Precautionary principle, misleading and undemocratic

No doubt we will short­ly see a lot more about the ‘pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple’ as a rea­son for embark­ing on car­bon emis­sion tax­es. In Aus­tralia, the pub­li­ca­tion of the final report of the Gar­naut Review lat­er this month is sure to bring out a lot more rhetoric about urgency, pre­cau­tion and ‘run­ningout of options’. We already see this line of argu­ment from some indus­try orga­ni­za­tions such as the Min­er­als Coun­cil of Aus­tralia that is, no doubt, hav­ing a dif­fi­cult time man­ag­ing dif­fer­ences among its mem­bers about whether the ‘car­bon pol­lu­tion’ plans of the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment make eco­nom­ic sense.

We can antic­i­pate still stronger appeals to the ‘pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple’ because it is often used to put an end to debate; ‘Look, we’ll com­mit to car­bon reduc­tions with­out detailed rea­sons (that we can­not agree), just in case the worst case turns out to be true’. I don’t know if that is hap­pen­ing inside the MCA. But it is clear that Ross Gar­naut has already nailed his stan­dard to the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple (he called it ‘Pas­cal’s wager’) and it is like­ly that we’ll hear more of the same from the Rudd gov­ern­ment as they approach the point where they must turn their Green Paper into legislation.

So what’s wrong with the ‘pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple’? Many peo­ple respond very pos­i­tive­ly to the idea of tak­ing action to avoid an unquan­ti­fied risk because they’re nat­u­ral­ly inclined (see the sec­tion of that paper on what does explain risk aver­sion: it isn’t a ratio­nal util­i­ty func­tion) to antic­i­pate the worst out­come from any risk con­sid­ered on its own. Indi­vid­u­als rec­og­nize in their own behav­ior that they act with pre­cau­tion and they con­sid­er it just com­mon sense: ‘pru­dence’. But gov­ern­ment is not the action of an indi­vid­ual. We need to look at the idea of pre­cau­tion more care­ful­ly when we talk about col­lec­tive action and ask just what the ‘prin­ci­ple’ implies .

A ‘pre­cau­tion­ary’ action is tak­en with­out the sort of jus­ti­fi­ca­tion that we would oth­er­wise require for a giv­en deci­sion. It is an expres­sion of our con­cern about the unknown and, we fear, unlim­it­ed risk we may face. We take actions that we believe will avert some or all of this risk, although we don’t know how much risk these actions will avoid because we can­not or have not eval­u­at­ed the actu­al risks—that is, the probabilties—involved. The so-called ‘prin­ci­ple’ of pre­cau­tion orig­i­nat­ed in Euro­pean envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions and had it’s clas­si­cal, con­vo­lut­ed, expres­sion in “Prin­ci­ple 15” of the 1992 Rio Dec­la­ra­tion of the Unit­ed Nations Envi­ron­ment Program:

Where there are threats of seri­ous or irre­versible dam­age, lack of full sci­en­tif­ic cer­tain­ty shall not be used as a rea­son for post­pon­ing cost-effec­tive mea­sures to pre­vent envi­ron­men­tal degradation.”

Many com­men­ta­tors then and since have point­ed out that this state­ment is no help in deal­ing with uncer­tain­ty. ‘Sci­en­tif­ic cer­tain­ty’ is a very rare ani­mal so this aspires to be a qua­si-uni­ver­sal guide­line. The obvi­ous ques­tion is how well, in the absence of sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge, can we eval­u­ate claims of ‘seri­ous or irre­versible dam­age’ and, con­se­quent­ly, how con­fi­dent­ly can we make deci­sions about which mea­sures are ‘cost-effec­tive’? The answer is: ‘not very well’ and ‘not confidently’. 

The ‘pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple’ appears to be a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for action, but it’s real­ly only an expla­na­tion of our rea­sons for tak­ing an action; a psy­cho­log­i­cal state­ment about our state of mind. It can­not be a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion in the way we nor­mal­ly use that word. A ‘jus­ti­fi­ca­tion’ is a state­ment of a ratio­nal bal­ance between ends and means. Ratio­nal, here, lit­er­al­ly means ‘mea­sured’. So a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion is a bal­ance (it might be wrong; jus­ti­fi­ca­tions can be in error) struck between what we pay and the val­ue of what we pay for; or between the crime and the pun­ish­ment; or between god’s ways and mans hopes (remem­ber Milton).

An expla­na­tion is a very dif­fer­ent thing from a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. We can read­i­ly explain Mohamed Atta’s actions on 11 Sep­tem­ber, 2001 in dri­ving a plane full of peo­ple into the North Tow­er of the World Trade Cen­ter. He held a dis­tort­ed vision of the world that demo­nized the Unit­ed States and the West as the ene­my of Islam. He held an insane hope that his actions would lead to the destruc­tion of the U.S. and an end to the per­ceived threat. But this psy­cho­log­i­cal expla­na­tion is not a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. We can find no jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for killing thou­sands of inno­cent peo­ple. The expla­na­tion of Atta’s psy­chol­o­gy is com­plete­ly unsat­is­fy­ing as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for his actions because it offers no ratio­nal­i­ty. (Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Pres­i­dent Bush did not seem to grasp that while the action had no pos­si­ble jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, this did not mean that the expla­na­tion could be ignored).

