SCIENTISTS AGREE THAT the climate is changing, but they debate the extent of the danger. In the face of that disagreement, many people are asking: If we are uncertain, shouldn’t we take aggressive action? The planet is at risk, the argument goes, and so it would be prudent to take bold steps immediately…
These apparently sensible questions have culminated in an influential doctrine, known as the precautionary principle. The central idea is simple: Avoid steps that will create a risk of harm. Until safety is established, be cautious; do not require unambiguous evidence. The principle, in its many variations, has come to play a powerful role in public debate, the development of government policy, and even international law. It can be, and has been, applied to countless problems, including nuclear power, cellphones, pesticides, electromagnetic fields, and even human cloning.
Yet the precautionary principle, for all its rhetorical appeal, is deeply incoherent. It is of course true that we should take precautions against some speculative dangers. But there are always risks on both sides of a decision; inaction can bring danger, but so can action. Precautions, in other words, themselves create risks – and hence the principle bans what it simultaneously requires.
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