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Late lessons from early warnings: hard facts, soft conclusions

By Nick Meynen.

In 2001, the European Environment Agency (EEA) launched a groundbreaking report: ‘Late lessons from early warnings. The Precautionary Principle 1896-2000’. It spanned a wide range of environmental problems, involving some of the best experts for every field and a peer review process. The second volume, now published, goes further. It includes new long-existing issues plus emerging issues. And it touches the often neglected meta-level: how is scientific research financed, created, used or neglected? How do businesses manufacture doubt?

The report is a must-read for any policy person in the environmental field. Not that we fully endorse it. The problem with the approach to study health hazards or ecosystems threats in separate chapters like ‘lead in petrol’ or ‘booster biocides’ is that lessons are drawn from trends in a selected number of issues. The fundamentals of our economy and democracy in which these separately treated issues arise are not discussed in depth. Although this approach helps to make better-informed policies in the particular fields discussed, it does not touch upon the underlying cause of all previous, emerging and future environmental problems.

At ANPED we use a holistic approach offered by the science of ecological economics. The issues mentioned in the report are symptoms of a rotten system of continuous externalization and privatization that undermines democracy and neglects the incommensurability of values. We believe that most policymakers are in the paradigm – or religious belief – of deregulation and the illusion that markets can fix everything. In order to make good environmental policies, these links and beliefs need to be cut and demystified first.

A good way to find hard facts

This said, we were pleased to discover that much of the approach we have in our work, implemented in projects like EJOLT actually relate to what the first report in 2001 said that should be done. Take lessons 7,8 and 9 from the 12 lessons the EEA listed in its 2001 report, as reiterated in the introduction of this report:

7 – Evaluate a range of alternative options for meeting needs alongside the option under appraisal

8 – Ensure use of ‘lay’ and local knowledge, as well as relevant specialist expertise in the appraisal

9 – Take full account of the assumptions and values of different social groups

In the EJOLT report ‘Guide to Multicriteria Evaluation for Environmental Justice Organisations’, we explain the three MCE methods most relevant for organisations working on environmental justice. Through their participation and deliberation characteristics, certain MCEs provide space for a learning process that will enhance public legitimacy of decisions while listening to other languages of valuation.

In another example, we used post-normal science and popular epidemiology to tap into local knowledge and document the local ecological debt of a single industrial plant from UMICORE. The case study, now published in ‘Ecological Economics from the ground up’ (Routledge, 2012) looks at lead poisoning of children, one of the issues discussed in the EEA report.

The chapter on Bisphenol A (pp. 247-271) is something we need to send to friends with babies. This is where the report becomes pretty personal for me. Bottles were needed to give breastmilk to my own daughter while she was in a daycare center. By coincidence, my wife had stumbled on an article in the press about the health dangers on Bisphenol A and how some countries had forbidden its use in bottles used for feeding babies. By applying the Precautionary Principle in our own parenting policy we went for the more expensive Bisphenol A-free bottles.

Then I asked myself the question: why does our government even allow the selling of bottles for babymilk containing Bisphenol A when the science on the health hazards is so overwhelming since so long? What about those parents that did not stumble on that occasional press article? Are they expected to know the dangers of every chemical substance in everything they buy and make an informed choice? Of course not, that is the role of a government and neutral scientists. Or that is what is should be.

But this is what happened. A consulting company that had been active for the tobacco industry has been successfully hired by the BPA industry to influence the European assessment, in particular the classification and labeling (C&L) which is a key instrument for the risk management of chemicals. In its internet presentation the Weinberg Group itself proudly admits: ‘In Europe, THE WEINBERG GROUP and its associates have had a five-year long history of working on the polycarbonates/BPA issue… It also includes identification of opponent’s likely arguments, and formation of responses to counter these arguments. THE WEINBERG GROUP contributed its academic and regulatory network to the advocacy effort. This approach proved very effective, as ultimately the C&L working group did not follow the recommendation of the Rapporteur Member State to classify BPA as a Category 2 reproductive toxicant, agreeing instead on the more benign Category 3 classification. We have a long‑term relationship with this client, and will continue to support this industry as it faces persistent NGO attacks on its products’ (The Weinberg Group, 2005).’