What hap­pens when a gov­ern­ment takes an action that has a (psy­cho­log­i­cal) expla­na­tion but not a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion; that is a ‘pre­cau­tion­ary’ action? Some peo­ple are inclined to accept that gov­ern­ments should do that because they place them­selves in the role of the gov­ern­ment and think, ‘now how would I act when faced with this threat’. They answer as they would answer per­son­al­ly: I’ll make sure I nev­er face the threat what­ev­er it might be. That’s the per­son­al­ly pru­dent course. But what’s OK for an indi­vid­ual is not OK for a government.

Act­ing with­out jus­ti­fi­ca­tion on a risk is exact­ly what gam­bling is. It’s what hap­pens when you put the roulette chip on the red 33 instead of on the black 72. It’s just a wager. We don’t allow gam­bling with pub­lic stakes (our GDP, bil­lions of tax dol­lars) in a democ­ra­cy because democ­ra­cy is all about delib­er­a­tion and con­sent; it’s why democ­ra­cies have par­lia­ments that are sup­posed at least to have a ratio­nal debate and, in the­o­ry, to reached rea­soned deci­sions (except that they are all too often mush­roomed by the dic­ta­tor­ship of the Exec­u­tive in our cur­rent democ­ra­cy). Its why we demand a free press and free speech. Not to explain our pho­bias but to pro­mote the rea­soned debate that helps us to take bal­anced deci­sions on the basis of evi­dence, not influ­enced by per­son­al agen­das or sub­jec­tive evaluation.

The temp­ta­tion to gam­ble is more com­mon than you may think. Gov­ern­ments are fre­quent­ly asked to make deci­sions that rely on a sci­en­tif­ic assess­ment in con­di­tions of sci­en­tif­ic uncer­tain­ty. It’s not an unusu­al phe­nom­e­non and there have been many exam­ples over the years—especially since envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion issues began to be promi­nent pub­lic con­cerns in the 1970s. Deci­sions based on uncer­tain sci­ence hap­pen every day in the man­age­ment of quar­an­tine risk, drought fund­ing, or the release into com­mer­cial use of foods or phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals with nov­el compounds. 

There may be no com­plete­ly sat­is­fac­to­ry rule of thumb for these deci­sions except to say that there is a world of dif­fer­ence between act­ing on dread and act­ing from pru­dence on the basis of par­tial assess­ments. In order to make good deci­sions, deci­sion mak­ers need to under­stand the nature of sci­en­tif­ic uncer­tain­ty and to be aware of its well-attest­ed ten­den­cy (see the ref­er­ences in the Peel arti­cle, below) to encour­age sub­jec­tive judgements—and per­son­al or inter­est-group motivations—to creep into deci­sion mak­ing. We see plen­ty of such sub­jec­tivism in the pol­i­cy debates sur­round­ing the uncer­tain cli­mate science.

None of this is to say that gov­ern­ments should not act pru­dent­ly when offered par­tial infor­ma­tion about risk. Pru­dence usu­al­ly means tak­ing mea­sures pro­por­tion­al to the harm that you can quan­ti­fy and con­tin­u­ing to seek bet­ter infor­ma­tion on the risks that you can­not quan­ti­fy. It almost cer­tain­ly means mak­ing no pro­vi­sion at all for unde­fined fears or ‘worst case out­comes’ for which you have no reli­able prob­a­bil­i­ties. As your moth­er always told you; your worst fears will turn out to be ground­less. She was right.

For more on the shades of dif­fer­ence between pru­dence and pre­cau­tion, I strong­ly rec­om­mend an arti­cle from the 2004 Vol­ume of the Mel­bourne Jour­nal of Inter­na­tion­al Law by Jacque­line Peel that draws on the treat­ment of the ‘pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple’ in inter­na­tion­al tri­bunals. Peel’s last sen­tence reach­es a well-found­ed con­clu­sion from a decade of inter­na­tion­al expe­ri­ence of the ‘pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple’ that should stand as a warn­ing to all who, like the Gar­naut Enquiry in my view, want to make a wager based on incon­clu­sive cli­mate science:

“Pre­cau­tion should not require deci­sion-mak­ers to achieve the impos­si­ble and reach the ‘right’ deci­sion in advance, regard­less of uncer­tain­ties. Rather, the best chance for the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty to pre­vent seri­ous envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion in the future lies in impos­ing par­tic­u­lar pro­ce­dur­al con­straints on reg­u­la­to­ry deci­sion-mak­ing that are designed to ensure sci­en­tif­ic uncer­tain­ty is fac­tored into the process and that sci­ence itself is not extend­ed beyond the lim­its of its util­i­ty and capac­i­ty to inform deci­sions on risk reg­u­la­to­ry measures.” 

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