Somin and Lambert on the responsible use of the precautionary principle

Lynne Kiesling

The East Anglia CRU leaked climate research emails and the Copenhagen climate meeting are reviving old discussions about the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle has much in common with Pascal’s Wager. Two new analyses this week have caught my eye, the first from George Mason law professor Ilya Somin. Somin argues for consistency in the application of the precautionary principle — if we are going to apply it to inform environmental policy, we should also apply it to our analyses of the likely economic and environmental consequences of the policies we apply:

One major problem with most invocations of the precautionary principle is that people tend to apply it to whatever danger they want to prevent, but largely ignore it in considering the potential dangers created by the policies they advocate. For example, Dick Cheney applied a version of the principle to the threat of terrorism, arguing that even a small chance of a catastrophic terrorist attack justified taking sweeping measures to eliminate it. At the same time, he tended to ignore the potential dangers of the anti-terrorist measures themselves. Similarly, environmentalists apply the precautionary principle to global warming, but not to the risks created by policies intended to alleviate global warming.

If we have to take seriously the dangers of a global warming catastrophe, we should give equally serious consideration to the risks on the other side.

As usual, his analysis is thoughtful, and I encourage you to read it.

A second post that caught my eye is from Missouri law professor Thom Lambert, who makes a similar point:

The problem with the precautionary principle is that it’s literally non-sensical. It says, “If there’s a course of action that involves threats of harm to human health or the environment, take precautions against it.” The problem is that precaution-taking itself threatens harm to human health and the environment. When we devote resources to avoiding one risk, we divert those resources from some other welfare-enhancing use. When we turn away from a cheap risk-creating technology to a more expensive technology that creates less direct risk, we raise the price of the technology and of any goods or services the technology produces. Poor people will be even poorer. And poverty creates grave threats to human health and the environment.

Thus, it’s not enough to look only at the benefit side of precaution-taking. Because tradeoffs are inevitable, we should also consider the costs of precautions against anthropogenic global warming. In a series of Wall Street Journal op-eds, Bjorn Lomborg has detailed some of those costs: less money for sea walls, storm warning systems, and solidly constructed homes in India and Bangladesh; less money for food, medical treatment, and HIV drugs in Ethiopia; less money for fighting malaria in Zambia; less money for schooling and transportation in Vanuatu.

I tend to agree with Somin and Lambert that the precautionary principle is not a good guide for making policy; note also, as Somin does, that this is also Cass Sunstein’s position on the regulatory relevance of the precautionary principle. Now is a good time to be revisiting and rethinking the value and the universality of the precautionary principle as applied to environmental policy.

2 thoughts on “Somin and Lambert on the responsible use of the precautionary principle

  1. I take this point. It’s well-made.

    On the other hand, if we have to be consistent applying the precautionary principle, don’t we also have to consistent with our regard for the world’s poor? Strangely, the poor only seem to come up when changes to the status quo are in the offing. As if we’d been just busting our asses to make sure that the economic system worked really well for them. Except:

    Meanwhile, the poor are like, “Hey, the status quo is what got us here in the first place.”

    Further, aren’t there policy options on the table, now, that would kick money to the poor to make up for the higher costs they’ll incur? Perhaps those instruments are imperfect, but so is the current system. So maybe it’s a choice between bad options.

    But just to be clear: in the US, regard for the poor is certainly not what’s holding up a climate deal, is it? If so, the poor are really incredibly powerful in this arena relative to the other areas where they might be agitating for change.

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