Thursday, August 20, 2009

Is the precautionary principle a policy tool for cowards?

So just what is the precautionary principle? The clearest definition I've come across (Wikipedia) defines the precautionary principle as a moral and political principle which states that if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action.

Y0u can see how adherence to this concept could create all sorts of problems. Proposed actions and policies must be prepared to deal with three types of uncertainty: real, perceived and manufactured. Bottom line: it's pretty easy to come up with questions about a proposed initiative for which there are no definitive answers.

Is it possible that the precautionary principle will hinder the implementation of effective solutions to climate change? Some feel it already has. Especially in the EU. (GW)

EU R&D efforts hampered by 'eco-religion'

August 19, 2009

European companies are finding it increasingly difficult to covert research into innovation as politicians turn to the precautionary principle and Europeans reject science as a 'force of evil', argues David Zaruk, an environmental health risk consultant, in an interview with EurActiv.

"Science is paying a big price in Europe because of the precautionary principle, both in terms of lost opportunities for innovation and loss of trust in science," said Zaruk, who is also a senior research associate at the Institute for European Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Zaruk holds a PhD in philosophy and has a background in communicating science in the chemicals sector.

The most-used definition of the precautionary principle in the EU is that formulated by the European Environment Agency, he said: "Until you have enough information to be certain about something, you should take precautions."

This definition has reversed the burden of proof, taking it away from policymakers and putting it onto industry and academia, Zaruk explained. "Before, scientists could develop an innovation and market it, after it was up to others to prove and test that it is dangerous. Now, you need to prove something is safe before it can be marketed."

He said EU chemicals regulation REACH was a good example of the reversal of the burden of proof: "During the process, the whole point of REACH shifted from ensuring the safe use of chemicals to that of substitution. But how can you prove that substitutes are safe?"

According to him, scientific exploration has become extremely difficult in the EU, research is not encouraged and researchers are now held "guilty until proven innocent".

Precaution - policy tool for cowards?

"Precaution was created as a tool for policy, by those who think science has gone too far," Zaruk argued.

"Precautionary logic entails that not being right is not the same as being wrong. In other words, if you use the precautionary principle, you are never wrong," he continued, stressing that "for policymakers, it is much more attractive to never be wrong than to take the risk and be right."

"We need a little bit of political courage. Precaution is a policy tool for cowards, because if you are never wrong, you don't have to take risks or be responsible for any indirect negative consequences." But while it is easy to hide behind precaution when making difficult decisions, "you affect people when you stop research" by denying them potential future benefits of nanotech research, for example, he said.

From a knowledge to an influence-based society

"I used to believe that if you can communicate science clearly to politicians and the public, you can get better policies and improve public perception. But I'm not that optimistic anymore," Zaruk said.

"Increasingly, facts don't matter very much," he said, claiming that despite its goal of becoming a knowledge-based society, Europe is "more and more an influence-based society" in which science is under attack from "eco-religious fundamentalists," he argued.

Scientists are only a small part of the policy structure and their opinions can be brought into the policy debate, "but not necessarily," Zaruk continued. He stressed that not only corporate lobbyists, but also NGOs, are very effective in the way they are affecting policies. He argued that NGOs enjoy the greatest influence on EU policies shaping science.

He also noted it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit good scientific experts for the EU's risk assessment process, as they "are getting fed up" with EU policies being driven by elements other than science.

Towards 'eco-religion'

Converting research into innovation has also become "tricky" as European consumers are not embracing innovation enough, he said, referring to a finding outlined in the Esko Aho report on 'Creating an Innovative Europe' (2006).

According to Zaruk, Europeans are not embracing innovation because their view of the role of science has changed "from a force of good to protect us from the evils of nature to, suddenly, a [...] technological machine that big businesses brought in and which is destroying and polluting nature".

Nature is no longer seen as the "vicious beast" from which science can protect us, but as "the polar bear adrift on a melting glacier," forced there by science and technological advances, which cause carbon emissions and global warming.

"We are talking about a new religion, the eco-religion," he said.

Ecological rituals to recycle and to lessen one's ecological footprint are all "very strong religious symbols which add meaning to our lives," he continued. Climate change represents Armageddon and "good and evil depends on whether we live our lives sustainably or not," Zaruk said. He also noted that both religion and environmentalists tend see science as a threat in the same way as the Catholic Church had done.

Eco-religion also assumes that "natural is good, and synthetic (man-made) is bad," he said, adding that science is increasingly associated with "non-natural endeavours and hence bad". This "eco-religious cultural narrative" calls for the use of more "natural stuff", looks up to "sustainable science" and drives eco-labelling and green procurement decisions, he added.

To some extent, loss of public trust in science is also due to unkept promises, Zaruk argued. People see the risks, but do not yet see the promised benefits "because they are just promised," he said, referring to GM technology, for example.


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