The Precautionary Principle Run Amock

In the December 9th New York Times, columnist Tom Friedman tells his readers that the precautionary principle demands that the world take aggressive action to curb the risks of damaging climate change, even if the likelihood of it is only one percent. To support his claim, he writes: “The evidence that our planet, since the Industrial Revolution, has been on a broad warming trend outside the normal variation patterns — with periodic micro-cooling phases — has been documented by a variety of independent research centers.”

Question: Does Tom Friedman know that the ocean-atmosphere system has been cooling since the Holocene Optimum?

Friedman has just about all of this wrong.

For starters, very few, if any, scientists contend that the beginning of the Industrial Revolution sparked a nearly instantaneous rise in temperatures. The rise in temperatures that most of the CRU scientists and most mainstream scientists consider to be non-normal is the one that began in 1975 and ended in 1998.

This is an important point, because although we did in fact start warming in approximately the year 1800, meaningful rises in co2 would not occur for nearly a century and a half. Why did we begin warming in 1800? One answer is that it was time for the pendulum to swing back toward warm after the 550-year period known as the Little Ice Age. Internal dynamics and possibly solar variability likely brought our ocean-atmosphere system both into and out of the LIA.

The arguments about what falls within “normal,” temperature-wise and climate-wise, will continue for some time, largely because of reasonable disputes concerning tree-ring analysis. The tree-ring analysis that Michael Mann, Keith Briffa, the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia all depend on to show the Modern Warm Period as troublingly pronounced is fraught with issues. Tree rings simply cannot be read with the omniscience they would require to provide a true record of temperature. Why not? Because individual trees growth is affected by too many variables: changing soil composition, changing numbers of competitor trees in a stand, changing precipitation, changing levels of cloud, nearby volcanic eruptions (especially pertinent in Siberia from which many of the most significant tree-ring studies are drawn). This is only a partial list!

Tree-ring data, as a proxy for temperatures, will be laughed at within a generation. Some are laughing now.

In the meantime, there is abundant evidence that the Medieval Warm Period lasted from roughly the year 1000 to the year 1300 and was warmer than today. Hundreds of articles produced by non-Big Oil funded scientists have confirmed the existence of, the worldwide character of, and the strength of the Medieval Warm Period.

As Mr. Friedman insists that primarily (or only!) oil-funded science disputes the findings of global warming alarmism, perhaps he would like to name names? Or is this a conspiracy theory that cannot survive the light of day? In point of fact, the heroic scientists who look at climate with eyes that can see anything other than a disaster movie in the making generally do so at their career and financial peril. In the climate wars, Goliath is the scientists funded by governments (cashing checks worth billions). David is the important minority of scientists who have publication blocked by the antics described in the CRU e-mail release, who lose offices and tenure-track positions because of their heresy.

A final point. Not one climatologist suggests that the decade just ended, touted as the warmest on record, is anywhere near as warm as the Holocene Optimum. (The Holocene interglacial, our quite gentle climatic nest, started 11,000 years ago.) The Holocene Optimum lasted from 8,000 to 5,000 years before present. The world ocean was higher; forests extended to the Arctic Ocean; sea level was at least a meter higher than today.

Why is a situation like the Holocene Optimum considered dangerous and out of control? Yet, we are not as warm as that now. And we may not get that warm again before the next Ice Age begins. If we do, why will intelligent men and women, many of them scientifically trained, believe that THIS TIME forests straining to move north toward the Arctic Ocean are part of a disaster movie, and last time they were a beautiful and Edenic part of nature?

As for the precautionary principle, it is wrongly applied here. As Bjorn Lomborg correctly points out, every dollar spent researching and “fighting” climate change is one less dollar that can be spent on something else. I, for one, would rather see clean-water systems installed in the Third World (and my own country, for that matter), before another 100 billion dollars are spent on computer modeling the effect of a trace atmospheric gas that has yet to generate a warming that exceeds the Holocene Optimum (and, likely, the Medieval Warm Period).


About Harold Ambler

I am a lifelong environmentalist. I started my journalism career at The New Yorker, where I worked as a copy editor. Since then, my own work has appeared in The New York Daily News, The National Review Online, The Atlantic Wire, The Huffington Post, The Berkeley Daily Planet, The Providence Journal, Brown Alumni Monthly, The Narragansett Times, Rhode Island Monthly, and Providence Business News.
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6 Responses to The Precautionary Principle Run Amock

  1. Old Crusty says:

    Sorry if this has already been posted: 141 scientists send open letter to UN:

  2. Ron de Haan says:

    Harold, thanks for putting the spotlight on the “precautionary principle”.

