Two hundred years of global warming and the failure of the Precautionary Principle

I’d invite readers to have a look at this two-minute video, titled, “Humans have caused climate change for 180 years”:

Here’s an excerpt from an article in the ANU Reporter, dated 25 August 2016 (emphases mine):

An international research project has found human activity has been causing global warming for almost two centuries, proving human-induced climate change is not just a 20th century phenomenon.

Lead researcher Associate Professor Nerilie Abram from The Australian National University (ANU) said the study found warming began during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution and is first detectable in the Arctic and tropical oceans around the 1830s, much earlier than scientists had expected.

“It was an extraordinary finding,” said Associate Professor Abram, from the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences and ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science.

“It was one of those moments where science really surprised us. But the results were clear. The climate warming we are witnessing today started about 180 years ago.

If I could turn back time…

I learned about this research from a recent report in Science Daily (January 4, 2017). Reflecting on the results, an interesting “virtual history” hypothetical suggested itself. Back in 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius was the first person to claim that humans burning fossil fuels might eventually give rise to global warming. As it turns out, Arrhenius actually thought that the warming would occur over thousands of years, and that it would be beneficial to humanity. But let’s imagine that instead, he warned that it could lead to a future calamity for the human race, and let’s imagine that his warning was issued decades earlier than it actually was, giving humans the opportunity to avert man-made global warming altogether. Let’s also imagine that the scientists and politicians of his day took his warning to heart, invoked the Precautionary Principle and concluded that the burden of proof lay on people burning fossil fuels, to establish that the combustion of these fuels was safe. No such proof being forthcoming, let’s suppose that politicians in all countries enacted bans on fossil fuel emissions, thereby slowing the onset of the Industrial Revolution around the world. Would we be better off today?

It’s easy to see that we wouldn’t. Most of the world would never have benefited from the Industrial Revolution. We would have missed out on mass production, too. In this pristine agrarian world, it’s fair to say that we would never have developed the technologies that enabled most people to live past the age of 40, escape from rural isolation and squalor, and improve the quality of their daily lives, especially after the year 1850. In the absence of industrialization, the scientific and medical research enterprise as we now know it simply wouldn’t exist. There would be far fewer people (owing to higher mortality rates), and they’d be far more miserable than we are today, but they wouldn’t have to worry about man-made global warming.

I have a time machine here, if anyone wants it:


(Image courtesy of J. Morton, Oto Godfrey and Wikipedia.)

Would anyone care to go back to 1830 and call off the Industrial Revolution, before it spreads from Britain and north-west Europe to the rest of the Continent?

Let’s try another experiment. Let’s turn the clock back to 1980, by which time many scientists were aware of global warming. Cumulative man-made CO2 emissions over the course of history were at less than half their current level. China, however, had not yet industrialized, and its decision to do so during the 1980s, and to open up its economy to market forces, helped lift 680 million people out of poverty. Would anyone like to go back to the year 1980, tell China’s leaders to call off their experiment with free-market capitalism, and tell their people to meekly endure another few decades of absolute poverty and high infant mortality before some 21st-century genius invents a way for a large country to industrialize without burning any fossil fuels? No? I didn’t think so.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we shouldn’t worry about global warming. What I am saying is that even if it is going to be catastrophic (as some scientists think), its occurrence was inevitable (following our discovery of the astonishing power-generating capacity of fossil fuels), and what’s more, it would have been unethical to stop global warming at its inception. Too many people have benefited from living in a world where our politicians didn’t genuflect on bended knee to the Precautionary Principle, but chose instead to industrialize first and ask questions afterwards. Historically, humanity has always progressed by getting rid of one problem by creating another problem, and kicking that can down the road for future generations to deal with. That may sound short-sighted and irresponsible, but it has worked, thanks to human ingenuity. And I would argue that this approach is ethically defensible, too, provided that there are no strong grounds at the time for believing that the future problem will be a catastrophic one, or that future generations will be unable to stop it. Of course, anything might happen, but we have to make our decisions based on what appears likely, in the light of our current (and imperfect) knowledge. That’s life.

