Prompt 3 (EPT 2014)

What should role of public risk perceptions be in setting environmental standards?

Whether we consider the discovery of abandoned hazardous wastes at Niagara Falls, or the outbreak of mad-cow” disease, or the Exxon Valdez and BP Deepwater Horizon oil spills, or the rapid retreat glaciers and the melting of polar ice caps, such high-profile public health scares and cases of environmental degradation commonly arrest the attention of the nation and the world.  Yet, much controversy surrounds the relevance and merit of the public’s perceptions of these risks to the environment and public health and safety—with some commentators insisting that favorable quantitative risk assessments and cost-benefit analyses are necessary to justify any environmental policy.

What is the proper role of public perceptions of risk in setting standards of environmental protection that aim to resolve current policy issues and prevent future environmental problems?  Should risk assessment be left to scientists?  How should we proceed when threats of environmental harm remain scientifically uncertain—is precaution, then, justified?  Why or why not?


Filed under 3064_2014: EPT

8 responses to “Prompt 3 (EPT 2014)

  1. Bryn G.

    The Precautionary Principle: Is Risk Worth It?

    In my opinion, the precautionary principle has its place. It is important to investigate the risks people often employ the availability heuristic that makes them poor at risk assessment. Major, daily risks like driving to work are disregarded while minor, unlikely risks such as shark attacks and terrorism are overblown to the point of experiencing the social cascade affect, becoming more prevalent in the populace’s minds than they are in reality.

    For instance, NGOs and individuals claim that GMOs are dangerous, carcinogenic, and just overall bad. But as pointed out in the Guardian, NGOs mislead, hyperinflate, or are flat out wrong about their claims on the safety of GMOs. Certainly the benefits and the risks are not yet clear and the Guardian admits to needing further research, but GMOs could help boost food production, and might prove useful in the future if the dire warnings about the food bubble come true (Gunther, Why NGOs can’t be trusted on GMOs). In this case, the precautionary principle can stifle the innovation and growth of an area that might prove to be a salvation in the future.

    The public’s misperception of the risk posed by GMOs could be harmful to later development. If bans and regulations are tightened upon GMOs, it will decrease incentive to study and develop them, hampering beneficial developments.

    The same idea applies to the concerns of harm to wildlife living near wind farms, lab-grown organs, vaccine development in relation to the autism debate and the inherent risks space exploration. Nothing is entirely without risks, and the quest to eliminate all risks will only delay and hinder growth.

    The precautionary principle does have its benefits – it can encourage further testing and research, such as with the chemicals used in fracking. Fracking companies do not have to release information on all the chemicals used in the process, and these can leak into underground aquafiers, leading to potential, avoidable harm. Most of the chemicals used are not known, and so the public as a whole has little knowledge about the dangers posed (Sheppard, Fracking Chemicals May Be Unknown).

    By applying the precautionary principle to halt production of fracking, it would require companies to prove the harmlessness of their chemicals and the risks they do pose prior to use. In this instance, the precaution is beneficial – it prevents further harm while allowing for future information to be provided.

    However, on the whole I believe that the public lacks a deeper understanding about what actually poses a risk and what does not. It is important to accommodate their concern, and to research and understand the impacts of new technology, but overall risk assessment is better left to the people who have extensively studied those risks. Research will alleviate public concerns while helping to make sure the risks are known, and allow for future innovation and development to continue unimpeded.

    Gunther, Marc. “Why NGOs can’t be trusted on GMOs.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 16 July 2014. Web. 24 July 2014.

    Sheppard, Kate. “Fracking Chemicals May Be Unknown, Even To Gas Drillers, Lawsuit Documents Suggest.” Huffington Post., Inc., 27 Sept. 2013. Web. 24 July 2014.

    • Dallin V.

      Weighing and Managing risk, Perception and Misconception Surrounding Dangers

      Response to Bryn

      I agree with the fact that risk can be overblown and taken out of reality by cascading and hysteria. I do however have one possible critique about GMO’s.

