Letting the Precautionary Principle Genie out of the GM/Nuclear Bottle

by | May 29, 2012

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,



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.


  1. Josh

    Great article. Sp last line: ‘institution building’?

  2. geoffchambers

    Great. You explain a lot of what I was fumbling towards in my comment #7 at “Inconvenient Environmentalists”.
    I wonder about your apparent confidence that environmentalism will tear itself apart though. You say:

    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.
    Shrill environmental rhetoric has been the growing thorn in its own side.
    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.

    Seems a pretty fair description of the internal squabbles of socialism in the late 19th century. The fact that Marxism was a highly doubtful theory of society from the start didn’t stop it from inspiring the best (German Social Democracy) and the worst of political movements of the 20th century. I’m trying to come to terms with the idea that environmentalism, sustainability, and catastrophic global warming are ideas that may be with us for a century or two, and that won’t die a natural death just because this or that prophet is shown to have failed.

  3. Ben Pile

    Geoff, you’re right – the biggest contradiction is between the incoherence of environmentalism and its influence. And that’s why I say it continues apace, in spite of the incoherence. Us sceptics have yet to really challenge it, or what lies behind it.

    But that makes it somewhat different from political movements of the past, which were about wrestling power; environmentalism is much more about trying to sustain it. That’s a very different dynamic.

  4. Vinny Burgoo

    Equity is the gateway to environment ambition.

  5. Philip

    One impression from the recent threads over at BH is that even recognised scientists like Richard Betts and Myles Allen hide behind the precautionary principle. CO2 is a GHG, GHGs cause warming, therefore drastic action is urgently demanded to limit emissions. Sceptical concerns about natural variability are dismissed, not because they are incorrect, but because (in the minds of Betts and Allen) they are irrelevant.

    So before you are allowed to talk about policy, you must first accept their selection of the scientific evidence, which inevitably means that goals, priorities and values are skewed before any discussion even gets started. As one straightforward example, I noticed a while back Phillip Bratby pointing out to Betts the terrible damage being caused by wind farms in the West Country. Result? Bratby’s comment was ignored, presumably because his concerns are also irrelevant in the light of the their version of the precautionary principle.

    To my mind, RPJ and his colleagues somehow manage to avoid the trap. But ponder that RPJ is an acknowledged expert in several of the fields of interest, doesn’t dispute any of the main claims of AGW, and yet still struggles to get leverage with the activist/scientists. It’s no wonder that sceptics generally struggle to challenge environmentalism and what “lies behind it”.

  6. Mary

    You might enjoy Stewart Brand’s take on the PP with reference to GMOs: http://bit.ly/BrandPrec Not all the pages are in the Google Book, but you can get a sense of that.

  7. Blair

    The issue I have with people who rely on the Precautionary Principle is that they do not read the entire text. The Precautionary Principle does not say that “technology or policy should not be employed until we can be sure entirely sure it is safe”. Rather as defined in Rio the Precautionary Principle (Principle 15) as “Where there are threats of 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.”

    The Principle is not “don’t do anything” ever but rather includes a measure of cost-effectiveness and allows for balancing of risks with probablities. In the case of nuclear power the level of scientific certainty is relatively high and the risks can be 1) estimated and 2) mitigated. With climate change the ball is in a different court. Depending on how you want to treat feedbacks the risks are either 1) problematic or 2) catastrophic and the costs of mitigation in the case of choice 2 are either 1) high or 2) astronomic. Given this I cannot fathom eliminating nuclear power from our power mix until an improved alternative can be brought online.

  8. Lewis Deane

    The so called ‘precautionary principle’ is a sweet term for a very unprincipled cowardice. It is this ‘principle’ that allows the state to continually denude us of our very few and, therefore, essential freedoms. ‘Security’ or ‘liberty’. No. And, if there is a choice, like the American founding fathers, any right thinking person will choose the latter. For the fight for freedom is fraught with risks? How pathetic a people are that choose ‘security’, ‘safety’ and ‘precaution’ and how ready for exploitation and stupidity.

  9. Lewis Deane

    And, by the way, ‘freedom’ isn’t a positive, but a place curtailed and bounded by being in ‘society’. A contract, in which certain privileges are given in exchange for not doing certain things, which, once broken, one is ‘exiled’ ( internal ‘exile’ in our case). Hence, justice has nothing to do with ‘punishment’ and our society has nothing to do with ‘precaution’ but a strict understanding of terms. As they always say read the contract, read the small print. You have a right to prevent the ‘precautionary’ cowardice of the establishment from intruding upon you.

  10. John Howard

    I sincerely believe that no one can or has ever measured the temperature of the earth. Nor can they measure the percentage of CO2 that comes from any major source. Nor can they calculate an accurate history of the earth’s temperature or of its CO2 fluctuations.

    Not one of these ‘certainties’ can be defended in rational debate which is why there is so little of even pretenses of rational debate and why these simple questions are neglected in favor of detailed discussions of the debate protocol of the antagonists and, of course, of their motives and ancestry.

    In a debate where both sides are arguing over something that both sides are totally ignorant of, both sides can make the most progress by finding fault in the other side’s baseless assertions. Here, the alarmists are at a distinct disadvantage since they provide the most extravagant supply of baseless assertions. But many deniers rush fearlessly into the same rhetorical trap by claiming to know the opposite of what the alarmists know.

    What neither side can do is prove that they have a method for measuring the temperature of the globe. They do not and they will not any decade soon. The entire debate is built on an epistemological fantasy invented by subsidized and titled pretenders to science equipped with proxies, graphs, models, and generous funding of their epistemologically magical basic premise which is that when you add up enough guesses, you arrive at a certainty.

  11. John Reading

    I took a group of radio-remote thermometers and placed them in various spots around my 20 acre property and set them in circumstances as alike as possible (equal shade, breezes, etc.). They all disagreed by far more than the alarmists’ claims of accuracy (set next to one another, they agreed).

    So I agree with John Howard (above). Collecting data from different thermometers and averaging it does not tell you anything about the globe. Moving any of the thermometers a few yards would give a different reading. Pretending that they somehow “represent” a larger area is nonsense. Pretending that government-subsidized data collectors can somehow mathematically “correct” such readings is silliness on stilts. Simple air turbulence will subject any one spot on earth to a chaotic mix of temperatures from moment to moment. There is no “correct” moment or location which will represent a larger area or be a “true” reading.


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