"If you don't know how to fix it, please stop breaking it!" The precautionary principle and climate change

Foundations of Science 2 (2):263-292 (1997)

Taking precautions to prevent harm. Whether principe de précaution, Vorsorgeprinzip, føre-var prinsippet, or försiktighetsprincip, etc., the precautionary principle embodies the idea that public and private interests should act to prevent harm. Furthermore, the precautionary principle suggests that action should be taken to limit, regulate, or prevent potentially dangerous undertakings even in the absence of absolute scientific proof. Such measures also naturally entail taking economic costs into account. With the environmental disasters of the 1980s, the precautionary principle established itself as an operational concept. On the eve of the 1997 Climate Summit in Kyoto, precaution, as the precautionary principle is often referred to, has now become a key legal principle in environmental law, in general, and in current international climate negotiations, in particular, attempts to understand why. It examines in turn the natural affinity between the precautionary principle and climate change, reviews a series of issues which the principle raises, and discusses avenues which it opens paper, climate change fulfills the theoretical requirements set for the application of the precautionary principle. It comes as no surprise that the actual application of the precautionary principle in the context of climate change raises high political stakes. As a result, climate change science, in particular, and science, in general, is under the fire of politically-motivated scientific skeptics. Thus, by way of the counter-measures which must be put into effect, the precautionary principle calls for a greater sense of responsibility on the part of scientists and the public at large. Specifically, from scientists, it demands perseverance in rigor, excellence in communication, and committment to education. However, even if special efforts are made to implement the precautionary principle in the context of climate change, the success of climate change mitigation will constitute no test of the validity, the usefulness, or the efficiency of the precautionary principle. Indeed, the degree to which climate change mitigation succeeds only provides a measure of our kind's ability to manage responsibly the global commons which we inherited from our ancestors and which our generation enjoys, the global commons which we will pass on to today's children and to generations to come.
Keywords Climate change  Mitigation  Greenhouse gas emission  Control  Precautionary principle  Precaution  Decision making  Uncertainty  Feedbacks
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Reprint years 2004
DOI 10.1023/A:1009619720589
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