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US Policy on Global Warming: "Science Based Policy" vs. The Precautionary Principle
Meir Carasso

For decades the tobacco industry, in opposing regulation of any kind, has repeatedly used one argument. In essence, it said: There is no conclusive scientific proof of a connection between smoking tobacco and lung cancer. Therefore, since the government cannot produce incontrovertible scientific evidence for health claims, there should be no regulation. Since then, disclosures of the industry's own proprietary documents provided ample evidence of cause and effect relationships between smoking tobacco and cancer.

President Bush has recently made a similar argument about global warming. In a letter that attempted to rationalize his decision to reverse his campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, as well as this administration's withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, he cited an "incomplete state of scientific knowledge of the causes of...climate change".

The common thread in both of these cases is a legalistic attitude that says that before an action is taken by government to regulate industry, the government ought to have in hand scientific proof of all the cause and effect relationships between some action of industry, namely a particular product or process, and any negative health consequences. This attitude seems to rest on two points. One is legal: the government has to have expert "scientific proof" that can pass a court test. The other is that it seems to make common sense, something like, "Make sure you have all the scientific facts before you act to regulate industry, and thus interfere with the 'invisible hand' that governs the workings of the competitive market."

Both of these points were emphasized by members of the Bush administration. On June 9, 2000, presidential candidate Bush said that his "vision" for government was guided by the principle that Government should be "whenever possible, market based." Subsequently Christie Whitman, the current EPA Administrator, announced that she intends to govern the EPA so as to promote "science based policy." I should not skip over the substantial political benefits to this administration of adapting this philosophy of government. It is music to industry's ears because it tends to make potentially expensive regulation, as in the case of tobacco, much harder. And it also works well with political rhetoric about "taking government off the back of ..." ( industry, people, or some other presumed "victim of government excesses", you name it).

What is wrong with a request that government should have all the scientific facts in hand before it promulgates a given regulation? While on the face of it this request sounds reasonable, there is something very wrong in using this as the deciding criterion of public policy: it is that the science explaining all cause and effect relationships between a given industrial process or product and its public health impacts is very, very hard to do, and takes a very long time. Take again as an example the tobacco industry. For years, the "scientific proof" of a cancer consequence to smoking could not be testified to by health experts without refutation by other experts, and regulation that would save literally millions of lives languished. The phenomena and consequences of global warming are much more difficult to ascertain than those of smoking tobacco.

While many outstanding scientists, including Nobel Prize laureates have come out conclusively on the side maintaining that the introduction of carbon dioxide by human activities is a major cause of global warming, there remains uncertainty as to the precise consequences. Robert T. Watson, Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program specifically to assess the available scientific, technical, and economic information in the field of climate change, with the US as an active participant), stated in November, 2000

"The overwhelming majority of scientific experts, whilst recognizing that scientific uncertainties exist, nonetheless believe that human-induced climate change is already occurring and that future change is inevitable. It is not a question of whether the Earth's climate will change, but rather by how much, how fast and where."

This statement highlights the problem of a criterion that requires "scientific proof" prior to regulation. While it states that "the overwhelming majority of scientific experts" believes climate change is real, it also says that "scientific uncertainties exist." This is the common reality of scientific knowledge, particularly about the complex phenomena of global warming: uncertainties remain. A scientific expert in court could be forced to admit that he is not certain. This remaining uncertainty can be used, again as in the case of tobacco, to delay -- indefinitely -- reasonable, concerted action to deal with the threat of global warming and thereby risk the anticipated devastating and irreversible environmental consequences.

Is there an alternative approach to guide public policy?

The Commission of The European Communities, a branch of the European Union, states the following (EC Communication, February 2, 2001) "When there are reasonable grounds for concern that potential hazards may affect the environment, human, animal or plant health, and when at the same time the data preclude a detailed risk evaluation, the Precautionary Principle has been politically accepted as a risk management strategy in several fields." Here is a clear, politically viable strategy to deal with precisely the situation we find ourselves in with regard to global warming.

The "Precautionary Principle" -- not unlike the principle of a precautionary insurance policy one purchases to protect against the possibility of great damage or loss -- became international law with the 1992 Rio Declaration. In it, Principle 15 states "In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied... 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 damage."

President Bush's precipitous action on global warming is both irresponsible and unconscionable. It voids previous international agreements we entered into, frustrating a promise of US continuity in foreign relations. With one act, the Bush administration managed to implicate all of us in an inevitable loss of international standing and leadership. It put ill-conceived short-term economic interest ahead of acting responsibly to sustain a healthy future.

Mr. Bush, neither science nor economics can provide - without an explicit ethical context - a "basis" for good policy. Neither can pretend to substitute for the necessity of an ethical underpinning of the US acting toward a clean and stable planetary environment. To delay CO2 regulation in the US now, until "all the science is in", is a transparent failure of leadership and exacerbates global warming. In addition, a US withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol will likely stop a concerted regulation of CO2 emissions in many other countries as well. The Precautionary Principle provides a viable political framework wherein informed regulatory judgments can be made in concerted planetary cooperation, and without further delay.

Meir Carasso received a Ph.D. degree in Engineering from the University of California in Berkeley. During his 33-year professional career, he worked for the US and California governments and in private industry. He lives in Boulder and volunteers his time to selected projects.