Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Precautionary principle = reckless principle

In discussion with a Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) last week, I was urged to apply the precautionary principle in relation to action to combat climate change.  I responded:
 'Better do nothing that the wrong thing.'
I was asked to give an example of what I meant.  My reply was:
In the UK and Europe we have legislated to produce 10% of our road fuels from 'renewable' sources by 2020.  It is far from clear this will have the claimed effect in environmental terms.  This post last week from the BBC's Paul Hudson is instructive.

The situation with US corn production is much more dramatic.  35% of US corn goes on biofuels.  This figure is widely seen as one of the reasons for the very significant rise in world food prices in the last year.  Corn prices almost doubled between February 2010 and February 2011 driving up the cost of rice and other food staples.  60% of the world's corn comes from the US.

The rush to biofuels has had a devastating effect on the cost of food and this affects the world's poor most of all.   Some argue it causes starvation and is immoral.

Our MSPs, in pioneering more stringent targets,  may have put Scotland in the 'groundbreaking' category with the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009.  But their altruistic eagerness to lead, without due diligence on either the science or the consequences of their actions, is looking more like folly every day.

In this case the precautionary principle is the reckless principle.


  1. I agree completely that ethanol is not a "good idea". It mostly happend in USA due to politics. However, I do think that there is great complexity here. They make ethanol out of what's called "field corn" which is inedible by humans. it's chemistry. It's used for all kinds of purposes, including being feed for animals which end up as food for humans, but indirectly. There are probably other factors at work with regard to food prices which must be understood better before action.

  2. Those of you who might be interested in a discussion of the PP and its ethical basis that takes into account that, obviously, precaution always has a price may want to have a look at my new book The Price of Precaution and the Ethics of Risk: http://www.springer.com/social+sciences/applied+ethics/book/978-94-007-1329-1