The Hot Air of Climate Change, Part 7

The foolishness of the Precautionary Principle.

This is a multi-part series examining the current debate over "global warming", also known as "climate change".

In our survey of the arguments surrounding "global warming", we've seen that the research is, at best, ambiguous as to whether there even is warming; that most evidence indicates humans are contributing in a very small way, if at all; and that none of the proposed solutions are likely to accomplish anything, and are astronomically costly.

The logical arguments all clearly indicate the global warming scare to be just that - a scare, with no underlying reality worthy of our attention.

There is, however, one remaining argument that does not fall in the domain of logic, but rather emotion.  It's one we see increasingly used, in all manner of different areas against a great many things, and it goes by the name of the Precautionary Principle.  There's a lot of fancy rhetoric behind it, but simply put, the Precautionary Principle is:

Why take a chance?

Sure, global warming seems unlikely; but if it's true, it's so awfully horrible, shouldn't we take action, just in case?

In the last few decades, sometimes it seems that the Precautionary Principle has become the driving force behind everything we do in the United States.  A handful of kids riding bikes die when the crash into a brick wall?  Require bike helmets, by law, for everyone.  Some people have an adverse reaction to certain medicines?  Yank them from the market!  Some parents can't follow directions for cough syrup?  No cough syrup for kids !  In fact, take ten years of tests on medicines before anyone can ever use them, and if anything goes wrong, scrap the whole thing.  Terrorists could attack our transportation with liquid explosives?  Ban all liquids from aircraft - except, of course, the thousands of pounds of highly volatile jet fuel that's already in the plane....

The Precautionary Principle is harmful enough when it leads to that famous agency the TSA, which, as every air traveler knows, stands for Thousands Standing Around - while, at one and the same time, illegal immigrants whom nobody knows are freely allowed onto airport property, using heavy equipment and power tools, for purposes of construction.  We've pointed out a simple solution to TSA's problem so in theory there's a chance of improvement. The difficulty is that the simple solution creates neither jobs nor power, so the bureaucracy will fight it to the end.

A far worse situation arises when the Precautionary Principle is applied to new technology.  When something new is invented, it is often the case that nobody really knows what it would be useful for.  The laser was a lab curiosity for years; nobody ever expected them to be used in their millions to play music, transport information, and record data.  Teflon was originally dumped down the drain, and only after it had stuck to the sink for a while, despite all manner of nasty chemicals being poured on top of it, was it discovered to be very useful as a coating on pans and other things.

But the Precautionary Principle would call on us to avoid any new technology that looks like it might cause harm.  It's totally logical, makes perfect sense - and is utterly and completely wrongheaded.  And to illustrate this point, we will look back in history to the story of Ooga, the discoverer of fire; and Booga, the naysayer of his cavedwelling community.

When Ooga sat in front of his cave, demonstrating his newfound ability to create fire by rubbing sticks together, at first the other cavemen were impressed.  They looked at the pretty light; they felt the warmth; and let's face it, watching Ooga frantically rubbing sticks together was just plain good entertainment.

Then Booga got just a bit too close to the attractive red flame, and leaped back with a yelp.  His finger was red, and after a few minutes, a blister arose.

"I don't know what it is, Ooga, but that stuff's dangerous!  Look what it did to my finger!"

"But Booga, you put your finger in, all by yourself.  Just don't do that, and you'll be fine."

"No, that's not good enough.  What about our children?  They are too young to know not to do that.  Do you want our babies to be constantly red and blistered, or worse?  Think of the children!  And what about the elderly who can no longer see, and might stumble and fall into the fire?  Or just anyone who might slip on the floor?  It's too dangerous!  Ban it, I say!"

And you know what?  Booga was absolutely right.  Fire has harmed countless millions of people.  Untold hundreds of thousands have been gruesomely burned to death over the millennia, or horribly disfigured.  The firestorms of Dresden; the Great Fire of London; the burning of witches at the stake; the Great Fire of Rome; the destruction of the Library of Alexandria - all these horrors could have been avoided, had only Booga been listened to, and Ooga's discovery of fire been rejected.

That's nonsense, you say.  Fire is one of the most useful things ever discovered!  It underpins nearly every part of modern technology, and has led to everything else that gives our lives comfort.  It heats us when we're cold, and has saved countless lives of people who would otherwise have frozen to death.  What a preposterous example!

And that's exactly the point.  Sure, there are good aspects about fire, and bad ones too.  The good far, far outweigh the bad - but that might not have always been obvious right at first.  The Precautionary Principle, however, says that we should always take what appears to be the safest course - without accounting for the cost of taking that position.

In other words, what looks like the safest course, is often not.  Sometimes - in fact, much of the time - the safest and wisest course is to leave things alone and see where they lead, and address the issues as they arise.

That's what happened with fire.  We have fire alarms, fire escapes, fire departments, fire proof pajamas, and a host of other measures to deal with the down side of fire.

If Booga had succeeded in making fire illegal, we'd all still be living in caves, those few of us who'd even be around - but there'd be no carbon emissions, and no human-caused global warming.  Is that what we really want?

Who could possibly be so foolish as to want that, and why?

In our next article, we'll answer that question.

Kermit Frosch is a guest writer for  Read other articles by Kermit Frosch or other articles on Environment.
Reader Comments
This is the best yet in your series. Implementing a nanny state is a step backward in every way. Keep 'em coming, frog man!
January 11, 2008 7:31 PM
I think a little precautionary principal is better than none at all. As with all things, there is a balance. It makes no sense to have none at all with 300 million people bumping into each other. For instance, we should not allow anyone who can buy or build an atom bomb to have one in their basement.
January 12, 2008 10:40 AM
i have an atom bomb in my basement. don't you?
January 13, 2008 9:56 AM
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