Climate change, ripped bodices, and the precautionary principle

This, from the first paragraph of an Observer piece, made me laugh:

The climate secretary, Ed Miliband, last night warned of the danger of a public backlash against the science of global warming in the face of continuing claims that experts have manipulated data.

A danger, you say? Call me an alarmist, minister, but I’d say this was more than a danger. I’d say the backlash has happened. I wouldn’t go so far as Walter Russell Mead, who writes that the global warming movement is dead, but it looks crippled, and the Climategate scandal, which is still unfolding, is a principal reason. I am not a climate change denier; I am an IPCC sceptic. I think it is important to fix what has gone wrong at the IPCC and its feeder groups, restore the credibility of climate science, and devise intelligent policies in response to the threat. Miliband has other ideas, apparently:

[I]n the government’s first high-level recognition of the growing pressure on public opinion, Miliband declared a “battle” against the “siren voices” who denied global warming was real or caused by humans, or that there was a need to cut carbon emissions to tackle it.

If he wants to bring moderate public opinion round, the battle Miliband should wage is with the people who have brought climate science into such disrepute. To begin with, how about calling for the resignation of Rajendra Pachauri? Speaking of things that made me laugh, I see that the IPCC chief has a second career all mapped out: despite his crushing official workload, he has written a novel (mainly about breasts, apparently). A second Nobel prize cannot be far behind. I’d say climate science can spare him.

In addition to Pachauri’s novel, I’ve another reading recommendation for Miliband. The Observer quotes the minister as saying:

Everything we know about life is that we should obey the precautionary principle…

I don’t think so. As Cass Sunstein has pointed out:

The precautionary principle takes many forms. But in all of them the animating idea is that regulators should take steps to protect against potential harms, even if causal chains are unclear and even if we do not know the harms will come to fruition… [I]n its strongest forms, the precautionary principle is literally incoherent, and for one reason: There are risks on all sides of social situations. It is therefore paralysing; it forbids the very steps that it requires. Because risks are on all sides, the precautionary principle forbids action, inaction, and everything in between.

This would be a good thing for a minister of energy and climate change to understand.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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