May 11, 2015
There are many interpretations of precaution used in policy debates today. But how is it that environmentalists can switch from one incantation to another without realising that they are contradicting other issues that they themselves are campaigning on. The Risk-Monger has never hidden his views that the precautionary principle is a tool used to manipulate policy – one that can be twisted to fit whatever an activist campaign requires. This blog will consider how precaution, as a “principle” has been perverted during the two great activist campaigns of the social media information era: climate change and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It is intriguing how precaution can allow for contradictions, incongruities and complete absence of logic and rationality.
Precaution as the triple negative or as reversing the burden of proof
In 1992, the precautionary principle was articulated in Article 15 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development as a triple negative – roughly (when applied to climate change): because we are not certain whether the world is warming or not, this is not a reason to not act (given that the consequences would be so great). The onus was on the sceptics to prove climate change was not a risk (something hard to do even after the IPCC had got their forecasts so badly wrong over the last decade).
Precaution on GMOs has not been framed in the triple negative context, but rather defined by the European Environment Agency’s reversal of the burden of proof: until proponents of GMOs could prove to the sceptics that biotech was safe (with certainty … something hard to do as safety is a relative concept), precaution must be taken. The onus is on the scientists to prove to the sceptics that the technology is safe, and, it should come as no surprise, the GMO sceptics can make that a burden.
So while precaution is merely an uncertainty management tool (note this is not a risk management tool since it only deals with hazards and does not give a toss about potentially lost benefits), its uncertainty focus shifts. The triple negative climate change precaution says that being uncertain is not a reason to forego precautionary actions while the reversal of the burden of proof precaution used to reject GMOs demands certainty before precautionary action is lifted.
Just for fun, let us reverse the application of these two precautions.
If we were to apply the triple negative perception of precaution to GMOs, it would sound like this: The desperate situation of agriculture needing to feed a growing global population while protecting valuable natural habitats from getting ploughed under (and further diminishing biodiversity) demands that we act to develop agricultural technologies. So even if we were not certain of the science on biotechnology (after two decades, not a serious risk anymore), this is not a reason to not act in developing GMOs (given that the consequences of food insecurity would be so great). The onus would be on the sceptics or critics of GMOs to prove that they could feed the growing global population with organic agriculture. On the basis of this version of the precautionary principle, we would have to act immediately to adopt GMOs.
If we reverse the burden of proof on climate change, we would be demanding the IPCC to prove that climate change is happening due to human interaction on the environment and at a level that it would be worth making the demanded sacrifices to human development. Clearly they have not done a very good job at that, and until they can, we must remain sceptical.
So from this exercise, perhaps we can conclude that the reversal of the burden of proof perception of precaution (forced on Brussels by the activist civil servant, David Gee) is corrupt and must be discarded. It should come as no surprise then that this version is widely used by the European Commission (and sits at the foundation of REACH and the Pesticides Directive) … mystifying.
Do environmental campaigners and their activist scientists realise the contradictions when they bounce from one perception of the precautionary principle to another or are they just blasting out of both ends in order to win an argument and raise funds? If that were all, we could just write them off as hypocrites and ignore them. But their precautionary bipolarity goes undiagnosed as their refusal to listen to dissenting voices in each case further poisons the well.
Precaution and the refusal to listen
In climate debates, the mainstream scientists refuse to listen to the sceptics. They are pushing for a consensus and immediate action while moving the issue away from debate and further research. This is not a role for scientists – who should continually challenge their paradigms – and yet the pro-climate change scientists are pushed (pushing) forward to recommend policy conclusions.
On GMOs, the sceptics refuse to listen to the mainstream science. In the EU, we are told that the general public (ie, those the activists claim they represent) does not want biotechnology. Even if a vast majority of scientists are correct and GMOs are not at all a risk, the activists are adamant that the scientists belong in the lab and must not be involved in the policy debate. If anyone wonders why the European Commission no longer has a chief scientific adviser, well … Professor Glover spoke up in favour of GMOs.
Precaution as a principle (as used in Brussels) implies that you do not need to listen to views you do not like.
Furthermore, the grey literature (the large volume of unpublished scientific papers that did not prove an intended objective) on climate change is largely ignored – in fact the number of unsuccessful research projects is considered too large to even consider. However, on GMOs, the grey literature is scoured for any whiff of uncertainty or potentially inconclusive sentiment.
Blame it on the man
The only way, I can understand how activists can live with these contradictions is that their hatred of humanity acts as the irrational glue that keeps their idealism free from logical gravity.
It is man who has allegedly caused climate change (even though only 2% of greenhouse gas emissions are anthropogenic and climate has been changing for millennia), and for this reason we must intervene to correct it and “restore nature to its pristine dignity”. Imagine for a moment, if we had conclusive evidence that climate change was, gulp, a natural phenomenon. Would we even be having this debate or seeking to strangle the developing world with cuts in CO2 emissions? The eco-theological eschatology implies the good man (the environmentalist) rising up against the evil man (the industrialist).
Those who hate human intervention on nature have an inherent mistrust of any human innovation. “Leave nature alone” is core to the virtue of sustainability (allowing activists to overlook all of the advances of science since Francis Bacon). In eco-theological terms, any scientific development of GMOs, of man acting on nature and the food chain, can be considered as a mortal sin. So they can reject Golden Rice or increased yields (and the millions of lives they could save) and still feel certain of their moral superiority.
This hatred of human action on nature allows the two precautions to coexist despite their incongruity. The triple negative works on climate change issues because it addresses the evil man had unleashed on nature. The reversal of the burden of proof works on biotech issues because it allows us to resist any destruction man may be intending on mother nature. Precaution is selectively applied (in its most effective form) to what man has done that we (the collective, environmentally enlightened) choose not to accept.
It is amusing how climate change activists are all lining up behind the expected pronouncements of Pope Francis on how we must act to combat global warming (to tend to the Creation God had entrusted man with). Precaution hence sanctified.
These same activists ignored the Vatican, declaring that they worship another Gaia, when the Church made a similar pronouncement in favour of GMOs as a means for man to help alleviate poverty, starvation and food insecurity. Some activist groups even reminded us that the Church also abuses children, launders money and is involved in trafficking. At least the Vatican is consistent in their use of precaution.
Catholics have known for over two thousand years that pronouncements from Rome are only useful if you agree with them. But we should never waste a good opportunity to pretend we respect the pope, what with Paris coming up shortly.
The use of these two precautions is confused, entirely subjective and contradictory. If you are using them interchangeably, I am afraid you are either being manipulative or an idiot. I fear that many of those I have met in Brussels playing the precaution card are both.David Zaruk