Many years ago, singer-songwriter John Prine — sadly, a COVID-19 casualty — wrote a song about “Safety Joe.” Because Safety Joe “wore a seatbelt around his heart … his life never got much richer than the day they took that picture in his birthday suit on the day that he was born.” We have all known people like Safety Joe — cautious, worried about the hazards of life, always wanting more assurance that they will be safe. Economists call them “risk averse.” Or, we might say their choices in life are guided by the “precautionary principle.”
I imagine that most people are not familiar with the precautionary principle, or with the academic and policy debates over whether the principle should guide policies relating to public health and safety. But almost everyone on the planet has now experienced the precautionary principle in action: It has guided most early governmental responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The precautionary principle emerged in the early 1970s in Europe and has become a feature of many European and international agreements relating to health and the environment. As defined by the European Parliament think tank, the “principle enables decision-makers to adopt precautionary measures when scientific evidence about an environmental or human health hazard is uncertain and the stakes are high.” COVID-19 fit the bill for application of the principle: the stakes were high — many thousands or even millions of potential deaths — and, because it is a novel coronavirus, very little was known about its lethality, spread or treatment.
The principle is intuitively appealing; who can object to policies that might save even just one human life? But as we have seen, the unconsidered and unintended consequences of reliance on the precautionary principle can be catastrophic. In Safety Joe’s case, “his life never got much richer.” In the case of COVID-19, millions of people have been put out of work, businesses have been forced to close, non-coronavirus ailments have gone unattended, people have suffered psychological harm and much more.
The precautionary principle led policymakers to focus on COVID-19 and allowed for very little consideration of the economic and other health consequences. Only after the fact have policymakers scrambled to reduce these costs. Now, two and three months later, the precautionary principle is being abandoned to state-by-state reopening plans — notwithstanding that the virus is still here, no effective treatment has been discovered, testing is still limited, immunity of those affected is uncertain and a vaccine remains somewhere in the future.
If the precautionary principle made sense for the entire country in March, has the threat become sufficiently less and our knowledge of the virus sufficiently greater to abandon the principle in May?
America is a big and diverse country. The magnitude of the threat varied widely from place to place and demographically. The draconian measures taken in the name of the precautionary principle may have made sense in a few locations, and with some segments of the population, but they made no sense for much of the country and most of the population. Those who urged and ordered extreme caution will say that infections and deaths would have been much worse without a shutdown — and they probably would have been — but not everywhere, nor for everybody.
Instituting an effectively uniform national policy on the basis of the precautionary principle, even if we didn’t know that was what we were doing, has imposed massive and often unnecessary costs on many Americans. Even in dealing with a virus we knew little about, we knew enough to have instituted more sophisticated policies in response.
But there has been an upside of the national and international shutdowns — a 17 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and significant reductions in other air pollutants. That has to go on the benefits side of any after-the-fact, cost/benefit analysis. But there is a more important lesson to be learned as governments grapple with another crisis: climate change.
A 17 percent reduction in carbon emissions is a third or less of what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says is necessary by 2050. The COVID-19 shutdowns have given us only a small taste of what is in store for the world population and economy if governments embrace the precautionary principle in response to the uncertain but potentially high costs of climate change. States are reopening not because the COVID-19 crisis is behind us, but because, even in the face of fears generated by daily briefings from the White House and some statehouses, most people will not long tolerate an overabundance of caution. The vast majority of Americans are not like Safety Joe.
James L. Huffman is a professor of law and the former dean of Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore. Follow him on Twitter @JamesHu41086899.