Tom Friedman’s column this morning on the precautionary principle, security, and climate change is a jumble. He begins, rightly in my opinion, by whining about Dick Cheney’s 1% doctrine:
Cheney contended that the U.S. had to confront a very new type of threat: a “low-probability, high-impact event.”
Soon after Suskind’s book came out, the legal scholar Cass Sunstein, who then was at the University of Chicago, pointed out that Mr. Cheney seemed to be endorsing the same “precautionary principle” that also animated environmentalists. Sunstein wrote in his blog: “According to the Precautionary Principle, it is appropriate to respond aggressively to low-probability, high-impact events — such as climate change. Indeed, another vice president — Al Gore — can be understood to be arguing for a precautionary principle for climate change (though he believes that the chance of disaster is well over 1 percent).”
Note that in NYT Readerville attributing a position to Dick Cheney is equivalent to saying that it’s the work of Satan.
He goes on to endorse the principle when applied to climate change:
When I see a problem that has even a 1 percent probability of occurring and is “irreversible” and potentially “catastrophic,” I buy insurance. That is what taking climate change seriously is all about.
Unfortunately, he either doesn’t know or doesn’t care what insurance is. You are not proposing insurance when you suggest that in order to prevent your house from burning down you knock down all of the houses. It would work but it’s not insurance.
If we prepare for climate change by building a clean-power economy, but climate change turns out to be a hoax, what would be the result? Well, during a transition period, we would have higher energy prices. But gradually we would be driving battery-powered electric cars and powering more and more of our homes and factories with wind, solar, nuclear and second-generation biofuels. We would be much less dependent on oil dictators who have drawn a bull’s-eye on our backs; our trade deficit would improve; the dollar would strengthen; and the air we breathe would be cleaner. In short, as a country, we would be stronger, more innovative and more energy independent.
This is yet another instance of Bastiat’s parable of the broken window. If we divert the fantastic sums that are being proposed to reduce carbon emissions to a pre-industrial level (which is what is being proposed in at least some quarters), there are millions of other investments that won’t be made. If climate change turns out to be a hoax, while there might be some beneficial effects of going green along the lines that Mr. Friedman suggests, we have no way of knowing what wonderful things might have been achieved with all of that wasted investment. We might have solved the problems posed by carbon emissions, found a new, clean, cheap source of energy, and figured out how to reach the stars practically. But we’ll never know.
In my view the precautionary principle, whether in security or climate change, is one of those ideas that can only flourish in the world of the unaccountable technocrat. The obvious solution is hold them and the politicians who back them accountable. But that will never happen. The urge to power over one’s fellows is as old as humanity and deadlier than climate change or terrorist attacks.