Liberal academic shoots down Precautionary Principle

Published July 1, 2002

The Precautionary Principle—a popular theory holding that speculative, unproven environmental risks are entitled to primacy in any environmental debate so long as any risks exist—has been harshly criticized in a just-released law and economics paper.

While a thoughtful analysis finding fatal flaws in the Precautionary Principle is neither a new development or unique, what makes “Beyond the Precautionary Principle” noteworthy is its author: University of Chicago law professor and prominent liberal theorist Cass Sunstein.

Reminiscent of Bjorn Lomborg’s groundbreaking book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, Sunstein’s dismissal of the Precautionary Principle is a dagger in the heart of speculative claims made by left-wing environmental activist groups.

Sunstein’s liberal leanings, as well as his academic credentials, are strongly established. He is the Karl. N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor of Jurisprudence in the Law School and Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He has taught law at Harvard and Columbia.

And, importantly, he has written such articles as “Originalism for Liberals,” “Why We Should Celebrate Paying Taxes,” “The Courts’ Perilous Right Turn,” and “Environmentalism and Economics.”

Defining terms

Sunstein begins the paper by clearing up some ambiguities about what the Precautionary Principle means.

In its most benign form, some interpret the principle simply to mean “that a lack of decisive evidence of harm should not be a ground for refusing to regulate.” This interpretation basically means that if the evidence is mixed we may still find it desirable to regulate.

Such an interpretation reflects common sense. However, environmental activists go much further in defining what the Precautionary Principle requires. According to the widely publicized Wingspread Declaration, from a meeting of environmental activist groups in 1998, “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not established scientifically.”

A quick glance may call to mind the old saying, “better safe than sorry.” But a closer examination of both the declaration’s language and its real-world application show a categorically more intrusive intent.

Decision-making paralysis

The Wingspread Declaration of the Precautionary Principle, reasons Sunstein, is undesirable because “the threshold is minimal, and once it is met, there is something like a presumption in favor of stringent regulatory controls.”

“The principle is literally paralyzing,” explains Sunstein, “forbidding inaction, stringent regulation, and everything in between.” Such paralysis occurs because all societal decisions, including the decision not to act at all, entail risks of harm. Sunstein offers several illustrations:

  • The justification for a reduced arsenic level in public drinking water is that by reducing arsenic from 50 parts per billion (ppb) to 10 ppb, over 100 lives per year might be saved. At first blush, the Precautionary Principle would seem to call for the stricter standard, as this would effectuate the principle’s bias toward preserving human health.

However, like virtually all decisions, there is a countervailing risk to the stricter standard. As water costs climb due to the added purification steps, rural and poorer citizens will increase the use of free well water. Ironically, by using more well water, these residents will be exposed to higher arsenic levels than if the 50 ppb standard were never abridged.

Either decision, therefore, runs afoul of the Precautionary Principle, resulting in a paralysis of decision.

  • Many environmental activists cite the Precautionary Principle to justify a ban on genetic food enhancements. Even though no adverse effects of genetically enhanced foods have been discovered, such side effects may someday be found.

The Precautionary Principle cuts both ways here, too. Genetically enhanced crops are more productive than the crops they replace, resulting in cheaper and more available food. Not allowing biotechnology to advance could cause more malnutrition, malnutrition-related health complications, and even third-world starvation.

The Precautionary Principle can be invoked to prevent the low-but-theoretically-possible emergence of adverse human health effects … or to prevent over-regulation of promising new ways to relieve human suffering caused by malnutrition. Once again, the result is a paralysis of decision.

  • Global warming may occur, resulting in a broad range of potential harms. Here, many environmental activists call for a drastic reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases, pursuant to the Precautionary Principle.

However, reducing greenhouse gas emissions would entail stunning economic costs, diverting money from many health programs and putting at risk the lives of countless world citizens.

Once again, the Precautionary Principle gives little guidance for policy decision-making.

  • The use of nuclear power carries with it a small but theoretically possible risk of a plant meltdown and resulting tragedy. According to many environmental activists, the Precautionary Principle therefore prohibits the use of nuclear power.

The cost of foregoing nuclear power, though, is greater reliance on fossil fuels, which cause their own environmental harms and pose greater safety risks to workers. The Precautionary Principle can be employed either on behalf of or against nuclear power.

Popular in spite of its flaws

According to Sunstein, there are several reasons why the Precautionary Principle has gained popularity despite its unavoidable contradictions. These include:

  • Loss aversion. People are more concerned about losing what they have than missing out on what they might potentially gain. By seemingly supporting a presumption in favor of the status quo, the Precautionary Principle is marketed as a form of societal risk aversion.
  • Visible versus less-visible concerns. The Precautionary Principle is generally invoked to deter high-visibility risks … often at the price of increasing less visible, but equally probable, risks. Even if two hazards pose a similar threat to human life, the one that captures more public concern will be the one defended by proponents of the Precautionary Principle.
  • Probability neglect. People often invoke the precautionary principle against low-risk activities, when a proper probability analysis will show the invocation actually leads to greater risks in other contexts. A lack of issue awareness and education leads to the neglect of proper probability analysis.
  • System neglect. Many people see only the harm that is to be prevented, ignoring the indirect and unintended consequences either of action or inaction. The problem is commonplace in economics: In the case of free trade, for example, people may see the jobs that move to Mexico but fail to understand how specialization and lower consumer prices create much greater long-term benefits for the U.S.

Risk reduction by more rational means

Proponents of the Precautionary Principle fail to recognize that all resources—including the time, effort, and money available to reduce risk—are limited, Sunstein explains. Resources invested in deterring low-probability risks are not available to deter higher-probability risks.

The Precautionary Principle “is a crude and sometimes perverse way” of managing risk, Sunstein concludes. Policymakers “need to use more direct effective strategies to pursue the salutary goals of risk regulation.” That requires a “fair accounting of the universe of dangers,” says Sunstein: a careful balancing of the costs and benefits of inaction, regulation, and everything between.

Only after such an accounting has been made can risk-management resources be invested where they will achieve the most “bang for the buck” … and that should be the ultimate goal.

“A rational system of risk regulation certainly takes precautions,” concludes Sunstein. But it does not adopt the precautionary principle.”

For more information …

Cass Sunstein’s University of Chicago working paper, “Beyond the Precautionary Principle,” is available through PolicyBot as document #2313446.

You can also search PolicyBot for the topic/subtopic combination Environment/Cost Benefit Analysis and Risk Assessment. More than 80 documents are available on the topic.

Environment & Climate News has covered the precautionary principle often in past issues. See, for example, “Precautionary Principle at odds with science” (September 2001), “ICCS conference tackles the precautionary principle” (December 2000), and “Precautionary Foolishness” (December 2000).