Follow the Precautionary Principle & Allow Science a Moment

March 23, 2020
About the author: Dr Hou Jiaru, Fellow of the Taihe Institute, Professor and PhD supervisor of law, Dean of Institute of Green Development Strategies, China University of Political Science and Law, and president of Beijing Legal Negotiation Society jointly sponsored by the Taihe Institute.   

Introduction: In theory, policy-making should have a scientific basis. However, as scientific research usually lags behind practice, a scientific consensus is not easy to reach, and scientific factors are not the only ones taken into account by policymakers. This has led to a lack of coherence between scientific consensus and political consensus, and distortion or deviation in terms of timing, targeting and implementation of decisions. This not only is not conducive to the solution of the problem, but also risks creating a hotbed of skepticism and conspiracy theories in the field of policy making, or negative responses such as the theory of herd immunity or laissez-faire tactics promoted by some European governments, with potentially disastrous consequences. In the absence of scientific understanding of the COVID-19 epidemic (referred to below as “the epidemic”), how should the government take decisions which prevent weak links in the chain? Mr. Hou Jiaru, fellow of Taihe Institute, believes that in addressing this issue and adopting policy formulations, countries should actively learn from global climate change and biodiversity governance issues, and adopt precautionary principle. In the face of the catastrophic risks related to the survival crisis, even if there is no consensus within the scientific community, we should take a precautionary principle, in a comprehensive, legal and reasonable way that utilizes the existing resources and actively deals with the problems.

