskes seems to forget is that doubt, rather than being generated by the “denialists”, has long been at the very core of environmental politics. Consider the following statement, which is part of the 1992 Rio Declaration, agreed at the Earth Summit…

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by states according to their capabilities. Where there are threats to serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation. 

It is even more interesting in the light of Oreskes’ claims that scientific certainty on global warming had been achieved well before 1992:

If scientists understood in 1979 that global warming was going to happen, and if they knew by the early 1990s that it was starting to happen, and if our first president Bush signed the framework convention [at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio], why are we still here, in 2007, still arguing about whether global warming is even happening? 

Article 3 of that declaration states:

The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost. To achieve this, such policies and measures should take into account different socio-economic contexts, be comprehensive, cover all relevant sources, sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases and adaptation, and comprise all economic sectors. Efforts to address climate change may be carried out cooperatively by interested Parties. 

Doubt is the very essence of the precautionary principle. And the precautionary principle is at the heart of international agreements and domestic policies on the environment. It was not scientific certainty that drove efforts to mitigate climate change, but the same doubt that Oreskes claims is generated by the “tobacco strategy”. In claiming that denialists were generating doubt where there was certainty, Oreskes – a professor of the history of science – re-writes scientific history. More interesting still, Oreskes seems to agree with the “deniers” that scientific certainty – rather than doubt – should drive action.

The Environmentalist narrative of catastrophe, doom, and apocalypse, once given superficial scientific plausibility (in that science cannot exclude the possibility of such things happening – which it never could), provides doubt and uncertainty about the security of the future, which in turn provides political momentum and legitimacy for environmental policies. For example, we wrote back in November about how the language used in the IPCC AR4 synthesis report was taken out of context. The IPCC report said:

Partial loss of ice sheets on polar land could imply metres of sea level rise, major changes in coastlines and inundation of low-lying areas, with greatest effects in river deltas and low-lying islands. Such changes are projected to occur over millennial time scales, but more rapid sea level rise on century time scales cannot be excluded. 

The fact that “more rapid sea level rise on century time scales cannot be excluded” means little more than “we don’t know”. Yet as we said at the time, this highly ambiguous statement made it into the headlines – with the help of senior IPCC members – as a statement that ‘The IPCC states that climate change is “unequivocal” and may bring “abrupt and irreversible” impacts’. In other words, it was not what the IPCC knew which was making the headlines, it was what the IPCC didn’t know. This is reflected in an article by Oreskes in July 2006 in the LA Times.

None of this is to say that there are no uncertainties left — there are always uncertainties in any live science. Agreeing about the reality and causes of current global warming is not the same as agreeing about what will happen in the future. There is continuing debate in the scientific community over the likely rate of future change: not “whether” but “how much” and “how soon.” And this is precisely why we need to act today: because the longer we wait, the worse the problem will become, and the harder it will be to solve. 

What matters to Oreskes is not the substance of scientific understanding, but an isolated, binary fact that “climate change is happening”. From here, “climate change” can mean anything. Once it has been established as a “fact”, it doesn’t matter what science says, because the doubt incubates the imagination better than certainty, and prohibits scientific expertise from undermining the power of the nightmare.

So is there really a difference between the application of doubt by the warmers, and by the tobacco strategists? The warmers use doubt about future security, while the tobacconists – as they are depicted by Oreskes – doubt that the science is sufficiently complete to make statements about the security of the future. The two “sides” Oreskes invents only differ in how best to respond to the same doubt. The dichotomy that Oreskes asks us to consider is not which argument is more sound, but which is safer, given the honesty of the parties in question. Oreskes invents an opposition and an argument for them, in order for the precautionary principle to look sensible by contrast, because scientific “fact” is not something Oreskes even has
time for.

In a 2004 study, Science and public policy: what’s proof got to do with it? Oreskes writes,

In recent years, it has become common for opponents of environmental action to argue that the scientific basis for purported harms is uncertain, unreliable, and fundamentally unproven. In response, many scientists believe that their job is to provide the “proof” that society needs. Both the complaint and the response are misguided. In all but the most trivial cases, science does not produce logically indisputable proofs about the natural world. At best it produces a robust consensus based on a process of inquiry that allows for continued scrutiny, re-examination, and revision. Within a scientific community, different individuals may weigh evidence differently and adhere to different standards of demonstration, and these differences are likely to be amplified when the results of inquiry have political, religious, or economic ramifications. In such cases, science can play a role by providing informed opinions about the possible consequences of our actions (or inactions), and by monitoring the effects of our choices. 

Oreskes appear to want things both ways. On the one hand, she claims that there is scientific certainty, which is being undermined by tobacconists. But on the other, she claims that scientific certainty is not a necessary requirement for action on climate change, and that no such thing exists. The consequence of this strategy is that the doubt is used to close down the possibility of any approach to climate problems other than mitigation – we have to constantly mitigate against the worst imaginable scenario. (Even though, ironically, great doubt surrounds whether such a strategy would actually have the effect intended.)

A last thing to consider is what certainty might do to Environmentalism. If we really were able to determine what climate problems exist in the future, we would be able to respond efficiently, taking into account both the costs and the benefits of changing the way we live either to adapt to our new circumstances, or mitigating to avoid them. This would deprive the environmental movement of the thing which drives it: fear. Such a loss would destroy Environmentalism. The preoccupation with worst-case scenarios generates legitimacy for Environmentalism only because science is unable to rule out the possibilities that green imaginations generate. Doubt is the fuel of Environmentalism.

The precautionary principle thrives beneath the surface of contemporary eco-rhetoric about the consensus. It’s just that it’s very hard to talk about that at the same time that you’re banging on about how the science is settled.


  1. rich13

    Particularly excellent stuff.

  2. Lee

    Guys – did you see the report last week about the British scientific team that had “disproved” the “maverick” theory that global warming is caused by variations in the sun’s activity? The reportage was very instructive about the hegemony of the GW “consensus” & journos basic misunderstanding of how science works. That is, they claimed one British study falsified an entire school of thought originating in Denmark, ergo, we must reduce CO2 emissions. Might be worth looking up the reports and doing a post on it.

  3. Lee

    I can’t copy and paste that URL – can you write it as an HTML link?



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