Applying the Precautionary Principle to Global Warming
44 Pages Posted: 8 Dec 2000
Date Written: November 2000
The precautionary principle has been invoked to justify a policy of aggressive greenhouse gas (GHG) emission controls that would go beyond "no regrets" actions to reduce global warming. However, this justification is based upon selectively applying the principle to the potential public health and environmental consequences of global warming but not to the adverse consequences of such a policy.
This report attempts to rectify this one-sided application of the precautionary principle. It finds that such a policy, despite its claim to be precautionary, would, in fact, be incautious in many areas because it has a high likelihood of increasing overall risks to public health and the environment. Specifically, GHG emission reduction requirements that go beyond secular improvements in technology and elimination of unjustified energy subsidies could retard economic development, leading to greater hunger, poorer health, and higher mortality, especially in developing countries. Moreover, higher oil and gas prices would reduce food availability and would also retard switching from solid fuels to more environmentally benign fuels for heating and cooking in households of the developing world. Indoor air pollution resulting from current heating and cooking practices in these nations is a major source of premature deaths.
A truly precautionary principle argues, instead, for focusing on solving current problems that may be aggravated by climate change, and on increasing society's adaptability and decreasing its vulnerability to environmental problems in general and climate change in particular. These could be achieved by bolstering the mutually-reinforcing forces of technological change, economic growth, and trade. Moreover, enhancing adaptability and reducing vulnerability will raise the thresholds at which greenhouse gas concentrations could become "dangerous."
Note: This article was written as an independent scholar and does not reflect the view or opinion of the Office of Policy Analysis.
JEL Classification: D81, I10, I18, K32, Q40, Q20
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation