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The Prevarication Principle
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt
Avid fly fisherman, hikers and campers in Brown bear territory in the Western U.S. carry bear spray as a precaution. Some carry firearms. A few carry both.
In reality, few have the proficiency to stop an attacking Grizzly bear with a handgun. As such, most people wisely opt for the spray.
There are situations in which neither measure can prevent you from being mauled and possibly killed. In that backcountry, you and the bear could encounter each other at such close range that you could not deploy the bear spray or draw and fire the gun. Last fall in Park County, Wyoming this is precisely what occurred to two members of the Northwest College wrestling team who were out – with bear spray - with two other teammates searching for elk antlers. Fortunately they all survived.
We take similar daily precautions in our lives against potentially catastrophic dangers. Many of the most effective measures cost very little, are not an inconvenience, and have no material negative impact on our lives.
Responsible gun owners lock up their loaded firearms before families with young children come to visit. We wear seat belts. We snuff out candles before we go to bed.
Any one of these scenarios could create danger and end in tragedy or death. Mitigating these risks presents no impositions or constraints on our living standards. We take precautions but we go on with what makes our lives vibrant, productive, and worth living.
We all understand the concept of precaution. But for years highly motivated politicians, ENGO’s (environmental non-governmental organizations like Greenpeace, Natural Resources Defense Council and others) and even some climate scientists have abused “precaution” as a principle in relation to the “existential” climate “crisis”.
After twenty plus years of climate hysteria, most have heard of The Precautionary Principle (PP). Emerging from German law as the Vorsorgeprinzip (the “foresight principle”), in relation to air pollution in the 1970s, it – conveniently - has no standard definition. The United Nations 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development provides a brief and workable description capturing the essential elements (emphasis added):
“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 well over a decade, the questions of “serious and irreversible” and “lack of full scientific certainty” have been portrayed as “settled science.” Ergo, the concept of “cost-effective measures” has no bounds. If the death of the planet and humanity are assured, “cost-effective” is but a quaint notion for economists with which we cannot be bothered. (The same applies to living standards. Again, how convenient.)
A “Principle” that stresses caution where the risks of an activity may be ultrahazardous or catastrophic is a good thing. But around 2005 in Western nations the PP jumped the shark. Adherents and activists detached it from any serious discussion about economic consequences. Consequences which have largely been hidden from voters worldwide. Until they couldn’t be hidden any longer.
The PP has now devolved into a Teflon-coated justification for all manners of de-growth, de-population, de-industrialization, deconstruction of capitalism, reduction of food production and decapitation of modern living standards. We hope you have enjoyed your affordable, abundant, on-demand, driven-by-hydrocarbons lifestyle.
What started out as “precaution” has deteriorated into prevarication. Policies to reduce CO2 emissions by replacing coal-fired power plants with wind, solar and natural gas have morphed into efforts to replace gas furnaces with heat pumps, gas stoves with induction cooktops, short domestic flights with mandated rail travel (France), and culling livestock (Netherlands, Ireland) and replacing their protein with insects, just to name a few. The motives behind these measures should be glaringly evident when weighing their marginal environmental benefit against the reductions in your standard of living.
The wealthy West who enthusiastically advocated for these policies are the least harmed. Billions living below Western standards are doomed to a form of Eco-Serfdom while wealthy nations exploit their resources. Because pillaging their hydrocarbons wasn’t enough, now we’ve included metals to feed our zero-carbon craze.
As usual, ironies abound. “Anthropocene” is the term neo-environmentalists use to describe the current geologic era in which humans dominate earth’s natural systems. Exactly how will mining (orders of magnitude) more copper, lithium, cobalt, nickel, and rare earth elements, especially in developing countries given their environmental laws, reverse that domination?
Without a second thought, we take daily risks with far greater empirical odds of being injured or killed than the threats presented from climate change or environmental exposures. In 2021, over 40,000 people, including 715 children age 13 or less, were killed while traveling in cars in the U.S. More than 150,000 children are hurt in car crashes in America each year. But we clutch our pearls over the condition of earth’s climate 80 or 150 years from now.
