Fighting Climate Change: Is it Better to be Safe Than Sorry?

Safe or Sorry?

Sometimes an idea that appeals strongly to our common sense will be seen as clearly wrong or empty if we examine it more closely. The idea that it is better to be safe than sorry, usually called the “precautionary principle”, tells us to err on the side of caution. This principle makes intuitive sense. Who in their right mind would rather be sorry than safe? But let’s take a closer look.

The precautionary principle, when applied to government policies, tells us that governments should err on the side of caution, to reduce potential future risks where scientific understanding is still incomplete.  Many public policies have been justified on this principle. 

If there is only one course of action available (i.e., do X or don’t do X), and that action leads to safety, then doing anything else will definitely make us sorry. But often real life is not that simple. Often there are several courses of action, which pursue different policy mixes, each with different levels of risk and potential impact. Then the choice is no longer a simple binary, do X and be safe, or don’t do X and be sorry. Then we have to look at a mix of uncertain risk, uncertain impact and uncertain cost of each course of action. That’s called exercising judgement.

This precautionary principle has led many policy-makers and politicians to assume that scientific uncertainty equals high risk, and to promise to achieve safety by eliminating that risk.  But the precautionary principle isn’t really helpful. It offers no limits on measures to reduce one risk, including measures that increase other risks — risks which may have a higher probability of occurring, and with a greater impact. When faced with scientific uncertainty there are no risk-free and cost-free solutions, only better or worse trade-offs.

Our Very Human “Action Bias”

The decision to apply the precautionary principle may be triggered by our very human tendency to have an “action bias”.  That is our bias to “do something”, rather than just doing nothing, or not doing enough.  This reminds me of scenes from the English TV comedy series “Yes Minister”:

Minister: This is a terrible problem!  We must do something!

Public service advisors (offering a ridiculous solution): This is something! 

Minister:  Okay, let’s do it.

This compulsion to ‘do something!’, rather than waiting until we know better what we should be doing, often results in doing a bad thing, or doing too much of a good thing too quickly, both of which create bad results. Then we have to undo all this in the coming decades, which is usually more painful than if we had we waited for the uncertainty to be reduced. There is a better way.

The Trade-offs in Applying the Principle to Climate Change

Applying the precautionary principle is itself risky, as I will illustrate through some specific questions and answers. First, the questions.

Q. 1.: To be safe rather than sorry, what is it that we want to avoid being sorry about? Let’s call it “Sorrow X”.

Q. 2:  In avoiding “Sorrow X”,  will our actions unintentionally create an even greater sorrow, which I will call “Sorrow Y”? 

Q  3:  To avoid creating that greater Sorrow Y, how much should we err on the side of caution to avoid Sorrow X?  At what point does that error become too risky? and

Q. 4:  Who should bear the cost of that cautionary error?

Now let’s look for some answers in the most visible current use of the precautionary principle, fighting climate change.

A 1:  Sorrow X: We want to avoid being sorry about the harmful effects of human caused global warming.

A  2:  Our actions to avoid this sorrow include: ending the use of coal, rapidly reducing the use of natural gas for heating, manufacturing goods and generating electricity, imposing high and rising carbon taxes, imposing volume limits on CO2 emissions, and making heavy public investments in renewable electricity generation to replace fossil fuels.

Developed countries are discarding hydrocarbon energy that has kept us warm and safe for centuries.  This policy is based on the output of climate computer models that forecast global climate 80 years from now, using only some 40 years of reliable satellite temperature data.  These models of the future are based on a few selected, speculative “scenarios” of how the future might evolve. Scenarios of the future are not science. They are merely guesses or assumptions about numerous future trends, limited only by the imagination of the UN politicians ultimately responsible for those guesses.  Running these guesses through several computer models doesn’t change their essentially speculative nature, or make them better predictors of the distant future.

These climate policies have, and increasingly, will continue to have, enormous economic and social costs, the evidence of which is already present in much of Europe. These costs include: rapidly rising energy prices creating energy poverty; eliminating or offshoring many jobs not replaced by speculative “green” jobs;  unreliable electricity grids with increasing blackouts at critical times; and total economy price inflation. These impacts of erring on the side of caution will make us sorry.

If inadequate trade-offs between risk and cost are built into the climate policy, the likely outcome will be to shut down what we have and build nothing new.  Canada’s new impact assessment legislation that has been called “The No More Pipelines Act” is a recent example, making it financially and legally impossible to build any pipeline or electricity transmission line or any other large project anywhere in Canada without a political by-pass via a Minister’s exemption of that project.

Sorrow Y, being suffered in Europe today, comes from erring on the side of caution to avoid potential sorrow X by 2100. The European experience, even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, demonstrates that a net zero-emissions economy by 2050 cannot be achieved with current or foreseeable wind and solar technology.  The hoped-for technology of carbon capture and underground storage has not proved feasible at the necessary scale.  The hoped-for hydrogen fuel technology is still mostly at the laboratory level with no guarantee of technological or financial feasibility at the necessary scale.  Thus, the net-zero transition policies will probably create more Sorrow Y in the near future than the Sorrow X is seeks to avoid in the distant future.  

