The Onus of Proof
By Bruce Barbour - August 2020
For too long the onus of proof has been on the scientific
community and governments to prove that climate change is
due to anthropogenic pollution of the atmosphere with carbon
dioxide and other chemicals. While in my opinion the
scientists have absolutely met this requirement to a very
high level of certainty, they should not really have to. The
onus of proof should fall onto the polluter to prove that
what they are doing is not causing harm.
Perhaps a hypothetical will highlight this reverse onus of
proof in climate change.
Imagine that fossil fuels and the the means of
transforming it into energy - and releasing carbon dioxide
- had not been discovered - until now. Then a company, Big
Fossil Ltd, comes along and says "I can sell you all this
cheap energy. We will dig up these fossil fuels we have
discovered and burn them to produce electricity and other
mechanical energy. Oh - and by the way - to get this
energy we will also be releasing about 40 gigatonnes of
carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year from now on -
forever. And we will probably increase this over time. Oh
- and also by the way - we have this scientific
study from around 1890 that carbon dioxide is a
green house gas and would contribute to some warming of
the earth. But don't worry about that."
However this is not how it works in our present day world.
The onus of proof has been reversed. It is up to governments
to prove that carbon dioxide emissions cause harm to the
world and to work out ways to minimise the emissions and pay
the substantial costs of remediation. In reality the onus
should be on the big polluters, the Big Fossils of this
world, to prove that their product does not harm the world.
And when they can't they need to stop the pollution and pay
for any harm that it has caused.
If this was the situation I think the world governments
would say to Big Fossil Ltd - "You want to release 40
gigatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually?
There is an early report saying that it would cause global
warming. If you, Big Fossil, want to do this you go away
and prove to us that this is not going to do any harm to
the Earth into the future. Or else it won't be approved.
This is only fair and it is the way we treat any other
person or company that wants to release pollution into the
environment - they have to prove that they will not do
harm." And because the world governments recognised that
Big Fossil had a significant self interest in finding no
harm the world governments would also undertake the
assessment of the impacts of dumping 40 gigatonnes of
carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. However the
onus of proof would still be on Big Fossil to prove that
their pollution was not going to cause any harm to the
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