Reducing CO2 Emissions as a Precaution against Possible ‘Climate Change’ is All Pain, No Gain

By David Legates Published on November 21, 2015

The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris is about to begin, so climate change alarmists will again be trumpeting Principle #15 of the 1992 Rio Declaration, also known as the Precautionary Principle:

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities … [W]here 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.

In light of this, we are urged to take draconian action to avert climate change even if we lack scientific proof that a problem exists and that the recommended remedies will work.

But we don’t live by the Precautionary Principle, which as defined, treats the problem as a one sided risk, and ignores the risks of the proposed response. Instead, we live by its antithesis. Let me explain.

In a congressional hearing in 2014, a congressperson asked, “Do you look both ways when crossing the street?” The scientist testifying responded, “Yes, Sir, I do.” The congressperson then explained that our response to climate change must, like looking both ways when we cross the street, follow the Precautionary Principle.

However, looking both ways before crossing a street does not really exemplify the Precautionary Principle. Rather, it exemplifies its Antithesis — that no action should be taken to remedy a problem until and unless it can be demonstrated that it will (1) have a positive effect and (2) not have adverse impacts that will create new problems or exacerbate existing ones.

Looking both ways costs next to nothing but significantly reduces the chances of being hit by a motor vehicle (it has a positive effect and has no adverse effects), so it follows the Antithesis to the Precautionary Principle.

In contrast, the proposed use of the Precautionary Principle to fight climate change is a bit like taking $50 from your wallet and depositing it on the pavement every time you wanted to cross the street. The threat of serious and irreversible damage from being hit by a car is definitely real, but dropping $50 on the pavement provides little certainty of ameliorating the threat. No one in his right mind would take such action: it doesn’t have any likely positive effect, and it does have adverse impacts; namely, it would leave us bankrupt and probably dead in a very short time.

More formally, with respect to climate change, we can define the Antithesis of the Precautionary Principle thusly:

Action to abate climate change, either natural or human-induced, shall not be taken until it can be demonstrated that it will (1) have a positive effect, and (2) not have adverse impacts that will create new problems or exacerbate existing ones.

As I demonstrated in chapter 1 of A Call to Truth, Prudence, and Protection of the Poor 2014: The Case against Harmful Climate Policy Gets Stronger, the hard scientific data about global temperature shows, contrary to widespread assumptions, that our planet is much less sensitive to greenhouse gases than is indicated by climate models, on which those who warn of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming rely. It follows that reducing greenhouse gas emissions will have much less of a cooling effect than the same people assert.

You may have heard that an overwhelming consensus of scientists disagrees with this. But science is about data and logic, not counting votes. Further, claims of overwhelming consensus are false, as shown by a number of peer reviewed papers (like this one). More hard data show that higher levels of carbon dioxide may be beneficial to life on Earth, since plants grow better in response to more carbon dioxide.

Massive, uninterrupted, reliable quantities of highly stable electricity are necessary to lift and sustain societies out of poverty. Alternative energy sources (primarily wind and solar) generate electricity that on average is two to eight times more expensive than fossil fuels. For that reason, trying to reduce climate change by reducing the use of fossil fuels (reductions that will have little impact on future temperature) will increase the cost of electricity needed to lift from poverty the over 1 billion people who now lack it. That means prolonging their dependence on wood, dried dung and other biomass as principal heating and cooking fuels, which in turn causes hundreds of millions of upper respiratory diseases and over 4 million premature deaths annually in the developing world, primarily among women and young children. The policy, in other words, is virtually all pain and no gain.

In light of this, the Antithesis of the Precautionary Principle implies that we should reject calls to mitigate climate change by turning from fossil fuels. We must not forget the world’s poorest citizens, who will be hit hard by the severe energy restrictions imposed by climate “stabilization” efforts.

As Christians, we are exhorted both to “Test all things, hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) and to be good stewards of our environment (Genesis 1:26–28; 2:15) — especially when millions on the planet are without clean water, adequate sanitation and affordable energy. We certainly do not want to squander precious resources or harm our environment, but neither do we want to waste time, effort and money on non-solutions to an unlikely problem when they could be directed to solving very real and large ones.

That’s why I endorsed An Open Letter on Climate Change to the People, their Local Representatives, the State Legislatures and Governors, the Congress, and the President of the United States of America, expressing my concern to protect the poor from harmful climate policies, and I hope you’ll join me.


David R. Legates, Ph.D., is Professor of Climatology at the University of Delaware, Newark, DE, and a Senior Fellow of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.

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