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By Stephen Gulick
During the past decade we've heard the same question echo through the upper chambers of government again and again: "are we certain about global warming, or not?" with the implication that there's no need to do anything until we are 100% certain. Is this the right question for responsible decision-makers to be asking? "Since when has certitude been a prerequisite to public policy" state many. Perhaps, the correct question is, "given the evidence to date, what is the level of risk and what actions are appropriate in response to that risk?"

In our daily lives, we are accustomed to taking precautionary measures, whether it be fastening our seat belt, buying insurance, or setting up retirement accounts. We are responding to perceived risks of bodily harm or financial ruin, and we do so even though harm and ruin do not seem imminent.

Likewise, corporate management routinely assesses its risks and exposures, often employing risk management software to that end. Sarbanes-Oxley has encouraged management to track their risks real-time and to act proactively. In business circles, it could be said that waiting till you are 100% certain before addressing a problem would be irresponsible.

Whereas a business answers to its shareholders, government is considered to be responsible to the public for promoting and protecting their interests. Therefore, in light of the potentially dire consequences of global warming, one might ask why the current administration of the United States has failed to appoint a blue-ribbon panel to perform a comprehensive assessment of its risks and remedies? I am puzzled by this, because governmental commissions have come and gone in recent years that were tasked with far more trivial matters.

Most Americans take for granted that their government will take precautions to protect their homeland from terrorists, businesses from unfair competition, and citizens from natural disasters like droughts, floods, and hurricanes. And when our government's response to such disasters does not pass muster, as with Katrina, we are upset, even outraged. Again, one could ask why the topic of global warming has been off every administration's front burner since it became a hot topic in the early '90s? Has it been a case of governmental stonewalling, or public apathy? Is there something they know that we do not?

As a country, we don't necessarily have to agree with all the tenets of the Kyoto Treaty, and we don't have to submit to international opinion. It is obvious though, that we need to develop a national consensus as to how real the global warming phenomenon is, what its consequences are likely to be, and what we should do about it. Only then can we respond effectively to the threat of global warming in a way that that protects our national interests and attracts broad public support.

How certain do we have to be that our children are in danger, before we whisk them out of the path of a speeding vehicle? Do we need to be 100% certain? How certain, then, do we need to be about the risks of global warming, before we undertake a serious study of it and chart a meaningful course of action?

In response to the 'how certain' question, health advocates like Peter and Tim Montague1 are apt to invoke the 'precautionary principle,' which the Wikipedia defines as:

"a willingness to take action in advance of scientific proof of evidence of the need for the proposed action on the grounds that further delay will prove ultimately most costly to society and nature, and, in the longer term, selfish and unfair to future generations."

The precautionary principle may be applied across the whole decision process, from individuals to businesses to government entities, and it can be rationalized on moral, legal, or economic grounds. Melding utilitarianism with a hint of the Golden Rule, the precautionary principle would seem to offer a sound foundation for democratic good governance.

In theory, those who accept the premise of the precautionary principle would feel obliged to act on global warming as soon as it becomes of significant concern, without waiting for final proof. In the eyes of most climate scientists, we crossed the 'significant concern' threshold more than a decade ago.

In the past, our government responded to perceived threats to public health and safety by enacting diverse legislation, from the Clean Air Act (1963), Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970), Clean Water Act (1972), and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976) onward, and these have met with firm public approval. The authority of federal agencies to establish standards on the basis of risk assessment also has solid precedent - for example, the EPA and OSHA have long had to assess the risk to human health and safety in setting limits to toxic releases and workplace exposures.

Many say the time for America to face the issue of global warming head-on is past due. While we need an independent and non-partisan government commission, open dialogue cannot wait on it. Vigorous discussion spanning the public and private sectors is called for, in town halls, boardrooms, and halls of Congress, involving one and all. If Al Gore's widely heralded new film "An Inconvenient Truth" helps jumpstart the dialogue, so much the better.

American energy and emission policies are tremendously important to the resolution of global warming. Our current energy policy is an anachronism, a throwback to the "what, me worry?" policies of the 50s and 60s. Further delay by America in confronting global warming risks setting in motion global climatic shifts that could persist for millennia, and to all intents and purposes be irreversible. Some think it already is.2 Although an independent global warming commission might find much to disagree about, one thing is fairly certain: it would not say, "we don't need to do anything now because we're not 100% certain yet."


1. Rachel's Precaution Reporter online. Their summary of the precautionary principle is at: http://www.precaution.org/lib/pp_def.htm Back issues are at: http://www.precaution.org/lib/.

2. Mark Hertsgaard, "Kyoto Can't Save Us," San Francisco Chronicle, February 13, 2005.

Column 1: The Precautionary Principle Column 2: Coming Soon Column 3: Coming Soon
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