TCS Daily

Invoking a Real Precautionary Principle

By Lee C. Gerhard - February 17, 2004 12:00 AM

We live in a world increasingly dominated by an article of faith that human beings have undue, even nefarious, influence over the dynamic systems of the Earth like climate. Climate science, however, is finally catching up with climate theology and asking some questions that might upset the faithful.

Increasing numbers of scientists, politicians, and journalists have become aware of the huge impact that natural climate drivers, like the amount of solar energy reaching the earth, have on our global climate over time. Moreover, we now understand that the numerical computer models used by many academics too often replicate the biases of their programmers. Current climate models that assume greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide, drive climate change, fail to reproduce observed climate change over even geologically short time spans.

As scientific data has finally begun to overwhelm rhetorical conjecture, those holding to the article of faith of anthropogenic climate change have shifted gears and found a mantra to mumble: "The Precautionary Principle." Their Precautionary Principle requires current action to mitigate speculative future impacts regardless of the present consequences -- intended or unintended.

Consider the Kyoto Protocol which demands that developed nations, particularly the United States, significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Since there is no currently available technology to reduce emissions cheaply without severely constricting energy use, this demand would dramatically lower the standard of living and degrade the quality of life in the developed world, with no significant improvement in the lives of those in the developing world. The rationale is that we must forego our economic success and lower our standard of living just in case we might be responsible for some future human impact on world climate.

Of course, this is not the first attempt in human history to use the "Precautionary Principle" to influence the course of human events. King Herod ordered the killing of all the babies around Bethlehem in Judea to make sure that none would grow up to challenge his reign (Matthew 2:16-18). Near-Eastern Sultans routinely killed all their siblings for much the same reason.

"Above all, do no harm," wrote Hippocrates, ca. 400 B.C., and any application of the Precautionary Principle must be so constrained. As such any attempt to apply the "Precautionary Principle" to human activity must be tested by asking the questions, "What action?" "At what cost?" "To whom?" "Over what time span?" "Who benefits?" and "What are the effects of the action on the problem?"

Herod gained the undying enmity of the people of Bethlehem by his "precautionary" action, and in so doing he sowed the seeds of his own destruction. Meeting Kyoto's objectives will mean constricting energy use and decreasing access to energy by the burgeoning global population, with consequent reduction in food production and the means to care for an increasing human population in the Third World.

Today it's possible the Earth is in a multi-millennial long term temperature decline, although in a natural short term rise. A proper application of the precautionary principle requires that the peoples of the world be made aware that processes are at work that may raise sea levels, flood lowlands, and gradually shift climatic zones northward. Alternatively, the earth may be already overdue to slide back into glacial conditions. To hold out hope that reducing human energy use can alter either scenario is to condemn humans to suffer the effects of climate changes whatever they might be.

The precautionary principle demands that public policy prepare to meet either or both of these unfortunate alternatives. Public policy must focus on mitigating the inevitable effects of the climate change that will certainly occur, rather than hoping that we will be able to stop it.

Climate will change as it always has, becoming either warmer or colder, over varying periods of time. That is the natural rhythm of the planet and we must adapt to these inevitable changes.

Columnist George Will recently wrote that "Geology has joined biology in lowering mankind's self esteem. Geology suggests how mankind's existence is contingent on the geological consent of the planet" (Will, 2003). In many ways the human species exists by sufferance of the ever changing dynamic natural systems of our planet. But human ingenuity and wealth creation can give humans a helping hand in the ongoing struggle against the impersonal forces of nature.

Lee C. Gerhard is the Principal Geologist of the Kansas Geological Survey. He is an honorary member of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. He is a Fellow of the Geological Society of America, and active in a number of conservation and wildlife organizations. He can be reached at

Victor John Yannacone, jr. is an attorney. He established Environmental Law as a recognized legal discipline and represented the Viet Nam combat veterans against the dioxin contaminated herbicide "Agent Orange." He can be reached at


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