, July 8, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: "Regrettably, the precautionary principle -- a simple, sensible concept -- has surreptitiously slipped out of the global-warming discussion. It is time for it to be concertedly reinserted into the debate."]

By Jules and Maxwell Boykoff

With Al Gore's recently released book and film on global warming -- "An Inconvenient Truth" -- the former vice president has managed to deliver a one-two punch that is both staggering and, well, chilling.

"An Inconvenient Truth" brings global warming into high relief, demonstrating its far-reaching implications for the world-as-we-know- it. Gore also attempts to re-frame global warming as a moral issue that must be dealt with collectively and immediately.

Along the way, Gore makes use of a study we conducted in 2004, which found that the U.S. mass media were playing a problematic role in the global warming discussion simply by offering balanced coverage.

As he mentions in his film and book, our research revealed that 53% of articles appearing in major U.S. newspapers over a fourteen year period gave equal weight to the findings of the most reputable climate-change scientists from around the world who asserted that humans were having a discernible impact on the planet's temperature and the work of a small band of global-warming skeptics who denied humans contributed to changes in the climate.

Balanced coverage -- telling 'both' sides of the story -- is widely considered one of the pillars of high-quality, professional journalism. However, when applied to this critical environmental issue, balance greatly amplified the views of the skeptics, many of whom are funded by Exxon-Mobil, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and their fossil-fuel-pushing, status-quo-desiring allies.

Therefore, through balanced reporting, the U.S. public and policymakers were presented with the misleading scenario that there was a raging debate among climate-change scientists regarding humanity's role in global warming.

While the human contributions to global warming are not seriously debated in the scientific community, what should be done to deal with this growing problem is hotly discussed. Yet, everyone agrees that unless we make sharp reductions in our greenhouse-gas emissions, global warming will significantly alter the climate -- from glaciers to coastlines to ecosystems -- in potentially irreversible ways.

This brings us to the inevitable intersection between science and political science.

In a recent interview Al Gore said the United States is in "a Category 5 denial" regarding "the seriousness of the global warming crisis." He then asserted, "Until the American people change their minds about this reality, then the politicians in both parties are going to find rough sledding when they propose the serious solutions that are needed."

If Gore is correct and legislators need strong public opinion as political cover, perhaps they should take another glimpse at the numbers.

A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 59 percent of those surveyed believed that action needed to be taken to combat global warming while a majority told Gallup that protection of the environment should be given priority, even if it might hamper economic growth.

Sure, global warming does not garner the attention of more immediate, headline-grabbing issues like the War in Iraq, terrorism, or national security, but it is a topic that the public is both familiar with and ready to move on.

Even if U.S. residents were not in such an open-minded mood, policymakers should nevertheless be willing to take the lead in combating global warming. In theory that's why we call them 'leaders.'

This brings us to an inconvenient principle that U.S. legislators should consider: the precautionary principle.

In 1992 the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development concluded by issuing the Rio Declaration. Principle 15 of the declaration stated: "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."

Translated into the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, this precautionary principle means if you don't know what you're doing, at least don't do anything harmful.

When risks of alternative policy choices are difficult to calculate, as they are with global warming, the precautionary principle requires choosing the option that minimizes harm. This principle provides a basis for acting before one has full information. Therefore it is relevant to the global-warming crisis since waiting for full information may mean postponing action beyond the climate-change tipping point.

Regrettably, the precautionary principle -- a simple, sensible concept -- has surreptitiously slipped out of the global-warming discussion. It is time for it to be concertedly reinserted into the debate.

As "An Inconvenient Truth" points out, our geological clock is ticking. Even if we do not feel the hot hand of global warming at our collective throat, we need to take action now -- before it's too late.


Jules Boykoff ( an assistant professor of political science at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. Maxwell Boykoff ( is a research fellow at the University of Oxford's Environmental Change Institute in Oxford, England.