    The “precautionary principle” has the potential to end the free world as it allows our political establishment to undertake any measure at will, bypassing public opinion, scientific findings and any opposition.

    The “precautionary principle” must be eradicated from any agreement because it represents
    total freedom for totalitarians elimination any opposing argument.

    Hans Schreuder ( is convinced that CO2 has no influence on earth’s temperature, let alone the 4% anthropogenic contribution to the total total budget of CO2!
    Hans Schreuder even denies the entire concept of a greenhouse effect.

    He is convinced that the skeptics will loose the debate if they agree with the warmists that CO2 is a greenhouse gas responsible for any warming.

    Schreuder is convinced the skeptics can allow his point of view because until today
    the warmists have not been able to provide a single piece of evidence that identifies CO2 as a temperature driver.

    At a political level I agree with Schreuder’s position.

    The warmists ask the skeptics to proof that AGW is NOT happening.

    Let’s turn it around. The warmist make the claim that CO2 is driving driving temperatures and human kind is responsible.

    I say, let them deliver the evidence and scrap the “precautionary principle” which in my opinion is the sword of Damocles hanging over every discussion killing the arguments of any opposition.

    Our point of view should be as simple as can be:
    CO2 is not a climate driver, therefore no action to curb anthropogenic emissions is needed.

    Think how our military defense would have look liked if our leaders would have believed in the little green men living on Mars and they would have applied the precautionary principle?

    It would have been “madness” don’t you think.

    The same kind of madness that is dominating the current AGW debate.

  3. Edward says:

    IPCC “forgot” the Medieval Warm Period was alive and well in Alaska.

    Greg Wiles (dendrochronologist) cores a 1000 year old hemlock tree that just emerged from glacial ice from Coloumbia Glacier Alaska. There is just no way to explain the existance of dozens of these trees other than they originated in a temperate stable forest 1000 years ago prior to being sheared off by the advancing glacier around 1300 AD.

    Other explainations anyone?

  4. Hans Kelp says:

    Harold Ambler, I enjoy reading your articles. You present facts and opinion in a way that I believe everybody can understand and that´s utterly important. I totally agree with you on these matters and please keep up your good work. As long as those words of yours are being written I´m sure it brings a lot of common sense to people.

  5. Gary H says:

    Well, gee Mr. Ambler. I’d start here. Friedman is completely off his rocker here. Go to the science man. Go to the science.

    Most scientists agree that the earth’s temperature is no warmer now than it was during the Medieval Warm Period (about 1,000 years ago). Here’s the consensus of science, from a study of 240 climate studies (my bold):

    Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

    March 31, 2003, Cambridge, MA –

    20th Century Climate Not So Hot

    .. has determined that the 20th century is neither the warmest century nor the century with the most extreme weather of the past 1000 years. The review also confirmed that the Medieval Warm Period of 800 to 1300 A.D. and the Little Ice Age of 1300 to 1900 A.D. were worldwide phenomena not limited to the European and North American continents. While 20th century temperatures are much higher than in the Little Ice Age period, many parts of the world show the medieval warmth to be greater than that of the 20th century.

    .. compiled and examined results from more than 240 research papers published by thousands of researchers over the past four decades. Their report, covering a multitude of geophysical and biological climate indicators, provides a detailed look at climate changes that occurred in different regions around the world over the last 1000 years.


    In fact, clear patterns did emerge showing that regions worldwide experienced the highs of the Medieval Warm Period and lows of the Little Ice Age, and that 20th century temperatures are generally cooler than during the medieval warmth.”


    Soon and his colleagues concluded that the 20th century is neither the warmest century over the last 1000 years, nor is it the most extreme.
    .. end excerpt..

    Settled science. The science is in. There is no debate. Oops! Does Friedman not read?

  6. Mug Wump Wagathon says:

    If a US Democrat president shows up and plays the Gore-game — denies that the MWP existed and that it was global and was warmer than today and denies that an even warmer Holocene ever existed [5 to 8 thousand years ago] — then, it’s ClimategateHagen–a global earthquake-sizeded cultural scandal — and journalism will never recover and be dead forever. If they do not survive Climategatehagen, the Democrat party will forever be known as anti-business/capitalist-anti-America fearmongers, and trust in science will be less than used car salesmen; and, the acaemia of the federal governmental-complex will be exposed as fascist to the core.

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