      To begin, risk assessment of certain superficial things is very much so overblown, especially by the public. Noting the shark example, if one thinks about it, there is perhaps no animal demonized more so than the shark. The Discovery Channel runs an entire week dedicated to showing how if one encounters a shark in the wild, they will inevitably be killed spectacularly, mimicking “Jaws.” The fact of the matter is that the sharks are merely trying to survive and their is nothing inherently sinister or evil about them. I observed from a website that one was more likely to perish from being struck by lighting than from a shark attack, but there is no hysteria surrounding lightning like there is sharks (Ringerud 2011, 1). The point is demonstrative of Bryn’s mention of cascading and hysterical media coverage, which was right on point.

      As for the yields/production I diverge from Bryn’s argument slightly. Certain sources say that the yields for GMO’s are actually lower than those of organic agriculture. In a debate on Kevin O’Leary from the TV show “Shark Tank” was being debated by an anti-GMO activist who was a 14 year old girl. The question surrounding yields came up, and O’Leary made comments much the same as many others have surrounding how GMO’s can help world hunger because they boost yields worldwide. Rachel Parent rebutted his argument stating that “GMO’s actually don’t have higher yields.” (N/A 2013, 1) It may be difficult to know the truth for sure since both parties could be firmly politicized so to speak. O’Leary is a venture capitalist who very well may have a stake in the financial success of GMO’s, and Parent is pretty polarized against anything relating to GMO’s seemingly. The thought is that there is questions surrounding if GMO’s really do increase production, and that the “jury is still out on it.”

      One could make the claim/argument that the public should have most of the autonomy over policy making, however as pointed out by some previous examples, the public are bad judges of risk by and large.The precautionary principle holds value in that it produces potential valuable stipulations to risks. The only problem is that if the public controls the principle, then a lot of possible innovation and growth will be inhibited and human progress stalled out overall.

      *Ringerud, Tanner. “20 Things That Kill More People Than Sharks Every Year.” BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed, 2 Aug. 2011. Web. 27 July 2014.

      N/A. “Rachel Parent Debates Kevin O’Leary About GMO’s.” Huff Post Impact Canada. The Huffington Post, 1 Dec. 2013. Web. 27 July 2014.

    • Page L.

      The Difficulties in Risk Management and The Problematic Precautionary Principle

      Response to Bryn

      There is no doubt that the challenges associated with risk management are endless, so how do we, as a nation, deal with the unknown? I disagree with the presented argument because the public opinion should have no impact in the analysis and mending of risks, even if is just to placate them and their unfounded fears. The public has proven time and time again their lack of reliability in seeing circumstances in a logical and unbiased sense.

      With this being said, I think all investigation and subsequent strategic plans should lie with the scientific community and the fact based conclusions they are able to arrive at. This standpoint directly disregards the precautionary principle, as the inclusion of the public’s opinion is one of the “four central components” (Kriebel 2001) of the principle, along with unjustified action, shifting the burden of proof towards said action, and the exploration of alternatives.

      As “a policy tool” (Foster 2000) the precautionary principle’s greatest shortcoming is its lack of guidance and general variability; oftentimes it is merely referred to, not defined. There is no way of measuring what it entails, therefore how can it be dependable? This is particularly worrisome for scientists, whose work often involves “studying highly complex, poorly understood systems, while at the same time facing conflicting pressures from those who seek to balance economic growth and environmental protection” (Kriebel 2001) There is simply no way the precautionary principle would do more good for risk management than harm.

      In my opinion the precautionary principle is not an efficient, effective or safe way to go about risk management. There are numerous problems associated with the implementation of the precautionary principle but ultimately it comes down to the question of why would we try and counteract risk, with more risk? While it may seem appealing to act before the uncertain circumstances, and there are some promising technological incentives, it is a completely irrational means of risk management.

      Foster, Kenneth R., Paolo Vecchia, and Michael H. Repacholi. “Science and the precautionary principle.” Science 288.5468 (2000): 979-981.

      Gollier, Christian, and Nicolas Treich. “Decision-making under scientific uncertainty: the economics of the precautionary principle.” Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 27.1 (2003): 77-103.