For perspective, consider the reduction in deaths caused by all types of natural disasters over the last ~125 years. In fact, the chart below illustrates a clear decline since the 1970s – the beginning of “dangerous” warming.
The psychology of risk perception helps explain our vulnerability to doom mongering and the messaging and the Messiahs that exploit it. Last December, climate scientist Judith Curry noted on her excellent blog, Climate, Etc. (emphasis added):
“The Psychometric Paradigm research of psychologist Paul Slovic and collaborators describes a suite of psychological characteristics that make risks feel more or less frightening, relative to the actual facts:
natural versus manmade risks
detectable versus undetectable risks (without special instrumentation)
controllable versus uncontrollable risks
voluntary versus imposed risks
risks with benefits versus uncompensated risks
known risks versus vague risks
risks central to people’s everyday lives versus uncommon risks
future versus immediate risks
equitable versus asymmetric distribution of risks
In each of these pairs, the first risk type is generally preferred to the second risk type. For example, risks that are common, self-controlled and voluntary, such as driving, generate the least public apprehension. Risks that are rare and imposed that lack potential upside, like terrorism, invoke the most dread.”
Below we’ve recreated a table from Bjorn Lomborg’s outstanding 2000 book The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World:
Since these findings, the figures have surely changed. As environmental professionals, thanks to the Clean Air Act, during our typical 2-3 day business trips to New York City, we are more concerned about being pushed on to the subway tracks than breathing the air.
But differences in the risk of death for the same activities today vs. 44 years ago are not the point.
The point is, none of us would apply the PP in our personal lives the way Western “leaders” are applying it to environmental and energy policy. We would not accept range limits on our autos, skyrocketing electricity prices with reduced reliability, setting our thermostats at 78 in the summer and 67 in the winter, reducing our meat consumption and feeding our kids insects, or draconian constraints on our air travel. All of these are features, not bugs, of abusing the PP for almost two decades. And they will not “solve” climate change.
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Creating fear and preying on panic with hyperbole are the currency of politics gone astray. The subject of the fear is almost irrelevant.
Once established, fear is fertile ground for abuse of wishy-washy “principles” like the PP. The Climate Cult – activists (from celebrities to scientists), progressive Charlaticians™, the mainstream media, and ENGO’s - figured out around 2005 that the PP was a powerful weapon to exploit.
If we learned one thing from Covid-19(84), it is that once central planners understand the power of fear and corresponding abuse of “The PP”, they will use it as a justification for any and every possible Totalitarian agenda. In the same manner conservatives thought that marijuana was a gateway drug to heroin in the 1960s and 1970s, leveraging fear with the PP is today’s gateway to Totalitarianism. (If you consider that provocatively partisan, keep reading.)
This ruse has deleterious social and economic consequences for every human on earth, yet no one is being held to account. The PP was the force behind Europe’s “green energy” policies and specifically Germany’s Energiewende. These policies drove up Europe’s and UK’s electricity and fuel prices and invited Putin’s war in Ukraine. The European Central Bank has printed almost $1 trillion since September 2021 to “protect” citizens and industry - from the very policies that created the problems.
Europe’s scramble to print money and secure energy at any cost spiked global energy prices. As a direct result, Pakistan was priced out of liquified natural gas (LNG) for its power plants last summer and fall. Power outages resulted, energy inflation drove food inflation, and according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, “the number of food-insecure people in 2022 is estimated at 1.3 billion, an increase of 118.7 million people, or 10 percent, from ERS’ 2021 estimate.”
Almost two decades of PP-driven climate fear mongering and panic have had a serious and shameful effect on children and young adults. Consider the findings of this 2021 study in the journal Lancet Planetary Health. According to the study authors (emphasis added):
“59% of Respondents were very or extremely worried and 84% were at least moderately worried. More than 50% reported each of the following emotions: sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty. More than 45% of respondents said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning, and many reported a high number of negative thoughts about climate change (e.g., 75% said that they think the future is frightening..).”