Some unfortunate holes

However, the previously mentioned shortcoming of the report becomes clear again when moving from part A (Lessons from health hazard) to part B (Emerging lessons from ecosystem), at least in the example of climate change. The omission of climate change in the first report is explained for reasons of avoiding controversy on the whole report at a time (2001) when the science on climate change was less developed then today. But at the same time, this report lists five criteria on climate change with for each following criteria a more urgent need to apply the precautionary principle – adding dates to when it was met. By 1990 there was sufficient evidence linking rising GHG emissions with rising temperature and by 1995 there was ‘detection of significant anthropological contributions to the rise in temperature’. That is already a conservative way of looking if you realize that scientists knew about the link between increased burning of coal and global climate change since 1896, through Svante Arrhenius’ articles. The report correctly concluded that we are already far beyond the knowledge level where the precautionary principle should kick in, but it fails to explain properly why the same precautionary principle didn’t kick in when editing the 2001 report.

That aside, a more fundamental critique on this report becomes more obvious when going through the current chapter on climate change. The report explains that global emission rose from 38 to 50 Gt Co2 between 1990 and 2010 – adding that the CDM (Clean Development Mechanism) reduced emissions by 0,3 Gt Co2 equivalent per year in the period 2008-2012. It neglects that there is a growing consensus among scientists that the majority – some say up to 90% – of CDM credits are not additional and thus do not reduce emissions. The report adds that the CDM will amount to around half of all emission reductions agreed in Kyoto. The few critical notes they give on page 358 are very weak. The CDM is labeled as ‘one of the successes’, with only ‘some weaknesses’. They say that it is ‘hard to prove that emission reductions are additional’. It would have been fairer to rephrase that and say that in other words, as the majority of CDM credits most likely did not reduce emissions, most CDM credits actually allowed for a business as usual emission scenario: rising emissions. What is worse is that the business as usual took place with the false safety feeling that something has been done, reducing the urgency to make real reductions. The claim that emissions have already been reduced makes asking for real reductions harder.

The EJOLT-project has recently published a strong 100+ page report on the fundamental flaws in the CDM system, concluding that it should be decommissioned altogether. This report was written by twelve scientists, from different countries, with a focus on the CDM in Africa and how it failed on both promises: to reduce emissions and to bring about sustainable development. ANPED and EJOLT also collaborated on a broad call by 125 organizations to scrap the EU ETS, listing all good reasons in a 3 page fully referenced statement. The trade in air is fooling us, but not the climate.

Hard facts deserve hard conclusions

The EEA report makes hard facts but soft conclusions. Probably because it is scared that saying out loud of what is really needed would label them as too radical by their employers. The problem here is not only the lack of a more fundamental critique on the CDM or carbon markets in particular, but the impression that the EEA report is behind the curve.

Although a pragmatic approach is desperately needed to work on better policies for specific problems today, the risk is evident that by only reacting to what did not work, we will not get to something that will work – for all environmental issues. By not challenging common assumptions about macroeconomics, the much needed paradigm shift towards a totally new economic model upon which to base all environmental policies becomes like an afterthought. But we can’t solve our problems with the same policies that created them in the first place. These are for example the externalization of costs inherent in the capitalist system – on an always bigger scale – and the fundamental assumption that markets are good for everything. You can’t prevent ecosystem collapse with ideology, but you can prevent it if you dare to take the hard conclusions from the hard facts you’ve so meticulously laid out.

The report concludes with a reflection of big trends compared to the world before 2000, for example stating that the world now is more volatile in terms of economic and environmental changes, yet more static in terms of political reflexivity and adaptations in governance. It goes on to conclude two very important things:

‘First, the systems of governance misrepresent the socio-ecological system, making societies and the environment subordinate to the economy — essentially serving as sources of human and natural capital. This misrepresentation ignores the reality that any civilisation is ultimately dependent on its ecological and social foundations and that economies function to sustain and enhance human well-being (Passet, 2001). Second, the scale, interconnectedness and sheer complexity of feedbacks between nature and human interventions have outstripped society’s capacity to understand, recognise and respond to these effects.’

While we fully agree with the first conclusion, we do not fully agree with the second. The IPCC has understood and recognized the problems associated with our climate – but the key decisionmakers, lobbied by corporations and guided by vested private interests that have failed to respond. That is not the same group as ‘society’.

In order to save the environment, we will first need to save our system of governance. That will require a struggle for rights, responsibilities and a struggle for justice.

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