      Kriebel, David, et al. “The precautionary principle in environmental science.”Environmental health perspectives 109.9 (2001): 871.

    • Seth J.

      Precaution: A Risky Balancing Act

      Response to Bryn

      The argument Bryn makes seems to be an example of the best possible balance between total risk litigation and unchecked risk. She acknowledges very early on in her post that there is inherent risk associated with any behavior, technology or product and that the total elimination of risk is impossible. Having stated this, the intuitive conclusion of this argument is that some risk may be litigated, as it would be nearly as impossible to not prevent any risk either (Gollier et. al 2000). Having stated these presumptions, Bryn’s argument is that there must be an acceptable threshold of risk that society is willing to accept in order to maintain effective regulation.

      The argument Bryn makes is that regulation has a place in society, meaning precaution is necessary to some degree. She also contests that the level of precaution used must be less than the amount that stifles innovation in the marketplace. This is a good start, however she should have also addressed the necessity for regulation to be fluid in order to achieve its (sometimes lofty) goals. Precaution is not just a potential stifling force to innovation, it is also dangerous because it can work backwards on itself by creating a regulatory gridlock that accomplishes even less than a regulatory system with more lax conditions (Sunstein 2003).

      Those who argue against Bryn’s points would favor increased regulations all across the board. Proponents of the precautionary principle like to make the argument that humans have a right not to be harmed, and that the existence of the potential to be harmed is therefore against basic human rights. The argument Bryn made addresses this. It would have been better, however, if the argument had followed the logical conclusion it started with by saying that, since risks are associated to any action or technology, the individual must consent to moderate risk exposure if they desire to receive the benefits associated with the participation in risky behavior.

      Gollier, Christian, Bruno Jullien & Nicholas Treich, 2000. Scientific Progress and Irreversibility: An Economic Interpretation of the ‘Precautionary Principle’. Journal of Public Economics. Accessed 27 July 2014. 229-253.

      Sunstein, Cass R. 2003. The Paralyzing Principle: Does the Precautionary Principle Point us in any Helpful Direction?. The Cato Institute. Accessed 27 July 2014.

  2. Carly F.

    Are You Sure That Is Bad For You?

    The precautionary principle, as defined by Benjamin Friedman is “the belief that any possible environmental risk to health and safety should be met with decisive prevention action, no matter how small the risk or how costly the response”(Friedman 2007). Although it is very important for individuals to be aware of the ways in which they can be caused harm, there are some situations in which people misuse the precautionary principle and overestimate the danger. I moderately blame this overestimation of risk due to the media, in which very rare and horrifying events become public knowledge. Because these topics are often discussed and receive strong media coverage it brings the events to the public where they are translated into fear. This excess fear is unnecessary and causes individuals to focus on the less likely risks while giving little thought to the standard, everyday risk that some people might not even consider risk. The precautionary principle is effective, but only seems effective with large, rather than small, risks.

    There are others that are much more effective at determining the risks of certain situations, giving science a very important role. There are scientists who strictly study risks and determine the level/intensity of those risks. Lets discuss the current issue of GMO assessment. In many cases the publics perception of these genetically modified organisms is most negative, this mainly due to the lack of consensus. “The ongoing debate on GMOs has pitted scientist against scientist, farmer against farmer, environmentalist against environmentalist etc. Unfortunately this has sent mixed signals to the general public and policy makers” states an article about the GMO debate (Lewanika 2014). When the people involved in the scientific debate about this topic are having difficulty determining the costs and benefits of GMOs then I think it is fair to say that the public might not be the best decision makers, instead the risk analysis should be left to the professionals.

    In situations where threat of harm is scientifically uncertain, there is always a need for precaution. It is much easier to clean up the potential for harm rather than trying to remove the harm itself. However, there are some situations in which the precautionary principle might fail. For example, as discussed in the Friedman article, when asbestos was first discovered to cause respiratory system damage, it was crucial to remove it from homes and closed spaces. However, at the time scientist’s ad not determined that the disturbance of asbestos is what causes it to become airborne (Friedman 2007). This example is not the best example, but it highlights that harm can be determined without full scientific evidence, however some might be useful. Precaution is absolutely justified, as long as there is some sort of scientific analysis of the situation and a course of action is determined.