We hope the institutions, scientists, media, Charlaticians™, celebrities, ENGOs and other accomplices to this idea pathology and psychological abuse are all very proud of themselves. Witness their results (click the pic, watch the performance):
More imminent and substantial environmental and human health problems are underfunded and largely ignored because of the myopic focus on “climate change”. Limited economic resources have been misallocated at great cost to the world’s poorest. A recent report from the Copenhagen Consensus provides twelve examples of the best returns for each dollar invested toward UN Sustainable Development Goals. It is not merely rhetorical to ponder what could have been done for humanity with the nearly $1 trillion the EU and UK printed to save themselves from their own brilliant energy strategy in the last year and a half.
Those who have abused the PP have misrepresented to western electorates the impact all of this will have on living standards. Doomberg put it succinctly on a recent podcast (paraphrased): they avoid all discussion about the consequences on the numerator of living standards and focus solely on the denominator: carbon emissions. We predict historians will record this as backwards, wrongheaded, and costly.
Last week, many missed perhaps the most stunning admission to date of climate and environmental fear mongering and the motivations behind it. The mainstream media avoided airing this scion of Democrat politics - a lifelong, prominent environmentalist taking on Joe Biden in the 2024 Presidential election. Thankfully, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson can be counted on to expose the canary in the coal mine. He posed the following question to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. during his podcast interview (lightly edited for brevity, emphasis ours):
JBP: “I’ve seen the climate apocalypse use fear to induce something approximating the same kind of level of tyranny as far as I’m concerned that characterized the vaccine lockdowns, so help me sort that out… you put forward a very interesting candidacy, and one of the crucial problems that we’re facing at the moment is how to sort out the environmental issues.”
RFK: “I agree 100% with you that this crisis is being used as a pretext for clamping down Totalitarian controls the same way that the Covid crisis was.” (We note he took great pains to blame this on the intelligence apparatus, military-industrial complex, World Economic Forum/Davos crowd but avoided any attribution to neo-environmentalists, ENGO’s. etc.)
Politics aside, we credit RFK, Jr. for saying the quiet part out loud. He brought to light the inescapable trap created by the abuse of the PP. When the consequences result in enough pain, and the costs hammer the world’s least affluent, the neo-environmentalists who would sooner die than change course and embrace nuclear energy will have identified themselves as the Malthusian Malevolents™.
Whether you believe climate change is an “existential crisis” or not (count us in the latter), there are many good reasons to transform our energy systems. Hydrocarbons from which we refine transport fuels will eventually reach peak production. Few appreciate how this will constrain transportation and effect living standards, absent major technological breakthroughs (hint: batteries won’t be it).
None of this fear mongering was necessary. Our civilization has gone up the energy density curve from wood to coal to hydrocarbons since the late 1800s. Within ~75 years thereafter, we went from commercial flight to nuclear-powered submarines and space flight. Does anyone really believe we will now stand still? How ignorant would it be to pretend going back down that energy density curve – to wind and “biomass” - is somehow “progress”? How likely is it that our energy systems (electricity, transport, industrial process heat, etc.) will simply fail to evolve over the next 100 years?
As we have noted, the apocalyptic predictions around CO2 emissions have already been largely been debunked. The emissions trajectory today is about half of the worst case painted by the UN IPCC in 2000.
If we were truly applying the Precautionary Principle so that living standards and cutting CO2 emissions were valued properly, there would be no way to justify western energy and environmental policy. Especially with respect to the billions of people in the developing world.
Fortunately, physics, economics and human priorities will eventually put an end to this folly. World “leaders” will face the impact on their citizens and on their own political survival. Otherwise, social unrest triggered by scarcity and inflation on the cost of food, fuel, transportation and electricity (and its reliability) and basic necessities will end their political careers. Developed countries won’t sacrifice their living standards for overpromised gains that will fail to materialize. Developing countries won’t sacrifice their chance to improve their lives.
Abusers of the
Precautionary Prevarication Principle will to try to keep this ruse alive for as long as possible. It is their single best strategy for Totalitarian control over the energy systems that are the life blood of human progress. They will continue to try to paint every adverse weather event as proof of the “existential climate crisis”. At environMENTAL, we like to say, “when everything is proof of your hypothesis, nothing is”.
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