The One Percent Doctrine

In an op-ed piece published yesterday in the New York Times, Tom Friedman argues that the US should adopt former Vice President Dick Cheney’s “one percent doctrine” when it comes to climate change.  Mr. Cheney’s doctrine applied to national security threats, and he advocated taking preemptive military action against potential aggressors, such as Saddam Hussein’s regime, if there was a one percent chance that hostile elements would attack the US or American interests abroad.  Mr. Friedman says that America should implement measures to combat climate change even if there is only a slight possibility that greenhouse gas emissions will have disastrous effects if unchecked (it should be noted that Mr. Friedman believes that the odds of CO2 threatening the planet are much higher than one percent).

There is a consensus among the scientific community that global warming is real and man-made, and that the international community needs to take major steps to cut emissions in order to avoid serious climate problems; therefore the US and other countries, including developed and developing nations, should implement policies that will mitigate pollution even if it slows economic growth for a while.  But the world should only take such drastic actions because the likelihood of global warming being severely problematic is much higher than one percent.  The one percent doctrine should not be embraced as a guide to policymaking, especially when it comes to foreign affairs.  Doing so would create unnecessary conflicts and bankrupt America.  There might be a one percent chance that China will attack Taiwan; does that mean the US should preemptively attack Chinese naval and air forces?  There is probably more than a one percent probability that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons; does that mean the US should bomb Iran’s nuclear sites?  If there is a one percent chance that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are not well secured should the US invade Pakistan and try to seize control of its nuclear facilities?  All of those actions would be very destabilizing and costly, and would almost certainly prove counterproductive.  The world is a dangerous place and all nations will have to live with a certain amount of risk, including the US.  The question policymakers have to ask is how much risk is acceptable; a reasonable conclusion would be that one percent is tolerable.

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