What is the precautionary approach?

Tuesday April 09, 2013 Written by Published in Raro on my mind

Deep-sea mining is not a new-fangled idea in the Cook Islands, but local and global developments are making it an increasingly relevant topic of conversation.

The era of deep-sea mining seems to be dawning.

And as the debate comes to a global head, dozens of questions bubble to the surface. They are difficult questions for even the experts to answer. The legal, economic, and ethical concepts at play are complicated, but as 99 per cent of our nation is seafloor, we have an ever-pressing responsibility to try to understand them. Last week I wrote that there are sparse data available around the impact of mining on the seafloor and its marine ecosystems. I wrote that the precautionary approach, which forms the basis of the Cook Islands Marine Resources Act, should saddle any company targeting Cook Islands minerals with a burden of proof.

That’s legal jargon, but it just means that before mining activity commences, those undertaking it should have to convince us it won’t harm the public or the environment. Better safe than sorry, as they say.

“Unlike a preventive approach where action is taken when environmental threats are tangible, or a compensatory approach where remedial action or financial recompense is triggered once harm has occurred, the precautionary approach demands action to address risks (or, in extreme cases, that the proposed activity should not be taken), before there is certainty that the damage will materialise,” explains a 2012 SOPAC brochure.

We shouldn’t mine first and ask questions later, even if the enticing prize of government revenues is blinding in its allure and the seabed is out-of-sight and out-of-mind.

Right now is the time to ask the questions. Right now is the time to keep people in positions of authority accountable.

Humans tend to leap first and look later. I think of the Sheraton.

It’s also an explanation for the following scenario, described more than a decade ago by then-president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Jane Lubchenco: “Between one-third and one-half of the land surface has been transformed by human action; the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere has increased by nearly 30 per cent since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution; more atmospheric nitrogen is fixed by humanity than by all natural terrestrial sources combined; more than half of all accessible surface fresh water is put to use by humanity; about one-quarter of the bird species on Earth have been driven into extinction; and approximately two-thirds of major marine fisheries are fully exploited, over exploited, or depleted.”

The precautionary approach is to explore all potential consequences of an action before carrying it out. Many scientists argue we wouldn’t be in the environmental conundrum Lubchenco illustrated if we’d taken more precautions in decades past.

Others are of the opinion, articulated by physicist David Deutsch in “The Beginning of Infinity”, that the precautionary approach halts advancement.

“Not all shipwrecks happen to record-breaking ships There would be no existing ship designs to stick with, nor records to stay within, if no one had ever violated the precautionary principle,” he writes.

The debate boils down to disagreement over which methodology is better, ethically and economically: “just doing it” or “doing nothing until everything is known about the impacts of doing it,” explains Darryl Thorburn. Thorburn, a Kiwi geologist that the Cook Islands have come to know as MMR’s natural resources advisor, says the precautionary approach is an inherently simple concept that has become unduly complicated.

Last week he responded to a nave email I sent, in which I posed a “quick” question about the precautionary approach.

“There is no such thing as a ‘quick question’ regarding the precautionary principle,” he wrote. “It is probably one of the simpler concepts [but] various ‘talking heads’ have made a very good living prattling on this topic that is become over quoted, over used and over complicated

“Everything that we do from getting up in the morning to digging in the garden to driving a car to hanging out the washing to having a beer at TJ’s has an impact of some kind. We make many decisions (in) a day on whether to (do) or not do depending on an expected outcome,” he explained.

“When it comes to larger activities both sides of the development line, environmentalists and developers adopt smart wordsmithing to stop/proceed with a development. A balanced, middle ground approach is forgotten.”

His point is that regardless of the theoretical debates around the precautionary approach, the Cook Islands Seabed Minerals Authority is committed, first and foremost, to pragmatism.

“The Cook Islands Seabed Minerals Authority will adopt a pragmatic approach, one which is centred on having in place good regulatory frameworks that leaves the power at the centre but one which allows in general moving forwards with caution, but nevertheless moving forward, reassessing the results continuously as they become available and adjusting as necessary,” Thorburn wrote.

“There may be times when the flags go up and a halt is called based on robust technical evidence, and lowered if and when new facts say proceed with caution.”

While Thorburn and his team know what they are doing, deep-sea mining should be a community conversation, and everyone should engage in it. Seafloor resources belong to everyone.

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