Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Precautionary Principle

In Harper's Canada we consider it bad form to discuss things such as the "precautionary principle."   It's treated as an unwarranted impediment to government, especially Harper's deviant view of economic progress.   Fortunately for Harper, the Liberals and New Democrats largely play along.

What is the precautionary principle?   It's not new and has been stated and restated in slightly different ways but the Wiki summary of it will suffice for this discussion.

"The precautionary principle or precautionary approach states if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.
"This principle allows policy makers to make discretionary decisions in situations where there is the possibility of harm from taking a particular course or making a certain decision when extensive scientific knowledge on the matter is lacking. The principle implies that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm, when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk. These protections can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that provide sound evidence that no harm will result."

It's easy to see why this is a principle not at all to Steve Harper's liking.

The Europeans are wrestling at the moment with the failure of their governments to adhere to the precautionary principle.   That failure is the subject of a scathing report by the European Environment Agency.

Europe has failed to learn the lessons from many environmental and health disasters like Chernobyl, leaded petrol and DDT insecticides, and is now ignoring warnings about bee deaths, GM  food and nanotechnology, according to an 800-page report by the European Environment Agency.  
Thousands of lives could have been saved and extensive damage to ecosystems avoided if the "precautionary principle" had been applied on the basis of early warnings, say the authors of the 2013 Late Lessons from Early warnings report published on Wednesday.

They accuse industry of working to corrupt or undermine regulation by spinning and manipulating research and applying pressure on governments for financial benefit. "[It has] deliberately recruited reputable scientists, media experts and politicians to call on if their products were linked to possible hazards. Manufacturing doubt, disregarding scientific evidence of risks and claiming over-regulation appear to be a deliberate strategy for some industry groups and think tanks to undermine precautionary decision-making."

The peer-reviewed study, which is aimed to improve understanding of scientific information, looks at 18 areas including radiation from mobile phones, birth control pills in the aquatic environment, and invasive species. It found that governments often introduced laws much too late to prevent deaths and massive financial costs, but were highly likely to ignore scientific warnings and resist any regulation. The authors found more than 80 cases where no regulation was introduced when it later turned out that the risk from a technology or chemical was real, or still unproven.

Does any of that sound familiar?   That's the very foundation of the Northern Gateway pipeline/supertanker scam - manufacturing doubt, disregarding scientific evidence of risks and bemoaning supposed over-regulation.   It's the stock in trade of the fossil fuelers and their minions who govern this corrupted petro-state.

If you applied the precautionary principle to the Northern Gateway pipeline, there would be no pipeline.   There's far more than "a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or the environment" and there's a clear scientific consensus on that score.   The very same could be said for the emissions and pollution troubles spawned by the bitumen industry itself.   They put the public and the environment at grave risk, a reality our political classes of all stripes choose to simply ignore.

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