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The "Precautionary Principle"

By Henry Lamb
web posted October 20, 2003

The Precautionary Principle was adopted by more than 170 nations at the 1992 U.N. Conference on Environment and Development, in Rio de Janeiro. It says, simply, that:

"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."

For a decade, this principle has been used to justify environmental policy, that could not be justified by scientific evidence. The entire global warming debate, and subsequent policy proposals, have been advanced on the strength of this principle, even in the face of growing scientific evidence that there is no threat of "serious or irreversible " global warming resulting from human activity.

Many of the same people who invoke this principle to advance environmental policies, reject the principle when it comes to "serious or irreversible damage" that could result from terrorists' activities. Iraq is a perfect example.

Prior to the U.S. liberation of Iraq, The U.S. intelligence community, and the military, concurred with the intelligence networks of dozens of other nations, and of the United Nations, and agreed that:

1. Iraq possessed, and had used on its own people, weapons of mass destruction;
2. Iraq presented no evidence that these weapons had been destroyed;
3. Iraq had hosted known terrorists affiliated with Al Qaeda;
4. Iraq allowed terrorists to train within its borders;
5. Iraq supported terrorism by making substantial grants to families of suicide bombers;

Despite the absence of "full scientific certainty," the "threat of serious or irreversible damage" to the United States, and other countries, was clearly present.

In the face of this threat, suppose the President had done nothing, and the U.S., or an ally had been attacked with biological or chemical weapons. His critics would now be screaming for his impeachment for not heeding the obvious warnings.

Some of his most vocal critics had access to the same intelligence data on which the President based his decision to act. At the time, they agreed with the President. Now, it is more convenient to claim that the President "exaggerated" or "manipulated" the data. These are, perhaps, the most seriously irresponsible claims that anyone could possibly make.

The intelligence data may not have met the standard of "full scientific certainty;" intelligence data rarely does. The data was more than sufficient to justify the action taken by the United States.

People who point to the absence of barrels of bio-chemical weapons to support the argument that the President manufactured the claim, should be far more concerned about where those weapons are now, especially since no evidence of their destruction has been found. It is far more likely that those weapons were transported to neighboring countries, or are well-hidden in caves or underground, than that they never existed at all.

It most also be noted that some of the critics who claim that the President "manipulated" the data, have no problem at all accepting the grossly manipulated and misrepresented data regarding climate change, or the so-called "endangered" spotted owl, or salmon, or DDT, or asbestos, or MTBE, or any of the hundreds of other "sky-is-falling" environmental threats to society.

Now that it is known that neither the spotted owl, nor salmon is, or was, endangered, and that both DDT and asbestos produce far more benefits than harm to society, and that MTBE should never have been required in fuels – why are the critics of "manipulated" data not screaming?

The answer, of course, is political advantage. To some politicians, nothing is more important than political advantage. It doesn't matter that hundreds of thousands of people have been adversely affected by environmental policies based on "manipulated" data, with little or no benefit to society. It doesn't even matter that their continued bad-mouthing of our presence in Iraq is emboldening those who exist only to kill Americans. What matters to them is political advantage.

The best precaution is to see that none of these principals gain political advantage.

Henry Lamb is the executive vice president of the Environmental Conservation Organization, and chairman of Sovereignty International.

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