The precautionary principle v the fierce urgency of now

In discussions of the coal seam gas issue, the precautionary principle is regularly invoked as a reason to abandon or delay the development of the industry.  But what is the precautionary principle? And how does it apply to the issues surrounding the development of coal seam gas?

A deceptively simple principle

It is common to refer to “the” precautionary principle.  However, there is no such beast – at least, there is no single, consensus wording of the precautionary principle. It is an idea that has evolved over time, and found written expression in different ways.  While those one-sentence statements of the principle seem clear enough on first reading, using it as a practical decision-making tool is, as is often the case, far less straightforward.

Queensland’s Sustainable Planning Act states that that one of the act’s very purposes is to ensure that decisions made under it “apply the precautionary principle”, and defines the precautionary principle as follows:

…the principle that lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing a measure to prevent degradation of the environment if there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage.”

At one level, such a statement is a very basic consequence of the nature of science and any attempt to use it as a public policy tool.  Science does not do “certainty”. As philosopher of science Karl Popper put it, “there can be no ultimate statements in science: there can be no statements in science which cannot be tested, and therefore none which cannot in principle be refuted.”  Therefore, to make use of scientific knowledge, one can never wait for “full scientific certainty”, as there never will be such certainty.

So, if “full scientific certainty” is not to be our threshold for action, what is?

As Willem Vervoort, Associate Professor of Hydrology and Catchment Management at the University of Western Sydney observed, interpreting the principle as meaning that  any possibility of an environmental threat, no matter how implausible, is sufficient to postpone a development until the threat is completely ruled out would mean no development – or any other action – ever.   It would be an absurdity.

Differing Formulations

Variations in the expression of the precautionary principle help to illustrate when, and how, it might be applied. Economist Deborah Petersen described three broad classes of formulations. The version that appears in Queensland’s Planning Act is, in this classification scheme, a “weak” formulation, one that merely states that lack of scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing action”.

It is in this form that the precautionary principle is most commonly found in legislation. In “Moderate” versions, the threat of environmental damage justifies or even requires action to address it, if the threat meets a defined threshold for intervention.  However, like the weak versions, moderate versions place the onus on those seeking intervention to justify that intervention.

Finally, “strong” wordings of the principle have been proposed that reverse the burden of proof that an activity will not cause harm. That is, the proponents of a potentially environmentally harmful activity must prove that it is safe.  Such wordings have been used in symbolic documents such as the Earth Charter, and the Windscale Declaration.  The Canadian branch of environmental activist group Greenpeace has, in the past, stated that “the” precautionary principle means such a reversal of proof. Strong wordings of the precautionary principle are not currently found in Australian law.

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  1. Not the easiest article to follow, but interesting.

    How the sound-bite “Precautionary Principle” is applied would seem to be most subject to its users’ perspective on a given issue.

    So an environmental group would suggest it implies we go slow until environmental impact is better understood, and a coal industry group would suggest it means we shouldn’t stop development unless we have good evidence its a bad thing.

    Curious as to how (using the Retrospect-O-Scope) the PP could have been better applied to lessen the impact of, just as an example, asbestos…….

    by Brisbane James on Mar 6, 2012 at 2:09 pm

  2. Brisbane James - it’s a complex topic, and one of the things I was trying to get across is just how complicated it is. A few paragraphs which were intended to be quotes are not italicized, which doesn’t help!

    Your comment about “users’ perspective” is quite apt - a number of critiques of the precautionary principle argue that those advocating its application are rather selective about what it is to be applied to. One EU document I didn’t link to on guidelines for applying the precautionary principle strongly argues for the *consistent* application to the principle in *all* environmental decision making, including in the context of familiar technologies and activities.

    It’s interesting you raise the topic of asbestos. The UNESCO report I linked to mentions this example specifically.It argues that a sound application of the precautionary principle should have resulted in strong action decades before it actually happened. This would have avoided tens of thousands of premature deaths.

    by Robert Merkel on Mar 7, 2012 at 2:21 pm

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