A.  3  How much should our climate policy err on the side of caution?  The experience of Germany, which has gone much further than other countries, already shows that Germany has driven too far, too fast, down the wrong road.  Germany has had to swallow its pride and “temporarily” set aside its emission reduction goals. Now it is opening and expanding coal mines, refurbishing coal plants and incurring massive debt by providing financial support to the millions of Germans who can no longer afford to heat and light their homes and businesses.  The UK is not far behind Germany.

As well, leading German industries like automotive manufacturing (including manufacturing EVs and the batteries for them) are shutting down and moving to other countries.  The main beneficiary is China, whose extensive coal use provides much lower energy prices, enhanced by lower labour costs and much faster project approvals. China now has the globally dominant position in EV and battery manufacturing and exporting, thanks mostly to coal.

What has Germany accomplished by its over-abundance of caution?  Impoverishing its citizens and its industries, while increasing its CO2 emissions through reversion to coal. What was sold to voters as an abundance of caution in one direction proved to be a deficit of caution in another direction. To avoid having to admit its lack of caution, Germany (and other countries) have used the expression “energy security”. That is just a face-saving cover for being sorry for having replaced low cost and reliable fossil fuel energy with too much high cost and unreliable renewables. Political blame is also being shifted to the Russian war on Ukraine. However, the incautious energy policies that led to the “energy security” crisis have been in place for decades, long before the Russian gas issue.

Canada is fortunate to have substantial hydroelectric and nuclear electricity generation, as well as abundant oil and gas for transportation and heating.  The US also has massive oil and gas resources.  Energy security is unlikely to be an issue in either country for the foreseeable future.  But government created rising energy prices (e.g. through Canada’s escalating carbon tax and other nontax regulations) get built into the rising costs of growing food and transporting goods and people.  That is why, like Europe, North America is headed for The Great U-Turn on climate policy, perhaps a decade behind the Europeans.

A.  4:  The burden should be distributed equitably across the entire Canadian population. However, it is not. Most of the cost of policies intended to avoid Sorrow X falls on small businesses and families at the lower end of the income scale.  For example, the UK has already seen the closing of numerous pubs and small retail establishments, even those that survived the pandemic lockdowns.  There have also been stories of UK churches having to close because they cannot afford to heat and light them.  And in some parts of Europe many families, and especially seniors, unable to pay their utility suppliers, have had chose between “heating or eating”.


An abundance of caution in one direction to reduce a perceived risk can cause real harm in another direction. In Canada these abundance of caution policies for climate change are especially harmful to three groups. First, people living in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where most of our fossil fuels are produced.  Second, Newfoundland and Labrador, which has both offshore oil and gas, and abundant hydro power, which it is unable to export beyond the Maritimes.  And third, the indigenous and non-indigenous populations in much of the Canadian North. All three groups are being deprived of their opportunities for economic progress by our policy of erring too much on the side of caution. But all Canadians, in all provinces, lose a lot, through self-induced escalation of energy costs that feed an escalating cost of living problem for all but the wealthy.

Energy is life; make it more costly and less reliable and your life becomes more costly and less reliable. That’s where our present abundance of caution is taking us. This situation will get worse before it gets better. And it will only get better after abandonment of erring too much, too quickly, at the expense of the energy security and well-being of the majority of our population.  

Most Canadians are too busy trying to survive these inflationary times to give these issues much thought. But when the Canadian public has suffered enough hardship and a political leader appears who can calmly and clearly explain the folly of these energy choices, the Great- U Turn on climate policy will begin. And it won’t be too soon.

3 replies »

  1. Cass Sunstein demolished the Precautionary Princlple as a fallacy is his paper “Beyond the Precautionary Principle” (2002) readily available on the internet.
    The precautionary principle has been highly influential in legal systems all over the world. In its strongest and most distinctive forms, the principle imposes a burden of proof on those who create potential risks, and it requires regulation of activities even if it cannot be shown that those activities are likely to produce significant harms. Taken in this strong form, the precautionary principle should be rejected, not because it leads in bad directions, but because it leads in no directions at all. The principle is literally paralyzing— forbidding inaction, stringent regulation, and everything in between. The reason is that in the relevant cases, every step, including inaction, creates a risk to health, the environment, or both. This point raises a further puzzle. Why is the precautionary principle widely seen to offer real guidance? The answer lies in identifiable cognitive mechanisms emphasized by behavioral economists. In many cases, loss aversion plays a large role, accompanied by a false belief that nature is benign. Sometimes the availability heuristic is at work. Probability neglect plays a role as well. Most often, those who use the precautionary principle fall victim to what might be called “system neglect,” which involves a failure to attend to the systemic effects of regulation. Examples are given from numerous areas, involving arsenic regulation, global warming and the Kyoto Protocol, nuclear power, pharmaceutical regulation, cloning, pesticide regulation, and genetic modification of food. The salutary moral and political goals of the precautionary principle should be promoted through other, more effective methods.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. If I recall correctly, Sunstein called this principle “incoherent”, meaning not coherent in the results it would produce. Despite more than enough criticism of the principal it is still widely used in argument for rapid transition to net zero. I think that’s probably because our parents or grandparents would’ve told us, while we were growing up, that we should be prudent because it is better to be safe than sorry. If the intuitive choices between prudence and imprudence most people would, without even thinking about it, choose prudence. That probably works with things like not touching the top of a hot stove but much less so for radical government policies with high costs and risks of error attached.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s