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July 8, 2006

AN INCONVENIENT PRINCIPLE

[Rachel's introduction: "Regrettably, the precautionary principle --
a simple, sensible concept -- has surreptitiously slipped out of the
global-warming discussion. It is time for it to be concertedly
reinserted into the debate."]

By Jules and Maxwell Boykoff

With Al Gore's recently released book and film on global warming --
"An Inconvenient Truth" -- the former vice president has managed to
deliver a one-two punch that is both staggering and, well, chilling.

"An Inconvenient Truth" brings global warming into high relief,
demonstrating its far-reaching implications for the world-as-we-know-
it. Gore also attempts to re-frame global warming as a moral issue
that must be dealt with collectively and immediately.

Along the way, Gore makes use of a study we conducted in 2004, which
found that the U.S. mass media were playing a problematic role in the
global warming discussion simply by offering balanced coverage.

As he mentions in his film and book, our research revealed that 53% of
articles appearing in major U.S. newspapers over a fourteen year
period gave equal weight to the findings of the most reputable
climate-change scientists from around the world who asserted that
humans were having a discernible impact on the planet's temperature
and the work of a small band of global-warming skeptics who denied
humans contributed to changes in the climate.

Balanced coverage -- telling 'both' sides of the story -- is widely
considered one of the pillars of high-quality, professional
journalism. However, when applied to this critical environmental
issue, balance greatly amplified the views of the skeptics, many of
whom are funded by Exxon-Mobil, the Competitive Enterprise Institute,
and their fossil-fuel-pushing, status-quo-desiring allies.

Therefore, through balanced reporting, the U.S. public and
policymakers were presented with the misleading scenario that there
was a raging debate among climate-change scientists regarding
humanity's role in global warming.

While the human contributions to global warming are not seriously
debated in the scientific community, what should be done to deal with
this growing problem is hotly discussed. Yet, everyone agrees that
unless we make sharp reductions in our greenhouse-gas emissions,
global warming will significantly alter the climate -- from glaciers
to coastlines to ecosystems -- in potentially irreversible ways.

This brings us to the inevitable intersection between science and
political science.

In a recent interview Al Gore said the United States is in "a Category
5 denial" regarding "the seriousness of the global warming crisis." He
then asserted, "Until the American people change their minds about
this reality, then the politicians in both parties are going to find
rough sledding when they propose the serious solutions that are
needed."

If Gore is correct and legislators need strong public opinion as
political cover, perhaps they should take another glimpse at the
numbers.

A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 59 percent of
those surveyed believed that action needed to be taken to combat
global warming while a majority told Gallup that protection of the
environment should be given priority, even if it might hamper economic
growth.

Sure, global warming does not garner the attention of more immediate,
headline-grabbing issues like the War in Iraq, terrorism, or national
security, but it is a topic that the public is both familiar with and
ready to move on.

Even if U.S. residents were not in such an open-minded mood,
policymakers should nevertheless be willing to take the lead in
combating global warming. In theory that's why we call them 'leaders.'

This brings us to an inconvenient principle that U.S. legislators
should consider: the precautionary principle.

In 1992 the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development
concluded by issuing the Rio Declaration. Principle 15 of the
declaration stated: "Where there are threats of serious or
irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be
used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent
environmental degradation."

Translated into the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, this precautionary
principle means if you don't know what you're doing, at least don't do
anything harmful.

When risks of alternative policy choices are difficult to calculate,
as they are with global warming, the precautionary principle requires
choosing the option that minimizes harm. This principle provides a
basis for acting before one has full information. Therefore it is
relevant to the global-warming crisis since waiting for full
information may mean postponing action beyond the climate-change
tipping point.

Regrettably, the precautionary principle -- a simple, sensible concept
-- has surreptitiously slipped out of the global-warming discussion.
It is time for it to be concertedly reinserted into the debate.

As "An Inconvenient Truth" points out, our geological clock is
ticking. Even if we do not feel the hot hand of global warming at our
collective throat, we need to take action now -- before it's too late.

==============

Jules Boykoff (boykoff@pacificu.edu)is an assistant professor of
political science at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon.
Maxwell Boykoff (maxwell.boykoff@eci.ox.ac.uk) is a research fellow at
the University of Oxford's Environmental Change Institute in Oxford,
England.