For my part, I’m a pragmatist: I believe in whatever works. But perhaps some readers have a different perspective on this question, so I’ll throw the floor open. What do you think?

72 thoughts on “Two hundred years of global warming and the failure of the Precautionary Principle

  1. Tom English evidently thinks I am attacking a “straw man” version of the Precautionary Principle. I beg to disagree. The following is a short quote from Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical, Laudato si (bolding and italics mine):

    186. The Rio Declaration of 1992 states that “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a pretext for postponing cost-effective measures”[132] which prevent environmental degradation. This precautionary principle makes it possible to protect those who are most vulnerable and whose ability to defend their interests and to assemble incontrovertible evidence is limited. If objective information suggests that serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified, even in the absence of indisputable proof. Here the burden of proof is effectively reversed, since in such cases objective and conclusive demonstrations will have to be brought forward to demonstrate that the proposed activity will not cause serious harm to the environment or to those who inhabit it.

    Like it or not, Francis is an influential pope: even secularists listen to him. Honestly, I can’t see how anyone wielding such the precautionary principle (as formulated by Pope Francis) could possibly justify the industrialization and modernization of China, in the 1980s.

    But perhaps you will object that Pope Francis is not a recognized expert on the precautionary principle. Fine, so let’s listen to someone who is. R.B. Stewart (2002) has distilled the various formulations of the precautionary principle down to four basic versions in his article, “Environmental Regulatory Decision Making Under Uncertainty” [note: the online copy is a draft] (Research in Law and Economics, 20: 76):

    1./ Scientific uncertainty should not automatically preclude regulation of activities that pose a potential risk of significant harm (Non-Preclusion PP).
    2./ Regulatory controls should incorporate a margin of safety; activities should be limited below the level at which no adverse effect has been observed or predicted (Margin of Safety PP).
    3./ Activities that present an uncertain potential for significant harm should be subject to best technology available requirements to minimize the risk of harm unless the proponent of the activity shows that they present no appreciable risk of harm (BAT PP).
    4./ Activities that present an uncertain potential for significant harm should be prohibited unless the proponent of the activity shows that it presents no appreciable risk of harm (Prohibitory PP).

    Stewart himself concludes that ” the strong versions of PP do not provide a conceptually sound or socially desirable prescription for regulation.” I agree.

    Which version does Tom English espouse?

    In my comments, I’ve been focusing on version 4, because: (i) that’s the one that everyone thinks of whenever they hear the precautionary principle invoked; and (ii) in practice, that’s the version that most activists appeal to, when opposing some new and potentially dangerous technology. You never hear of Greenpeace activists saying, “Let’s regulate GMOs,” or “Let’s regulate nuclear energy.” No. What they commonly say is: “Let’s ban GMOs” and “Let’s ban nuclear energy,” because (they believe) it’s better to be safe than sorry. Of course, I’m aware that not all environmentalists are Greenpeace activists. But they’re the ones that get listened to, and that grab all the headlines. And they’re the ones setting our policies in Western countries, more’s the pity.

    Case in point: Paragraph 2 of article 191 of the Consolidated version of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union declares:

    “Union policy on the environment shall aim at a high level of protection taking into account the diversity of situations in the various regions of the Union. It shall be based on the precautionary principle and on the principles that preventive action should be taken, that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source and that the polluter should pay.”

    That sounds pretty strong to me. Straw man? I think not.

  2. vjtorley,

    186. The Rio Declaration of 1992 states that “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a pretext for postponing cost-effective measures”[132] which prevent environmental degradation.

    This is a reasonable argument. The gal in the video, however, did not support her claim.

  3. vjtorley: But they’re the ones that get listened to, and that grab all the headlines. And they’re the ones setting our policies in Western countries, more’s the pity.

    Really?
    Greenpeace:
    “It sometimes seems that the countries of the United Nations can unite on nothing, but nearly two hundred countries have come together and agreed a deal. Today the human race has joined in a common cause, but it’s what happens after this conference that really matters. The Paris Agreement is only one step on a long road, and there are parts of it that frustrate and disappoint me, but it is progress. This deal alone won’t dig us out of the hole we’re in, but it makes the sides less steep.”

