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The Reality of Precaution: Risk Regulation in the United States and Europe

The Reality of Precaution: Risk Regulation in the United States and Europe

17 October 2011

On the 17 October 2011 Ecologic Institute had the honor to host a dinner dialogue with Prof Jonathan B. Wiener (Duke University) and Prof Peter H. Sand (University of Munich). The main objective of this event was to discuss the application of the precautionary principle in the risk regulation of the United States and Europe. This discussion was nurtured by the launch of the book "The Reality of Precaution – Comparing Risk Regulation in the United States and Europe" (2011) of which Jonathan Wiener and Peter Sand are editors. The director of Ecologic Institute, R. Andreas Kraemer, moderated the lively discussion.

The idea for the book emerged out of the debates between the United States and Europe on the precautionary principle, and from the authors' attempts to "bridge the transatlantic gap" between the debate over the abstract theory of the precautionary principle and the reality of its application in practice. Based on a dozen case studies, a quantitative analysis of almost 3,000 risks, and cross-cutting analyses of politics, law and risk perception, the authors found that there has been little transatlantic difference in the overall level of precaution over the past four decades, but the United States and Europe each apply the precautionary principle selectively to particular risks.  When these selective applications of precaution differ, the result can be transatlantic conflict.

For example, the book illustrates that, while the EU has been more precautionary than the US regarding such risks as hormones in beef, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), chemicals, and climate change, the US has been more precautionary than the EU regarding risks such as stratospheric ozone depletion, automobile air pollution, mad cow disease in blood, tobacco and terrorism. 

Moreover, Jonathan Wiener highlighted the importance of considering the "risks of regulating risks", i.e. the danger that narrowly targeted precaution can yield new risks. As an example, while hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") to extract natural gas can pose risks to groundwater quality in the area of production, natural gas is also cleaner to burn than coal, so precaution against one risk may yield other risks.  Such risk-risk tradeoffs also confront choices about biofuels, nuclear power, and other risks.

Peter Sand pointed out that there is an interplay between risk regulation and the public perception of a certain risk. While the precautionary principle is a reaction to inherent uncertainty, this uncertainty, and thus the risks, can be aggravated by certain players, such as public and corporate information holders, by withholding information. He recalled the example of the health effects from smoking tobacco, when the public would not demand measures to regulate this risk in part because the tobacco industry was withholding relevant information. On the other hand, the introduction of a risk regulation may sometimes sensitize the public to a risk (rather than reduce public concern).

Prof Wiener suggested that future transatlantic talks on risk and precaution should focus on global catastrophic risks, i.e. risks which have a high impact, but a low probability to occur, such as threat of extreme climate change, the risks of geoengineering, pandemic disease, asteroid collisions, microorganisms returning on outer space missions, and other risks so rare that public institutions are not well prepared to respond.

Further links:

Jonathan B. Wiener
Peter H. Sand
17 October 2011