EconomistThe Economist magazine has an interesting blog touching on the subject of the recent slower-than-expected rises in global temperature compared to climate model predictions. In this article climate scientist are put on the back foot to explain the “missing warming” and so have fallen unwittingly into a very dangerous trap.

The fact is that the burden of proof lies with the proponents of the use of fossil fuels, not climate scientists. This is because of a critical concept called the Precautionary Principle which states:

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically

You can read more on this in an earlier posting “Precautionary Principle – Friend or Foe“. Under this well-established principle, which forms the basis for much environmental law worldwide, it is for the proponent of an action that could lead to harm to prove that their action will not produce the harm.

What this means is that it is not necessary for those concerned about climate change to prove indisputably that climate change exists, or to explain every variance in the science. All that we need to show is that there is potential for significant harm.

Failing to recognise where the burden of proof lies leaves us open to a repeat of the tactics used by the asbestos or smoking industries to defer regulation for many years. This tactic is about creating “uncertainty” and placing the onus on others to  prove that their products were harmful beyond any doubt. This  tactic was very effective, and has been documented in Oreskes and Conway’s “Merchants of Doubt” (which I intend to review at a later date).

The adoption of the Precautionary Principle in much environmental law worldwide was a huge step forwards and we must be ever-vigilant to efforts, such as the Economist’s, to put the onus on us to prove every aspect of climate change before action can be taken. As expected the “blogsphere” is full of folks claiming that this data demonstrates that climate change is a myth. Many environmentalists are falling into the trap of trying to explain the cause of the variance rather than pointing to the overwhelming evidence that climate change can cause immense damage and insisting that it is polluters who must prove that their GHG emissions are harmless.

Of course any rational or sensible person will be delighted if the rate of warming is less than predicted (albeit the data is for atmospheric temperatures not ocean temperatures). However we should also be concerned that the models are inaccurate and there there may therefore be other, not so pleasant, surprises to come.


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