CC-01-02 Throwing Precaution to the Wind

Validity of the Precautionary Principle for Solving Climate Change

Photo by Stuart Anthony, http://flickr.com/photos/stuant63/477381477/ (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic). Photo by Stuart Anthony (CC).

This is lesson two of six on climate change.

Here are links to the other five:

Introduction and the Precautionary Principle:
Lesson 01-01, Lesson 01-02

Allocating Responsibility:
Lesson 02-01, Lesson 02-02

Agreements and Competing Values
Lesson 03-01, Lesson 03-02

INTRODUCTION

What level of scientific certainty is required before we take concerted action to combat global warming? The precautionary principle advocates caution, but this can cut two ways.

Do we cut emissions drastically and immediately to greatly increase our chance of avoiding global warming? Or do we proceed slowly with the development of climate policy because uninformed solutions may make the situation worse or have drastic effects on global prosperity?

Is there valid concern over whether the precautionary principle is fundamentally useful, or is it simply one element of a larger cost-benefit analysis? Is the precautionary principle inherently or excessively conservative?

INSTRUCTOR PREPARATION NEEDED

Familiarity with all class readings and assignments and with the ethical arguments for and against the validity of the precautionary principle as outlined in the Introduction.

LESSON PLAN

In-Class Activities (30 minutes)
Watch:
Steve Dorst, "Lessons from the Montreal Protocol," Policy Innovations (October 31, 2007)

Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency discuss the success of the Montreal Protocol in limiting ozone depletion. They also reflect on scientific certainty, public policy, and the relevance of the precautionary principle for remedying climate change.

Do:
Students present examples of climate change solutions where the precautionary principle could be applied in either direction. Does the principle still help to determine which option is preferable?  

Assignments to Be Completed in Advance (0-2+ hours)
Read:
Cass R. Sunstein, "Throwing precaution to the wind: Why the 'safe' choice can be dangerous," Boston Globe, July 13, 2008

Arguing that no decision is risk-free, legal scholar Cass Sunstein outlines some of the contradictions, costs, and psychology of adopting the precautionary principle for problems ranging from drug development to combating climate change.

Precautionary Principle, Science and Environmental Health Network

Resources related to the idea that when an activity threatens human or environmental health, precautionary measures should be taken even if a causal relationship cannot be established.

Do:
In a two- to three-page paper, analyze three examples of climate change solutions where the precautionary principle could cut either way.

RELATED ETHICS QUESTIONS

A. Is there valid concern over whether the precautionary principle is fundamentally useful, or is it simply one element of a larger cost-benefit analysis?

B. Is the precautionary principle inherently or excessively conservative?

C. Given that the future is inherently unknowable, what level of certainty or risk is appropriate before taking action?

Read More: development, energy, environment, ethics, oil, world economy

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