Precautionary Petard

The Precautionary Principle – the proposition that new technologies or products should not be permitted until we know they won't endanger health, safety, or biodiversity – is central to the modern environmentalist vision and underlies most Nanny-State regulation.

Had this risk-averse mentality held sway since ancient times, men would never have brought fire into their huts and caves, domesticated wild animals, plowed and mined the earth, founded cities, crossed the seas, unlocked the secrets of electricity and the atom, or developed open-heart surgery. Every technology extending man's dominion over nature has been a two-edged sword, killing as well as saving. On balance, the benefits have outweighed the risks; technological innovation has made the world a safer place. But from a precautionary perspective, risk-benefit comparisons are irrelevant. All that matters is whether a substance or technology may do harm. If the risk of harm cannot be ruled out, then the risky product or activity should not be permitted, period.

Since no invention is risk-free (aspirin is deadly to some people, for example), the Precautionary Principle is a recipe for economic and technological stagnation – perhaps the riskiest condition of all. Nonetheless, "better safe than sorry" easily persuades a public unversed in the hazards of over-caution.

In the great climate change debate, the Precautionary Principle has become the greenhouse lobby's trump card. Science does not support predictions of a global warming catastrophe. Satellite and weather balloon observations reveal a slight cooling trend over the past 18 years. And a modest warming that occurs mostly in winter and at night (which many scientists consider the most probable scenario) would benefit mankind, producing milder weather and longer growing seasons.

Finding science an unreliable ally, eco-apocalysts resort to a precautionary argument. Since industrial civilization could be warming the planet, and global warming might accelerate dangerously in the next century, we should take no chances. Curbing energy use to reduce emissions may be expensive, but what is money compared to the lives that might otherwise be lost?

The fatal flaw in this argument is its complete one-sidedness. Environmentalists demand assurances of no harm only with respect to actions that government might regulate, never with respect to government regulation itself. But government intervention often boomerangs, creating the very risks precautionists deem intolerable.

Consider these examples. Federal fuel-economy mandates force auto makers to produce smaller, lighter, less crash-resistant cars, causing thousands of highway deaths per year; FDA regulations delay the availability of life-saving therapies, killing tens of thousands over the past decade; banning DDT revived malaria epidemics, afflicting 2.5 million people in Sri Lanka alone.

Frank Cross of the University of Texas at Austin notes that regulation also endangers lives by diverting public resources from major risks to minor ones, and by destroying people's livelihoods. For individuals as well as nations, wealthier is healthier, richer is safer; every $5 to $10 million drop in economic output translates into one statistical death.

So, how can greenhouse alarmists be sure their anti-energy policies won't destroy millions of jobs, and that the economic hardship won't cause the death of even one child? They can't.

The Precautionary Principle says we should not go upsetting apple carts until we're sure nobody will get hurt. Since draconian energy restrictions would jeopardize health and safety, the Precautionary Principle cannot justify such measures. Far from mandating drastic action to avert a greenhouse crisis that may never materialize in any event, the Precautionary Principle forbids us to adopt risky climate change policies.