Citizens for a Sound Economy
September 25, 2002

Throw Precaution to the Wind—Please!

Wayne T. Brough, Ph.D

Although the science may not be in just yet, many environmentalists say the consequences may be so dire that we need to adopt tough new regulations "just in case."

This week, the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank begin in Washington, D.C. As usual, the meetings promise to bring thousands of protesters to the nation’s capital. While identifying their underlying message is as difficult as reading tea leaves, one of the perennial themes is the global environment. Global warming, deforestation, endangered species, and a slew of other environmental panics fuel discussions of world calamity, despite a growing body of scientific evidence that suggests, by and large, significant progress has been on many environmental problems. Rather than incorporate these findings, many environmentalists simply abandon science altogether.

Interestingly, in most of these environmental debates, environmentalists rely on the “precautionary principle” to advocate significant expansions of the regulatory regime. In other words, the science may not be in just yet, but the consequences may be so dire that we need to adopt tough new regulations “just in case.” While this may play to emotional fears, it is a poor basis for public policy. In fact, in a world of scarcity, chasing unconfirmed future risks diverts resources away from combating real risks or improving living standards.

Despite the potential dangers of the precautionary principle, it permeates much of the current regulatory debate throughout the world. The European Commission has adopted it as a policy tool, and the precautionary principle is finding its way into the United States through environmental laws and treaties that ultimately bind Americans to sweeping mandates for regulation. The Kyoto Protocol, which seeks to reduce greenhouse gases, is a prime example of the precautionary principle in action. To date, the Bush administration has avoided signing the treaty, given the substantial costs it would impose on the
economy in the face of considerable scientific uncertainty. However, Europe, guided by the precautionary principle, has played down the scientific uncertainty and embraced the Kyoto Protocol.

A popular version of the principle comes from a 1998 meeting of environmentalists. What has become known as the Wingspread Declaration states: “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.” The Declaration identifies the precautionary principle as the guiding regulatory policy. What it does, in fact, is replace scientific inquiry and science-based policy with a regulatory blank check.

Perhaps the reason for the warm embrace of the precautionary principle by environmentalists is that it is decidedly biased against innovation and technology. Virtually any new activity or product can be challenged based on some illusory perceived risk. And in the real world, this is precisely how the principle is used. On issues as varied as genetically modified foods, the use of pesticides, and global warming, environmentalists and other special interests have relied on the precautionary principle to promote their own agenda.

While precaution has an air of credibility, it is important to understand the potential adverse effects of a regulatory policy that questions progress. Precaution comes at a price. The world we live in is plagued by both scarcity and risk. With scarcity come limited resources, which means that not all needs can be satisfied. Forgoing new foods that can feed millions due to hypothetical risks that lack any scientific support can take a heavy human toll. The decision of Zimbabwe and Zaire to let their populations starve rather than accept food aid containing
genetically modified foods is a case in point.

At the same time, all human endeavors involve risk. As much as we would like to avoid it, risk is a part of our daily lives. We choose to drive cars, play sports, and eat foods that we know are potentially unhealthy. What is important is managing risk. We can wear seat belts, wear helmets, and watch our diets. Informed decisions about the risks we face allow us to address these risks in a practical way. Through science and study we can assess the risks that various activities or products pose, prioritize those risks to determine which are most hazardous to our health or the environment, and allocate our resources where they will have the greatest benefit on our lives.

Unfortunately, the precautionary principle abandons this process with a “regulation first” attitude that lumps all potential hazards together, no matter how remote the risk. This creates a broad mandate for regulation that can impose significant costs on consumers. Already, Americans face a regulatory burden of more than
$800 billion a year. The expansive precautionary principle would only increase the burden on American consumers—without the insights or analysis that science can provide or any guarantee that the new costs are necessary.

Finally, the precautionary principle ignores the trade-offs inherent in an expanded regulatory regime. We know, for example, that income is a significant factor in health. The more money a family earns, the healthier it can become, purchasing better health care, more nutritious foods, and safer products. Restrictive regulations that limit job growth limit the abilities of families to improve the quality of their lives.

When all is said and done, the precautionary principle adds little to our ability to craft sensible regulation. Instead, it creates a sweeping mandate that opens the regulatory process to subjective analysis and greater political manipulation, while eliminating the ability to evaluate and prioritize risks in a reasonable fashion. With the arrival of the protesters in Washington, the true poverty of the precautionary principle becomes evident. While the green protesters will fervently endorse the precautionary principle as a guiding policy for environmental policy, how many will endorse the Bush administration’s use of a precautionary strike on Iraq?

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