  4. Urban heat islands are real and have a real impact on climate.We need to make them more self-sufficient. The destruction of ecosystems for our own use is also real and needs to be highly regulated. Pollution exists it just isn’t in the form of CO2. We just need to make the burning of fossil fuels cleaner and more efficient.

  5. Frankie:
    Urban heat islands are real and have a real impact on climate.We need to make them more self-sufficient. The destruction of ecosystems for our own use is also real and needs to be highly regulated. Pollution exists it just isn’t in the form of CO2. We just need to make the burning of fossil fuels cleaner and more efficient.

    How do urban heat islands have a real impact on climate?

  6. newton: walto:
    Not sure how relevant this is to climate change, but I see from today’s headlines that the moon is from even longer before the universe was first created than had been thought.

    Go figure!

    ???

    Oh, sorry to have been unclear. But I think the story was something like that it turns out the moon is actually (something like) 4.5 billion years old–which is older than had been thought. And, I guess if the universe is less than 10,000 years old, the moon predates the universe by more than we thought!

    https://www.bostonglobe.com/news/nation/2017/01/11/scientists-moon-over-hill-billion-years-old/p9kFc2QURpJJwFX1ZcCYrK/story.html

    Weird, no?

  7. walto: And, I guess if the universe is less than 10,000 years old, the moon predates the universe by more than we thought!

    Yes, and we’re actually still waiting for the light of the moon to reach us.

  8. Hi everyone,

    Re the Paris Treaty (mentioned above by newton), you might like to read Bjorn Lomborg’s take:

    Paris climate promises will reduce temperatures by just 0.05°C in 2100 (Press release).

    Paris is being sold as the summit where we can help ‘heal the planet’ and ‘save the world’. It is no such thing. Even if every government on the planet not only keeps every Paris promise, reduces all emissions by 2030, and shifts no emissions to other countries, but also keeps these emission reductions throughout the rest of the century, temperatures will be reduced by just 0.17°C (0.3°F) by the year 2100.

    And let’s be clear, that is very optimistic. Consider the Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997, never ratified by the US, and eventually abandoned by Canada and Russia and Japan. After several renegotiations, the Kyoto Protocol had been weakened to the point that the hot air left from the collapse of the Soviet Union exceeded the entire promised reductions, leaving the treaty essentially toothless.

    The only reason Kyoto goals were almost achieved was the global 2008 recession…

    Instead of trying to make fossil fuels so expensive that no one wants them – which will never work – we should make green energy so cheap everybody will shift to it.

    The Copenhagen Consensus on Climate project gathered 27 of the world’s top climate economists and three Nobel Laureates, who found that the smartest, long-term climate policy is to invest in green R&D, to push down the price of green energy.

    Food for thought.

  9. walto: Oh, sorry to have been unclear.But I think the story was something like that it turns out the moon is actually (something like) 4.5 billion years old–which is older than had been thought.And, I guess if the universe is less than 10,000 years old, the moon predates the universe by more than we thought!

    https://www.bostonglobe.com/news/nation/2017/01/11/scientists-moon-over-hill-billion-years-old/p9kFc2QURpJJwFX1ZcCYrK/story.html

    Weird, no?

    Thanks, much clearer

  10. walto: Oh, sorry to have been unclear. But I think the story was something like that it turns out the moon is actually (something like) 4.5 billion years old–which is older than had been thought. And, I guess if the universe is less than 10,000 years old, the moon predates the universe by more than we thought!

    Yes, that was how I read your original comment. But it was a little too subtle, so I’m not surprised that there was some misunderstanding.

  11. BREAKING NEWS ALERT

    Marking another milestone for a changing planet, scientists reported on Wednesday that the Earth reached its highest temperature on record in 2016 — trouncing a record set only a year earlier, which beat one set in 2014. It is the first time in the modern era of global warming data that temperatures have blown past the previous record three years in a row.

    The findings come two days before the inauguration of a US president who has called global warming a Chinese plot and vowed to roll back his predecessor’s efforts to cut emissions of heat-trapping gases.

    To read the full story, visit BostonGlobe.com.

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