News Flash: Right Embraces Precautionary Principle


July 28, 2005


Browse in Environment

Politicians need to be careful about invoking large principles to get themselves out of political jams. The principle they thump the tub with today might be the one they want to run from tomorrow. In for a little, in for a lot as the old saying goes.

Ideologues are especially prone to this temptation, since they fancy that every thought in their noggins and every utterance from their lips comes from on high. The invasion of Iraq has been a case in point, in particular the current mess regarding Karl Rove and his Tricky Dickery. The Right has tried to extricate itself by, among other things, harkening to high principles of national security and prudence. In the process they have backed themselves into agreement with advocates of action on global warming and other environmental threats. They just don’t seem to realize it yet.

Consider a column that appeared in the Boston Globe this week, by Jeff Jacoby, the Globe’s resident Right Winger. Jacoby is not someone who surprises. He’s a reliable party liner, and so the column can be read as indicative of the message that is bouncing around the Rightward echo chamber.. Under the title “Failures of Intelligence”, Jacoby tries to cast the administration’s dissembling as a heroic willingness to act in the face of uncertainty

Here’s what he says:

“So what kind of culture do we want intelligence agencies to foster among their operatives and analysts: one that tends to be overly focused on possible threats, or one that is more likely to downplay them? In general, would we rather take action to eliminate a danger that turns out to have been overstated — or take no action, and then be stunned when the enemy strikes.”

Jacoby left out the option that is most to the point: do we want intelligence agencies that fudge and hype to justify policies that their political bosses have decided upon for other reasons? But leave that aside. Focus on what Jacoby has said. It is almost exactly what Greenpeace et. al. say to urge action on global warming, industrial toxics in our kids’ bodies, and the like. (The intelligence on those fronts is a lot more solid than was the case that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat, but leave that aside too.)

This outlook has been called the “Precautionary Principle.” It has spawned a great deal of theorizing and elaboration, but it boils down to common sense. Better to be safe than sorry. A stitch in time saves nine. We may not be exactly sure what the gunk we are pouring into the atmosphere is doing. But we know it can’t be good. So let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.

In the past the Right has dismissed the Precautionary Principle as sissy talk. Real men take risks. Real men aren’t afraid. Alternatively, they spread fear at the economic ruination that will result if we take climate change seriously — which is to say, if we take life seriously. The more likely result is ruination from not taking the befouling of the habitat seriously. The Wall Street Journal yesterday ran a story on how China could be poised to “leapfrog” the petroleum age and move right into better fuels. If that turns out to be even partly true, whose auto industry is likely to be more prepared for the decades ahead?

Now people who make that argument have a new source or corroborating quotes: Right Wing columnists, and even the President himself. Compare the following statements.

“Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

“Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof — the smoking gun — that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud. To wait for certainty is to wait for disaster.”

The first is from the 1992 Rio declaration on Environment and Development. The second is from U.S President George Walker Bush. They are addressing different issues to be sure. But they are addressing them from a standpoint that is practically identical. Looks like we all believe in the Precautionary Principle now.