Climate Uncertainty, Real Possibilities and the Precautionary Principle

Erkenntnis (6):1-17 (2021)
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A challenge faced by defenders of the precautionary principle is to clarify when the evidence that a harmful event might occur suffices to regard this prospect as a real possibility. Plausible versions of the principle must articulate some epistemic threshold, orde minimisrequirement, which specifies when precautionary measures are justified. Critics have argued that formulating such a threshold is problematic in the context of the precautionary principle. First, this is because the precautionary principle appears to be ambiguous about the distinction between risk and uncertainty: should the principle merely be invoked when evidential probabilities are absent, or also when probabilities have low epistemic credentials? Secondly, defenders of the precautionary principle face an aggregation puzzle: in judging whether or not thede minimisrequirement has been met, how should first-order evidential probabilities and their second-order epistemic standing be aggregated? This article argues that the ambiguity can be resolved, and the epistemological puzzle can be solved. Focusing on decisions in the context of climate uncertainty, I advance a version of the precautionary principle that serves as a plausible decision rule, to be adopted in situations where its main alternative—cost–benefit analysis—does not deliver.

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Jeroen Hopster
Utrecht University


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