Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Precautionary principle and vested interests

I'm noticing some interesting parallels between two very controversial topics normally supported by very different camps. The one is invading, or liberating Iraq, the other is action over climate change.

The case for invading Iraq was put forward by politicians. They portrayed it as if they were acting based on information from the experts in intelligence and military employed by various government funded institutions. The threat was Saddam Hussein and the notion that he had weapons of mass destruction. This threat had been established by the experts based on evidence. The evidence wasn't open to the public eyes for various reasons. One reason was the fact that it's sensitive information that could compromise the security and intelligence sources of many nations. Another reason is that it's not necessary to release it, since various experts in the field of intelligence, military and politics have had a look at it and they are the experts who are better qualified than the public over this matter.

The case for implementing treaties between nations in order to force a curb on carbon emissions were put forward by politicians. They portrayed it as if they were acting based on information from the experts, the climate scientists employed by various government funded institutions. The threat is that if we keep on developing as we are, with transportation, heating, manufacturing and electricity running on fossil fuels from oil, gas and coal, we are going to pump so much CO2 into the atmosphere that it will heat up and change the weather catastrophically. It will significantly alter the climate and increase the effects of weather based natural disasters, droughts and displace people because of rising sea levels. This threat has been established by thousands of scientists working for various government funded institutions and by the IPCC, an organisation established by the UN for the purpose of studying the risks of climate change caused by human activity. Some of the data they work with is not completely open to the public, and they've had various reasons for not sharing it, but it doesn't matter since all the experts agree and they have peer-reviewed each other's data.

The case for invading Iraq and toppling Saddam was based on the opinions of the experts, even though they didn't have conclusive proof to show to the public, and Saddam was accused of keeping it secret. The precautionary principle was put forward for action. The logic is that even though they can't prove beyond reasonable doubt the level of threat that Saddam posed to the region or the rest of the world, the risk of doing nothing is that he could use these weapons and expand his power and end up doing terrible things to the world. These things could be comparable to the atrocities of the world wars less than 100 years ago. We were told that we have to invade now to ensure this won't happen, we can't just 'do nothing'.

With global warming the same precautionary principle is used. It is said that if we do nothing, and follow the 'business as usual' approach, the potential effects are catastrophic. Doing something about it, they say, is like buying insurance for your house.

We know with the Iraq war, doing something about it cost a lot. We actually don't know how much it has cost yet in total. I believe we'll learn even more lessons in hindsight regarding the cost. The cost was not only money, but also the respect the world lost for the US and the UK which will constrain them diplomatically in the future. It certainly cost a lot more than what they told the public, and likely more than they believed themselves. The fact that the US economy was going through a massive boom on the back of low interest rates at the same time as it was fighting a very expensive war might teach us more about other causes of the recession.

After the Iraq war, it now appears that Saddam didn't have weapons of mass destruction. Unfortunately we'll never know for sure, especially since the person who is the most likely to know, Saddam himself, has been executed. Even with that, we still can't say conclusively that it was the right thing to do or not, it's still open for debate. What we do know is that hundreds of thousands of people died violently, and it cost a lot of money.

There are many things we can learn from this. One is that the public often know better than the experts, even if they don't have the information the experts have. Especially if the experts, the organisations they work for and the politicians have the potential to gain power and money by stressing the issue. Going to war was never a decision that the public had a chance to vote on, and neither is action over climate change. In the UK and the US both the main opposition parties were supporting the war, or during the elections they were all promising action over climate change. The IPCC, CRU, GISS etc. are all organisations that have seen their budgets increase exponentially on the back of global warming hysteria, and people like Al Gore and Rajendra Pachauri both have serious vested interests in many companies that will make fortunes on the back of a cap and trade system.

The precautionary principle is either useless, or dangerous, if you don't weigh in the costs and all the right alternatives correctly. Especially if your data is biased. I always see the parallel between the precautionary principle and Pascal's wager. Pascal justified spending his life on religion by weighing up the pros and cons of the potential of Christian faith, where the reward is a good eternal life. The problem was that he didn't calculate in the probability of picking the wrong religion out of the number of different religions around the world. The probability would be very high that we was going to pick the wrong one, but based on the information he received in the part of Europe that he lived, his data was biased.

I believe our approach to these major issues with such low levels of certainty involved, should really be closer to buying insurance, with the cost worked out correctly based on the uncertainties of the event happening, and the uncertainties around the proposed solutions. The insurance should not cost more than the house.

For example, instead of spending a fortune on invading, damaging and then building up Iraq, it would have been cheaper to put together a treaty specifying that the rest of the world will take any means necessary to remove Saddam from power if it turns out conclusively that he has weapons of mass destruction. The evidence could have been with his first use of it, which could have been terrible. However, even if he was evil and insane enough to wipe out Israel in one go, he would have been hesitant to have done it knowing the majority of the world is an allied force that will wipe him out in retaliation. I also believe such a deal would have had a better chance to get support from the entire UNSC. I also don't see how you could distinguish the value of the risk of Israel being hit first compared to the value of the risk of the people of Iraq dying in the efforts to remove their dictator. It also would have been cheaper to make sure the world is armed better to fight off this potential threat if it happens, than using the ammunition on the people and infrastructure of Iraq.

With regards to climate change, let's pay for insurance now in the form of investing in things that will help us mitigate the effects if it happens. Weather related natural disasters affect poor people more, so let's make sure poor people are richer instead and make sure a richer world is ready to withstand any other changes in climate. We know, even without man made influences, the world has suffered a lot of natural catastrophic climate change events and it has happened quickly without warning in the past. I feel it's cheaper to prepare for it, and safer, than to try eliminate one of the potential causes of it happening. Just like before the Iraq war, we aren't able to predict the real effects of our action in advance. The risk of not being able to predict the cost of these actions are not like buying insurance at a price that makes sense.

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