Precautionary Principle

The precautionary principle states that when a human-induced activity raises a significant threat of harm to the environment or human health, then precautionary measures should be taken even if there is no scientific consensus regarding cause and effect

It is argued that the enhanced greenhouse effect requires precautionary measures because:

  • The global climate is a complex phenomena with many emergent properties that are difficult to predict or control
  • Climatic changes are based on time frames well beyond human lifespans, making it difficult to gather scientific evidence 
  • If global warming continues to escalate unchecked, the consequences to mankind as a species are potentially life threatening 

According to the precautionary principle, the onus for action falls on those contributing to the enhanced greenhouse effect

  • This makes action on climate change a global issue – involving governments, industries, communities and the individual

The precautionary principle is effectively the reverse of the ‘burden of proof’, which advocates inaction until cause is proven

Precautionary Principle versus Burden of Proof

precautionary principle

Action on Climate Change

Arguments For:

  • Risks of inaction are potentially severe (e.g. more droughts, floods, rising sea levels)
  • Higher temperatures will increase the spread of vector-borne diseases
  • Loss of habitat will result in the extinction of some species (loss of biodiversity)
  • Climate changes may affect food production, resulting in famines
  • Climate changes could destroy certain industries which countries rely on (e.g. fishing), leading to poverty
  • These factors would increase economic burdens and competition for resources, creating international tensions

Arguments Against:

  • Cutting greenhouse emissions may delay economic growth in developing countries, increasing poverty
  • It is difficult to achieve global consensus on action and even harder to police
  • No guarantee that human intervention will be sufficient to alter global climate patterns
  • Restrictions imposed by carbon reduction schemes may prevent the development of beneficial future technologies
  • Carbon reduction schemes will likely result in significant job losses from key industries, requiring retraining of unemployed workers