Throwing ‘precaution’ to the wind

Over 150 years in the making, global warming – a theory first aired by a Swedish scientist back in the 1890’s – is well underway. In the midst of all the argument and bickering, one thing is clear. The planet is getting warmer, and getting warmer rather quickly. Two degrees is apparently the ‘critical point’ where irreversible damage will take place. The problem is that predicted rises fluctuate wildly between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees centigrade. We could be in a spot of bother.

While scientists do agree that the earth is warming up, they disagree on why. Some say it’s down to human activity, others that it’s a natural planetary cycle. Funny, because the facts do seem to speak for themselves. Since the industrial revolution, and the start of our addiction to burning fossil fuels, temperatures have soared in relative terms. And these are actual temperatures – real measurements – undisputed.

Is now really the best time to dilly-dally around? If human activity is potentially the cause then why wait for conclusive proof, which will probably never come? Or, if it does, too late? True, we won’t end our reliance on fossil fuels overnight, but it’s clearly unhealthy economically – if not environmentally – so where’s the logic in simply continuing the debate at the expense of taking action? What happened to ‘erring on the side of caution’? Fine, let’s make a real effort to reduce greenhouse emissions, and if it turns out not to be the cause of global warming, then we can just start burning again. Nothing lost, surely? But certainly all to gain.

A couple of years ago some colleagues of mine at Fauna & Flora International were working on the interestingly titled ‘Precautionary Principle‘. It really makes quite a lot of sense.

Precaution – the “precautionary principle” or “precautionary approach” – is a response to uncertainty, in the face of risks to health or the environment. In general, it involves acting to avoid serious or irreversible potential harm, despite lack of scientific certainty as to the likelihood, magnitude, or causation of that harm

It makes so much sense, why can’t we apply it to climate change? Perhaps it’s a little too obvious. Perhaps another 20 years of research is in order…