Precautionary Foolishness

Published December 1, 2000

In candid moments, partisans of the Kyoto global warming protocol will admit that the theory of catastrophic warming has not been validated by experimental or empirical evidence. They’ll concede scientists know too little about the underlying physics, that computer models are too slow, and that the evidence is too conflicted, to permit a genuine resolution of the global warming debate.

In other words, they’ll admit, at least privately, that the science supporting the Kyoto Protocol isn’t really clear, compelling, or “settled.”

But they don’t see this as a great liability. Indeed, in their view, our very ignorance about the extent of human influence on the climate is reason enough to justify an enterprise like the Kyoto Protocol.

Precautionary deception

The trump card played in the global warming debate by Kyoto advocates is not any testable scientific hypothesis, but the “precautionary principle.” Simply stated, the principle holds that lack of scientific certainty should not become an excuse for inaction in situations where serious or irreversible harm to health, safety, or biodiversity is possible.

The precautionary case for Kyoto goes as follows:

  • the Earth may be warming;
  • industrial activity may be the cause;
  • the long-term effects may be catastrophic; and
  • a global program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions may be feasible and effective in averting or mitigating harmful climate change;
  • therefore, we should start applying controls now.

Curbing energy use to reduce emissions would be costly, Kyoto’s advocates may acknowledge, but what is money compared to the lives, species, and unique eco-systems that may otherwise be lost? The Kyoto Protocol, or some similar, is the only responsible option. The alternative is to throw caution to the winds and “gamble with the only planet we have.”

This argument is rhetorically powerful because it sounds so much like familiar maxims of common sense: look before you leap, err on the side of caution, better safe than sorry.

In fact, however, the precautionary principle is incoherent, an ethical empty suit. We can, with equal legitimacy, invoke it to oppose the Kyoto Protocol. The precautionary principal supplies no rational guidance for choosing between competing public policies.

Precautionary . . . and incoherent

The fatal flaw in the precautionary case for Kyoto is its complete one-sidedness. The advocates of the Kyoto Protocol, like the advocates for command-and-control environmental regulation generally, demand assurances of no harm only with respect to actions government might regulate, never with respect to actions government itself might take. But government intervention frequently boomerangs, creating the very risks precautionists deem intolerable.

Consider a few examples. A favorite prescription for curbing the greenhouse gas emissions alleged to be causing global warming is to ratchet-up the fuel economy standards for automobiles. However, federal fuel economy mandates have already forced automakers to produce smaller, lighter, less crash-resistant cars. The result? An additional 2,000 to 4,000 highway deaths per year, according to John Graham of the Harvard School of Public Health.

Similarly, well-intended Food and Drug Administration regulations sometimes hinder a physician’s ability to provide the best possible care to a patient. When FDA regulations delay the availability of life-saving therapies, people die.

Another example: Laws and regulations banning the pesticide DDT have contributed to malaria outbreaks in developing countries. According to the World Health Organization, malaria strikes between 300 million and 500 million people worldwide each year.

Frank Cross of the University of Texas at Austin notes that over-regulation can kill simply by misdirecting resources and destroying wealth. Regulatory schemes that divert attention, ingenuity, and money from major threats to minor risks make us less safe. The millions of dollars local governments waste on gold-plated Superfund cleanups, for example, cannot then be spent to improve police and fire protection. The billions of dollars and untold thousands of hours U.S. policymakers and government contractors spend worrying about climate change divert attention, ingenuity, and money from other perils.

Equally important is the fact that, for individuals as well as nations, wealthier is healthier and richer is safer. Precautionists ignore the obvious connection between livelihoods, living standards, and lives. Wealth is the single most important factor affecting health and longevity.

In July 1998, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the death rate of America’s poor is three times that of the general population. Only 13 percent of the difference could be explained by risky lifestyle choices such as overeating, excessive drinking, or smoking. The chief cause of the higher death rates was poverty itself.

Poverty is stressful and correlated with several well-known disadvantages: unsafe neighborhoods, unhygienic living conditions, and inadequate medical care.

So, here is a precautionary argument against the Kyoto Protocol:

  • Stabilizing greenhouse gases at levels low enough to cool the planet may require drastic reductions in energy use (actually, I think this is a near certainty, but I’ll say “may” to preserve the parallelism with the pro-Kyoto argument);
  • an energy-constrained world may be a poorer world (again, this is a virtual certainty);
  • a poorer world may be a world with more starving people (indeed, how could it not be?).
  • starving people are less likely to invest in water treatment plants, smoke stack scrubbers, and preserving wilderness areas (wouldn’t you try to feed your family first?)

True, I do not have scientific proof that the Kyoto Protocol and its successor treaties would condemn millions to poverty, starvation, and misery. But the precautionary principle says we should not let the absence of scientific certainty become an excuse for inaction. It also says we should not implement far-reaching innovations until they are shown to be safe. No one has demonstrated that the Kyoto Protocol won’t have harmful consequences. Therefore, we should oppose it.

Can’t have it both ways

For far too long, environmental lobbyists have gotten away with precautionary deception. They say we should not permit new products, technologies, or industrial processes until those innovations are shown to be safe. Yet they are willing to launch new regulatory schemes—on a planetary scale, no less—without giving a thought to the potentially lethal effects.

In the global warming debate, the precautionists admonish us not to gamble with the only planet we have. Yet they are more than willing to gamble with the only economy we have.

They tell us to go slow—or just plain stop—when it comes to building power plants, producing genetically engineered crops, or expanding suburban neighborhoods. Yet they rush to judgment and demand immediate action to solve a problem that science has not yet shown to exist.

They cannot have it both ways. Precautionists cannot consistently say that “safety first” trumps all other considerations in the realm of private action but has no application in the realm of government action.

I am not for a moment suggesting that the precautionary principle would be beneficial were it applied even-handedly, to bureaucrats and businessmen alike. Inflating “safety first!” from a mere rule of thumb into a categorical imperative—an absolute overriding duty—is a recipe for paralysis and stagnation, perhaps the riskiest conditions of all.

My point, rather, is that the precautionary principle is not really a principle. A genuine principle is neutral, applying equally to all particulars of a certain category or description. The relevant category here is risk. Yet advocates of the precautionary principle never apply it to the risks of government intervention.

If the precautionary principle isn’t a principle, what is it? It is a rhetorical weapon. Its purpose is to exaggerate the risks associated with economic endeavor and conceal the risks arising from the exercise of political power.

An honest presentation of any regulatory issue begins by acknowledging there are risks on both sides of the ledger. There are risks of under-regulation, but also of over-regulation. Risks of climate change, but also of climate change policy.

Do the risks of climate change outweigh those of climate change policy? Or do we have more to fear from the Kyoto Protocol than from global warming itself? The purpose of the precautionary principle is to sweep such questions under the rug.

Marlo Lewis Jr. is staff director for the Subcommittee on National Economic Growth, Natural Resources and Regulatory Affairs of the House Committee on Government Reform. This article is excerpted from a July 1, 2000 speech to Doctors for Disaster Preparedness.