Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Weakening the precautionary principle

cartoon courtesy corpwatch.orgThe precautionary principle, officially endorsed in the 1992 Earth Summit, puts the burden of legal proof on advocates of action that could cause severe or irreversible harm. If the risk is high and the scientific data unclear - e.g. introducing new chemicals - the action should not be taken. This reverses the usual legal process, where the plaintiff must prove the damage, after it has been done. And if the risk is high and to the whole earth? The Rio Declaration's principle #15 says "lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective action" -- a criterion that badly needs to be applied by nations which are currently delaying climate action in the Bali-Poznan-Copenhagen UNFCCC negotiations.

The principle was further defined by the 1998 Wingspread conference, the 2000 EU Commission, and the 2000 Cartagena Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). In Europe, this means the principle now legally applies to geoengineering, toxins, chemicals, nanotechnology and LMOs/GMOs in food or feed. In 2003 the European Court of Justice, citing the Precautionary Principle's embodiment in the EU treaty, upheld temporary bans on GM food. A 2006 Australian court decision on cellphone towers held that "lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reasoning for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation." The CBD and some fisheries managers have tried to use PP to prevent extinctions.

Corporate lobbies in the US and Canada have long opposed this trend to put health and the environment ahead of profit. For instance, the US Toxic Chemicals Control Act only applies to new chemicals, compared to the EU's REACH which applies to all chemicals produced or imported. European companies have largely accepted this "green" regulatory framework, while North American ones swear to kill any such legislation here. Their lobbyists like to call it an attack on free enterprise and technological innovation.

Environment Canada resorts to hypocrisy, claiming a precautionary "approach" while refusing to give it legal force. Recent scandals in Canadian drug and food inspection show just how dangerous to human health this doubletalk can be. The Conservatives just fired a civil servant who revealed their plans to privatize labs and end BSE testing. Previous Liberal governments are also guilty, as shown by Health Canada's punishment of BGH whistleblower Shiv Chopra.

Like Canada, the United States refuses use of the term "principle" because in the courts, a "principle of law" can be invoked as a source of law.

Gordon Durnil, a participant in the Wingspread conference, said, "From my perspective as a conservative Republican, this [PP] is a conservative principle"; he has been disillusioned by his experience with the Bush administration's use of "scientific uncertainty as proof that no harm was possible", a direct contradiction of PP. The US EPA recently placed chemical hazards (ChAMP, see below) under the SPP, a move which is unlikely to strengthen regulation though it does replace a failed voluntary plan. The drumbeat of lobbying continues. Carefully reprinted by the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Chemistry Council, a 2008 article by a Georgetown law professor casts heavy scorn on regulators' attempts to ban GM corn and bisphenol A.
[Under the Great Law of the Iroquois] we are responsible for seven generations into the future. Our leadership must not make decisions that are going to bring pain, harm, or suffering seven generations into the future. -- elder Audrey Shenandoah, in The Green Bible, ed. Stephen Bede Scharper and Hilary Cunningham (Orbis/Gracewing. 2000) p.63.
See also: the most recent scientific update on bisphenol A health hazards, in which the Union of Concerned Scientists accuses the Bush FDA of "cherry-picking data" to support industry over consumers; other UCS examples of the need for PP; a 2007 book by Mark Schapiro, Exposed; the toxic chemistry of everyday products; who's at risk and what's at stake for American power; CIR list of Schapiro's sources, including REACH's influence in China and other developing countries; an expert comparison of ChAMP with REACH; EU official details of REACH; Gordon Durnil's fight with the chemical industry as IJC chairman; and his 1995 book The Making of an Environmental Conservative.

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