    Friedman, Benjamin, December 5, 2007. The Politics of Chicken Littleism.

    Lewanika, Mwananyanda Mbikusita. July 24, 2014. Africa: The GMO Debate – What to Consider.

  3. Dennis C.

    The Validity of Risk

    Taking precautions with uncertain environmental and health risks has a lot of gray areas. We have to decide in our policy making whether we want to be involved in every single possible threat or wait until we see actual harm to intervene. We must also decide how much validity we give to the public’s concerns about the environment. At what point do we decide that the public’s opinion has been too skewed by the media or their peers? Do we have the right to take away the autonomy of deciding whether or not to regulate something purely on the common citizen’s image?

    One of the most famous stories of the public overreacting to a safe environment was Love Canal. Residents claimed that the toxic waste buried underneath the ground was making that ill. Superfund was created, which has cleaned up over 400 sites and cost $350 million (Revkin; 2013). A study showed that although there were slightly higher birth defects in the immediate area, the cancer rate was identical to that of the rest of the country. In this example, the residents heard that there was toxic waste and due to public stigma and talking with their neighbors, assumed that whatever sickness they were getting must have been from that. With scientific results inconclusive at best, they demanded compensation and action.

    However, we also cannot assume that just because we have not proven an activity to be unsafe, that it is safe. There have been many instances where we had no idea of the kind of harm we were doing to the environment. In the 1950’s, we were clueless to the fact that chlorofluorocarbons were eating away at the ozone layer. It is instinctual to be afraid of what we do not know, but without taking a little risk, society will come to a stand still. No one will want to improve technology because of all the hoops they would have to jump through to prove that whatever they are doing is harmless in every way. So the best solution is to deal with each case separately. We need just the right amount of risk to stimulate technology, but not so much that we put lives in danger (Foster).

    One flaw to this solution is the human element. How do we decide what is just the right amount of risk? Risk is unquantifiable so we have no way of comparing different cases. We need to rely on scientist for the most accurate information, but also allow the freedom for the people to decide whether or not they want an activity regulated.

    Foster, Kenneth, Paolo Vecchia, and Michael Repacholi. “RISK MANAGEMENT: Science and the Precautionary Principle – Science v. 288, 12may00.” RISK MANAGEMENT: Science and the Precautionary Principle – Science v. 288, 12may00. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 July 2014.

    Revkin, Andrew C. “Love Canal and Its Mixed Legacy.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 24 Nov. 2013. Web. 21 July 2014.

  4. Alexandra B.

    Protection of Rights Based on the Science of Risk

    Actual public perceptions of risk should be referred to as public MISperceptions of risk, based on the idea that often what the public believes to be true is not, or is a more extreme version of the actual issue. There are many components of risk which public perception should be based on, like probability and severity of environmental risk along the different kinds of risk in question. The media and hasty science unfortunately hold a large influence over these public misperceptions risk, and there is a large need for education of true environmental risks so to bring public perception into the realm of helping set standards of environmental protection.

    While bad and potentially politicized science does exist on a larger scale than most would like to admit, utilizing science to educate the public and sway their perceptions away from social cascades that spread as wildfires through communities is an important tool for change. There is no need for fixation on worst case scenarios, and most individuals view various environmental risks through the eyes of emotion, which leads to probability neglect – a fundamental part of determining the true extent of certain environmental risks.

    Given the above discussion, risk assessment should not be left strictly to scientists, as they maintain positions that require objective, unbiased thinking – something that is not good for policy making, which requires moral considerations of human rights. Data driven science does not address morals and rights. A study conducted by the Environmental Toxicology Division of the DWR Water Management and Sewerage Service in Amsterdam assesses “a wide array of bioaccumulation markers and biomarkers, used to demonstrate exposure to and effects of environmental contaminants,” in a risk assessment of various pollutants using fish, which is different from traditional epidemiological studies that involve only rats. While the details of this study are complicated, the conclusion that various indicators of stress and the health of these fish show there is a potential risk to public health and should these pollutants should be considered for future environmental risk assessment.

    Regardless of what this study says, the uncertainty of actual harm that these pollutants pose to humans is still uncertain. There are two accurate ways to identify risks to public health, which include people showing symptoms and various scientific advancements which still do not exist. Many would argue that this uncertainty provides reason to believe that prevention of risk is justified because it is a basic right to not be harmed, which merits protection from unknowns that could cause harm in the future. However, as stated by Wynne in his article about rethinking scientific uncertainty, “while the preventative paradigm is acknowledged in principle, its practice is extremely tenuous, not least because we cannot know what is definitively an adequate level of investment in technological or social change to prevent environmental harm.” This may be fine for those who do not wish to deal with the rigor of cost benefit analysis, but evidence of environmental risk as seen in Van der Oost et al.’s study still justifies prevention largely due to the fact that individuals should be able to live knowing their right to not be harmed is being protected.

    Van der Oost, Ron, Jonny Beyer, and Nico PE Vermeulen. “Fish bioaccumulation and biomarkers in environmental risk assessment: a review.” Environmental toxicology and pharmacology 13.2 (2003): 57-149.

    Wynne, Brian. “Uncertainty and environmental learning: reconceiving science and policy in the preventive paradigm.” Global environmental change 2.2 (1992): 111-127.

  5. Jacob K.

    Unnecessary Emphasis on Precaution and Conflicting Viewpoints on Environmental Issues

    Response to Bryn

    Despite agreeing with much of what Bryn has to say, I have a couple of worries regarding her blog post.

    The most blatant problem is Bryn’s unnecessary use of the precautionary principle as a framework for her response. The question presented to us students, although involving precautionary methods in risk regulation, requires a response in which the role of the public in establishing standards of environmental risk is clearly spelled out. As demonstrated by the first sentence of her post (“In my opinion, the precautionary principle has its place”), Bryn seems to be arguing what role the precautionary principle should play in environmental regulation instead of the extent to which public opinion should determine environmental policy—as a proper response to the question would require. Despite this unnecessary emphasis on the precautionary principle, Bryn still incorporates instances in which the public should or should not play a role (e.g., “The public’s misperception of the risk posed by GMOs could be harmful to later development”), although even these viewpoints are hardly convincing. Instead of taking a firm stance on how much influence public opinion should have, she instead provides instances in which the public is both capable of recognizing risk (regarding fracking) and untrustworthy (regarding GMOs). Bryn’s argument would have been more convincing had she taken a clear stance on the public’s role, applying statistical evidence to prove or disprove its credibility. It wasn’t until the very end of the blog post that she contends that environmental risk standards should be left to scientists, something that should have been presented at the beginning of her argument.

    My second concern with Bryn’s argument stems from her conflicting viewpoints on the two policy issues she discusses. After claiming that these genetically engineered foods need further research as to possible health affects (thereby implying that there are still tentative risks), Bryn claims that the regulation of GMOs would “stifle the innovation and growth of an area that might prove to be a salvation in the future.” This viewpoint becomes problematic when looking at Bryn’s insistence that hydraulic fracturing, because of the potential risks involved, should be banned. Despite alluding to reports by the Guardian about the safety of GMOs, she fails to acknowledge reports that show fracking to be safe. With a good track record during the past decade (Moniz et. al 39), and news sources like The Economist claiming that “(f)racking can be done safely—banning it seems like an overreaction” (“How Safe is Fracking?”), hydraulic fracturing being banned might also stifle innovation. That leaves me with a question for Bryn: what is the difference between the two? Ultimately Bryn might argue that the risks associated with fracking are more extreme than those associated with GMOs. Although such a point might be valid, I would contend that without scientific consensus on the health affects of both activities, how could society, out of a qualitative judgment, take action against only one of the offenders?

    Moniz, Ernest J., et al. The Future of Natural Gas. Cambridge (MA): MIT Energy Initiative (US); 6 June 2011. Web. 2014 July 27.

    The Economist. “How Safe Is Fracking?”. The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 19 Aug. 2013. Web. 27 July 2014.

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