PJ Media

The Paralyzing Precautionary Principle

On March 4, 2003, the Bay Area Working Group on the Precautionary Principle (BAWG) celebrated what they termed their first victory when San Francisco passed the “San Francisco Precautionary Principle Resolution.” Just over two years later, in June of 2005, San Francisco passed the Precautionary Purchasing Ordinance. This law requires the city to consider environmentally “safer” alternatives to everything from toilet paper to computers. Literally anything the city purchases must be examined first according to the “precautionary principle” before it can be purchased.

The precautionary principle basically says if an action or policy might cause harm to the environment, then even if there is no proof the action will cause harm the burden of proof is on those advocating the action to prove the action would not be harmful.

BAWG, incidentally, defines itself as:

A diverse collaborative of individuals and organizations who are dedicated to protecting health and the environment. We recognize that fundamental changes in decision-making need to happen in order to build healthier, more just, and sustainable communities.

The attendant article on Wikipedia states:

This principle allows policy makers to make discretionary decisions in situations where there is evidence of potential harm in the absence of complete scientific proof. The principle implies that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm, when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk. These protections can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that provide sound evidence that no harm will result.

In the European Union, the application of this principle has been made a statutory requirement.

There are a few problems with this approach where environmental policy is concerned. First, it is impossible to prove a negative. You cannot, for example, prove that something does not exist, only that it does or that it has not been observed. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the principle is generally used to deny an action, but rarely is it used to examine the converse. That is, would more harm be caused by not taking the proposed action than would be caused by taking it? The biggest issue, of course, is that the principle is more often than not used for ideological purposes rather than actual scientific ones.

For example, in the Gulf of Mexico we have the worst offshore oil drilling disaster in the multi-decade history of offshore exploration. It is also one of only a few major spills in the 70-plus year history of offshore drilling.

Within days however, we had individuals and groups as disparate as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Sierra Club calling for an end to offshore drilling because there might be another leak someday.

The environmental groups prevent drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as well, not on the grounds there will be harm to wildlife or the tundra, but on the grounds the oil companies cannot prove there will not be. This principle, which seems reasonable enough at first blush, is now making it’s way into U.S. law.

I have been unable to track down the exact extra cost these restrictions have saddled the people of San Francisco with, but one can imagine the additional bureaucracy, and higher cost items have added millions of dollars to city expenses at a time when California as a whole is on the verge of bankruptcy.

One of the guiding principles of this organization, quoted from its website, is:

Precaution is an essential tool toward the prevention of environmental racism, the achievement of social and economic justice and the creation of sustainable communities.

I have no idea what environmental racism is. Social and economic justice is generally understood to mean “redistribution of wealth.”

And now we come to the nub of the matter. I will grant a great many environmentalists are true believers who simply want a cleaner environment.

Fair enough. So do most conservatives.

However, the radical environmental movement, fronted by organizations like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, is very good at telling us what we shouldn’t allow: oil exploration, nuclear, coal, natural gas, ethanol. The selective application of the precautionary principle would disallow any of these.

What they are not good at telling us is what methods of energy production are allowable. They are very good at saying nay, not so hot at offering alternatives. It strikes me that a person who can not offer a viable alternative to the action he’s asking you not to take is probably not worth listening to.