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?