Did I mention that John predicted that there would be no major changes in the intellectual movements of the twenty-first century? Who is on top of the struggle at a particular time keeps changing, but the argument never changes. Everything in this post from 2003 is still current, even though the technology supposedly driving it has advanced.
Probably because I read too much science fiction, I tend to think that there are better ways to reduce atmospheric CO2 than the ones we have been pursuing. Many of these means are technological, and grand in scope, which gives many in the environmental movement hives. I don't particularly care, because most of them don't know anything.
That being said, there is tremendous risk in most posited geoengineering schemes. It isn't crazy to feel uneasy about this kind of thing [although I think many vocal advocates and opponents are, in fact, crazy]. There is also tremendous benefit, which is why people keep talking about it. Risk management and compliance is what I do for a living, and I think complex risks can be successfully managed, and I am not the only one to think so. This is the sort of thing that should be run by accountants, instead of activists.
GMOs are similar. Most of the popular panic about genetically modified organisms is based on a complete lack of knowledge about how agricultural science works. All of the crops we grow today are genetically modified from the source, the primary difference in modern techniques is that you have much better control in what you change. Although, to give credit where credit is due, there are some who think Norman Borlaug is a great villain for using conventional breeding techniques to create the plants that feed the world, instead of allowing people to starve to death in the manner predicted by Paul Ehrlich.
This is just the kind of rhetorical device that the activist Jeremy Rifkin has been using these many years to close down the genetically modified food industry. There is no evidence at all that genetically modified foods present special health hazards. There isn't even a theoretical reason to think that they might. His argument, taken up by the protectionist agricultural lobby in the European Union, has been that such foods should not be used until it is proved they have no adverse effects. Unfortunately for him, he has also been a great promoter of fuel cells, perhaps under the misapprehension that fuel cells are a power source and not just very good batteries. What is his reaction to this new set of concerns?
"[W]hen you move into a new energy source you have to assume there's going to be some environmental impact...[Hydrogen] is our hope for the future...We know we can't continue to burn fossil fuels because the planet is warming up. And we know hydrogen is where we have to head."
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This misstates the problem. The courts are actually pretty good at throwing out frivolous suits. Defendants (or their insurance companies) often do just buy off nuisance plaintiffs, but those are not the payments that have driven malpractice insurance premiums through the roof. The real trouble has, for the most part, come from perfectly valid suits that occasioned arbitrarily high awards. The moral here is that the ability of the tort system to compensate real injuries has limits. When the president casts the question in terms of frivolous suits, he leaves himself open to true horror stories about duplicitous drug companies and drunken doctors.
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What we have here is the spectacle of the Senate try to fix the canons of construction of the Constitution by intuiting the canons favored by the nominees that come before it. Since the Senate is unable or unwilling to discuss the canons openly, the senators often do a very poor job of mind reading.
Might I suggest that it is not obvious that canons of constitutional construction are themselves part of the Constitution? Obviously, a canon might be introduced by amendment. Barring that, however, they could be codified by legislation. That would at least compel a judge to state when he was ignoring a canon.
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That is all well and good, but the US did start the decline of jurisdictional restraint. The Helms-Burton Amendment famously penalizes foreigners living a broad, who do business with other foreigners living abroad, if they did business involving property expropriated by the Cuban government from Cuban exiles now living in the United States. Civil suits can be filed in US courts against governments alleged to promote terrorism, which makes it hard to deal diplomatically with those countries. Some of the Holocaust suits brought against German corporations and Swiss banks were little more than shakedown operations.
Some canons of construction at the international level might be in order, too.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly