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Brexit could kill the precautionary principle – here’s why it matters so much for our environment by Rupert Read

This article appeared on 22nd November 2017 in The Conversation:

https://theconversation.com/brexit-could-kill-the-precautionary-principle-heres-why-it-matters-so-much-for-our-environment-86577

Rupert Read is Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia and is affiliated with the Green Party.  In his article, he defines the ‘precautionary principle’ as follows:

The precautionary principle is present in UK law mainly by way of its presence in EU law. It says that if the potential downside of some action or technology is huge, then the normal burden of proof should be reversed. In other words, rather than scientists having to prove that something is dangerous before it’s regulated or prohibited, those wishing to do the potentially dangerous thing should have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that it is safe before they are allowed to do it. Better safe than sorry.”

And he also adds a short piece of youtube video which further explains it:

It is important that this is understood fully so that, any lobbying of politicians to ensure that the precautionary principle is enshrined in British law after Brexit.  Read argues that this is of particular significance in terms of environmental issues:

“The world is witnessing an increase in the number and severity of hurricanes, droughts, floods and famines. A significant part of this is attributable to the temperature rises and disruption to the weather systems that human industrial activity has triggered.

Yet at this very moment, when the world needs new protections to mitigate dangerous climate change more than ever, Britain faces a struggle to maintain its current levels of environmental protection. Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has set in place a process that, if it continues, jeopardises the future of many of the country’s most important environmental protections.”

And with the EU Withdrawal Bill currently making its way through parliament, it is important that the precautionary principle is contained in it, as it is a piece of EU legislation, not British.  At present, it is not in the EU Withdrawal Bill.  Read’s concerns about this are as follows:

Perhaps most worrying is the possibility that one of the lynchpins of European Union environmental law may be downgraded or abandoned by Britain without real public scrutiny in order to make the country more “competitive” for markets and attractive to overseas trade deals. This is especially the case with potential deals with the US, which does not accept the precautionary principle as being a basis for law.”

and:

“At its heart, precaution represents a challenge to purely “evidence-based” risk-management practices. Instead, the precautionary principle points out that when full evidence is lacking we should err on the side of caution and regulate potential threats, if those could cause serious or irreversible damage. This is more important than ever as we create new synthetic products, including even synthetic life, and as we meddle, at our existential risk, with our climate.

The precautionary principle tends to be out of favour with those who are focused on promoting growth, trade and investment at all costs. Consequently, it was of no surprise that Greenpeace’s 2015 leaks of the UK-US trade negotiations over the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership trade deal revealed that the US – even under Obama’s presidency – was keen to push for its abandonment as part of that deal.”

He concludes with the words:

If the precautionary principle is to survive the current political and legal process in Britain, it needs wider understanding and wider support. The government needs to understand that ordinary citizens understand what is at stake here, and care. It’s now up to UK citizens to ensure that this matter reverberates up to local MPs, to the top tiers of all parties’ leadership teams, and beyond. This will not be an easy task, but, either for ill or for good, the consequences are potentially huge for ourselves, our environment, and our descendants.”

Important then, that we lobby MPs to ensure that they act to ensure that the precautionary principle becomes enshrined in UK law.