(Credit: Sputnik)
I. Precautionary Principle Originates from Scientific Uncertainties over Climate Change
In the past three decades, the mass media has portrayed climate change as the greatest environmental crisis facing mankind. When movies such as “Water World”, “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012” were shown in cinemas, the public became convinced that these represented the future reality of extreme global climate change.
In fact, within the scientific community, there is controversy over the climate change issues. There are disagreements within the scientific community about even the three most basic issues in the field of climate change, and these are the subjects of debate within the scientific community: First, is the climate really changing? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is an intergovernmental body of the United Nations established to provide a “scientific basis for climate change issues”, but its authenticity has been questioned by the media that has alleged that its climate data has been falsified. Second, if the climate is really changing, is this caused by human activities? Many experts believe that even if global warming is taking place, this is only part of a natural pattern and may be caused by the Earth undergoing a period of warming, as has occurred periodically, and more than once in recorded history. Third, if it is concluded that humans are part of the cause, can human action effectively change the status quo? There is no consensus within the scientific community on the issue.
Coupled with the complex nature of the climate change issue are the different interests of all countries, especially each country’s future development rights, thus making international climate negotiations an arena for the exertion of political, economic, technological, environmental, and diplomatic efforts of major countries. Furthermore, due to the absence of scientific consensus, climate change remains uncertain, continuing to invite conspiracy theories and skepticism. In the face of climate change, the international community needs to adopt unified decision-making and collective action. Despite the controversy over climate change issues, it’s widely accepted across the scientific community, based on mathematical models, that a 5-degree Celsius increase in the global average temperature would lead to mass extinction. This basic understanding has prompted a rethinking of the relationship between scientific judgement and political decision-making, which led to the precautionary principle being prescribed in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
II. The Precautionary Principle in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
The Precautionary principle in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is set out in Paragraph 3 of Article 3, entitled “Principles” where it is stated that “The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainties should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost. To achieve this, such policies and measures should take into account different socio-economic contexts, be comprehensive, cover all relevant sources, sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases and adaptation, and comprise all economic sectors. Efforts to address climate change may be carried out cooperatively by interested Parties.”
This provision makes it clear that, while there is no conclusive evidence of the authenticity of climate change, if it is true, humanity will not be able to withstand its catastrophic consequences, so that the necessary preventive measures should be taken under existing conditions and should not be rejected or postponed in the absence of a scientific consensus. To sum up, first, no scientific verdict on the issue has been arrived at. Second, if the phenomenon is real, it will result in disastrous consequences, and third, interested Parties should still do something about it, and should not refuse to take precautionary action.
The Precautionary principle is the cornerstone of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. It is because of this that follow-up action on global climate governance can proceed gradually without conclusive scientific evidence. However, because of scientific uncertainties and the complex game of political interests, progress over the two conventions has been difficult, resulting in today’s difficult situation.
III. Eight Proposals for Controlling the Epidemic in Accordance with the Precautionary Principle
The current status of the epidemic is fully in line with the three applicable conditions of the precautionary principle. First, as a prerequisite, scientific issues including origin of COVID-19, its viral characteristics, transmission mechanisms, although increasingly clear, are still characterized by ongoing doubts and controversies. The inability of scientists to forge consensus and fully endorse the actions of politicians has provided room for suspicion, skepticism, and conspiracy theories. Second, the possible catastrophic consequences of the spread of the epidemic have gradually been demonstrated around the world. The World Health Organization has warned that the outbreak could cause a global health crisis and has described it as a pandemic. It is expected that, if poorly controlled, an estimated one-third to two-thirds of the world’s population will be infected and the death toll will be alarming. Third, currently, all countries can still take preventive and control actions, and it is not too late for them to make up for their mistakes. Governments should not respond to the epidemic in a laissez-faire manner in the face of global risk but still need to bear “common but differentiated responsibilities” to ensure that global benefits are achieved at the lowest possible cost. (Article 3, Paragraph 3 of the Convention)
In addition to these three conditions, the epidemic prevention and control measures need to be applied more urgently than in the case of climate change. First, the epidemic is spreading rapidly, and the clock is ticking. Experience shows that if a favorable window of opportunity to control the spread of the virus is missed, the cost is likely to be huge. Second, the epidemic directly threatens human life and health, and must be controlled as a matter of urgency, and even if it is too late, an “ostrich policy” or laissez-faire mentality should not be adopted. Third, although scientific research is still underway, and the truth is far from certain, and may never be established, political decisions must be aimed at solving practical problems, and, while policy-making should have a scientific basis, it should not be confined to scientific problems.
According to real-time statistics released by Johns Hopkins University in the United States, more than 167,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed globally by 8: 00 a.m., on March 16, Beijing time, of which over 86,000 cases have been confirmed outside China.
To achieve this, it is suggested that governments and the international community should adopt the precautionary principle and assume “common but differentiated responsibilities”. They should not refuse or shirk in their efforts to deal with the epidemic and make every effort to respond to it. Based on the precautionary principle, the following eight recommendations for consensual action are proposed:
First, strengthen scientific research. Research into virus origin, virus characteristics, and transmission mechanisms not only has scientific value, but also provides support for decision-making. In modern society, if the actions of policymakers lack a scientific basis, they will lose the foundation of legitimacy, and the effect of policy implementation will be greatly reduced, which may reduce public confidence in them.
Second, accelerate the advance of internal consensus within the scientific community. In the face of the epidemic, at a national level, the sharing of information about the epidemic throughout hospitals should be promoted, and the traditional barrier between traditional Chinese and Western medicine should be lifted in order to promote a consensus as soon as possible. At the international level, the international scientific community should also be encouraged to focus on information sharing, communication and dialogue around epidemic diagnosis and treatment.
Third, establish a bottom-line attitude in policy formulation. Governments throughout the world should make epidemic control a priority, prepare for the worst and spare no effort. This is at the heart of the precautionary principle, as the virus could cause irreversible damage in the event of a catastrophic pandemic.
Fourth, sort out the relationship between scientific judgement and political action. In order to further improve the scientific nature of political decisions and actions and strengthen the authority of experts to restrict and supervise administrative powers, the state could set up a scientific policy-making committee to increase the influence of epidemiologists and virologists. In addition, we should support the disease-combating effectiveness of medical staff in various countries, providing adequate personal rewards and family member service guarantees, and support their focus on patient treatment while effectively improving their social status and professional prestige.
Fifth, make comprehensive, legal and reasonable use of existing resources to formulate specific measures. The implementation of the precautionary principle should also take into account economic feasibility, technological possibilities and social tolerance. The precautionary principle does not propose denying or ignoring the consideration of economic, political, social and diplomatic factors in the policy-making, but emphasizes giving the highest priority to preventing and controlling the spread of the epidemic in the current situation. “Comprehensive” means that policy-making should take into account as many factors as possible, and “legal” and “reasonable” require that the implementation of policy-making must be based on law, balanced and coordinated with other legally-protected basic values.
Sixth, improve risk prediction, identification and communication mechanisms. Compared with other issues, the cooperation of the public is crucial to the control of the epidemic. As the subjects of the spread of the epidemic and the victims of the virus, the public plays an important role in epidemic control. Awareness of the risks posed by the epidemic should not be limited to the decision-making level, and information on these risks should be open and transparent to the public.
Seventh, adopt the pragmatic principle focusing on local conditions. Even in the case of climate governance, Paragraphs 1 and 2 of the Convention establish the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” and take into account the specific needs and national circumstances of developing countries. In response to this epidemic, each country must fully consider its actual situation and analyze it objectively, avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach to evaluating, formulating and implementing policy.

Eighth, strengthen international cooperation. Only in response to the epidemic can the humanity deeply feel the connotations of our “community of human destiny”. Only by the prevention and control of the epidemic can human-to-human and state-to-state cooperation be implemented in every detail, so that the dots and lines are then connected. The omissions of anyone, anywhere, and in any country could potentially cause total loss and collapse. Cooperation is indispensable for individuals, countries, and the world.

Should you have any questions, please contact us at