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Jun 1, 2010 (Vol. 30, No. 11)

Precautionary Regulation Is What's Rotten in Denmark

Emission of Greenhouse Gases Is the Latest Target of this Often Misused Principle

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    Henry I. Miller, M.D.

    Controversies continue over the appropriate regulation of a variety of technologies, activities, and consumer products, including nuclear power, chlorinated water, pesticides, hormones in beef, and emissions of greenhouse gases. An underlying fundamental, almost philosophical question is, how should regulators, acting as society’s surrogate, approach risk in the absence of certainty about the likelihood or magnitude of potential harm?

    Proponents of a more risk-averse approach have advocated a postmodern concept called the “precautionary principle” to reduce risks and, ostensibly, to protect our lives and our planet. A common formulation of it is that governments should implement regulatory measures to prevent or restrict actions that raise conjectural threats of harm to human health or the environment even in the face of incomplete scientific evidence as to the probability or potential significance of these dangers.

    The application of the precautionary principle—which is not really a principle at all, but rather a kind of tautology amenable to various contortions—is sometimes represented as “erring on the side of safety” or “better safe than sorry,” implying that the failure to regulate risky activities sufficiently will result in severe harm to human health or the environment, and that excessive regulation is inconsequential.

    These assumptions, which are often both specious and dangerous, underlie attempts to lower the emissions of greenhouse gases in order to reverse global warming, or at least slow its rise. This application of the precautionary principle is typical: Because it does not take into consideration the credible worst-case impacts that could result from applying the principle—which can deprive consumers of life-enhancing and even life-saving products—it can actually increase risk.

    Even assuming that there is really a warming trend that’s largely due to human activities, any interventions we might devise to lower emissions significantly will impose monumental costs. Reductions in the burning of fossil fuels sufficient to have even a modest impact would cause energy costs to skyrocket, stifle economic growth, and plunge the world into chaos.

    In any case, discernible effects on warming would be decades away. Actions to reduce emissions should only be undertaken if they’re likely to be cost-effective, and should be limited to measures that have secondary desirable effects as well; an example would be a shift from fossil fuels to nuclear power.

    Often it’s wiser to try to adapt to or mitigate a problem than to intervene to remove the causes of the problem. Consider, for example, the solution that the U.K. adopted to prevent the flooding of London by surge tides that occur under certain meteorological conditions, and because tide levels have been rising by 60 cm (two feet) per century.

    Rather than trying to eliminate the surge tides at their source or the rise in tide levels, between 1974 and 1984 the U.K. constructed the Thames Barrier, an innovative monumental system of movable flood gates that prevents flooding. And, consider the concentration of U.S. domestic oil exploration and refining in the hurricane-prone Gulf of Mexico: We cannot prevent hurricanes, but we could move oil-refining capacity to regions less susceptible to natural disasters.


Readers' Comments

Posted 06/18/2010 by Ben Grant

Agreed, John and Peter. While Dr. Miller is speaking from the fringe, this is an editorial piece that appeals to simple reason. He identifies a scientific problem, proposes a solution, and supports it with recent, valid, global examples—all within the context of using real science to solve real problems. I could be mistaken, but isn't that what genetic engineering and biotechnology are ultimately about? If not, point me toward the nearest pack of Gorean lemmings.

Posted 06/11/2010 by Bill Reis

Rationality? So there is nothing to worry about, industry will take care of everything - they obviously know best. A sad commentary that GEN publishes such drivel, particularly when climate change is so far off-topic for this publication.

The science is there, the results are in. Whether a physician/molecular biologist believes it or not, climate change is as real as evolution and the Gulf oil spill. What to do about it - if anything - is a legitimate topic for discussion, but the facts won't go away no matter how many times the fringe denies them.

Please cancel my subscription. No science here.

Posted 06/11/2010 by John Budny

I thought rationality and common sense were all but dead, but I detect a pulse here, a slight fog of the mirror below the nostrils.  Can it be that we might find solutions with eliminations?  Yes, it is Miller Time but make haste!  Before you know it, beer will be banned as a source of fugitive emmissions of carbon dioxide when a bottle is opened!  So sad.

Posted 06/09/2010 by Peter Kissinger

It's Miller Time and I find that stimulating. We will not accomplish much at all if our focus is only on what might go wrong and who then personally may have caused it.  It certainly is the case that fear of fear itself is not enabling.  Why a species that thrills in sky diving and roller coasters would take these positions is baffling.
Most great things have involved taking chances.  Then again, it has been only a very few to make the impossible become routine.  Thank you Tom Edison, Wilbur Wright, Lee Hood, Ed Jenner, Eli Lilly, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Chuck Yeager, Neal Armstrong, and many of my good friends.

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