Here’s a newsflash: The environmental group WWF Hong Kong has come out against the precautionary principle. That’s the idea that any risk of environmental damage must be avoided, no matter what the economic cost, and the WWF used to be a big fan. Until it started to cost the greenies themselves.
Last Tuesday, an email newsletter from the WWF folks landed in our inbox, complaining that the Hong Kong government’s “outdated and biased” policy is costing them HK$1 million ($129,000) a year. The group runs bird-watching tours at the territory’s famous Mai Po Nature Reserve. But whenever the authorities find a bird infected with the H1N1 avian influenza virus within three kilometers of the wetlands, they shut the operation down.
The shutdowns have been coming at a rate of once a year for the last six years. Most recently, tours were halted from March 31 to April 21, after a dead barn swallow found on a nearby road tested positive.
“The losses have a significant impact on WWF’s management and education programmes in Mai Po,” the program manager, Bena Smith, complained. “WWF is facing the difficulty of inadequate government funding to manage the Reserve by annually having to raise an additional HK$3.5 million to meet the management cost shortfall. Public visit revenue is therefore essential.”
The environmentalists have a strong case that there is very little risk to the public. After all, there are “stringent biosecurity measures” such as disinfectant hand washing and foot baths for all visitors. And the people never get close to the birds anyway. As Mr. Smith puts it, “WWF respects the need for precautionary measures to ensure public safety, but we believe the current government policy is more about public perception, and having to be seen to do something, than actual scientific fact. There is no evidence of a human ever having contracted H5N1 from a wild bird.”
True enough, but then Mr. Smith can’t say that the risks are zero. And here is where the environmentalists are hoist with their own petard. The WWF has been arguing that the world must spend trillions of dollars on reducing carbon emissions because of the putative risk of global warming decades from now. Likewise, pesticide use must be controlled because there might be dangers to people and wildlife that have not yet been identified. Other green groups have attacked the use of genetically modified crops on similar grounds, despite the absence of any evidence of harm.
So it’s encouraging to see at least one local branch of the WWF suffering the consequences many businesses face from such thinking and drawing the logical conclusion: Science and common sense should decide policy, not hysteria and fear-mongering. Here’s hoping that their colleagues elsewhere follow suit.