ⓘ Precautionary principle. The precautionary principle is a disputed strategy for approaching issues of potential harm when extensive scientific knowledge on the ..


ⓘ Precautionary principle

The precautionary principle is a disputed strategy for approaching issues of potential harm when extensive scientific knowledge on the matter is lacking. It emphasizes caution, pausing and review before leaping into new innovations that may prove disastrous.

The principle is often used by policy makers in situations where there is the possibility of harm from making a certain decision e.g. taking a particular course of action and conclusive evidence is not yet available. For example, a government may decide to limit or restrict the widespread release of a medicine or new technology until it has been thoroughly tested. The principle acknowledges that while the progress of science and technology has often brought great benefit to humanity, it has also contributed to the creation of new threats and risks. It implies that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to such harm, when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk. These protections should be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that provide sound evidence that no harm will result.

The principle has become an underlying rationale for a large and increasing number of international treaties and declarations in the fields of sustainable development, environmental protection, health, trade and food safety, although at times it has attracted debate over how to accurately define it and apply it to complex scenarios with multiple risks. In some legal systems, as in law of the European Union, the application of the precautionary principle has been made a statutory requirement in some areas of law.

Regarding international conduct, the first endorsement of the principle was in 1982 when the World Charter for Nature was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, while its first international implementation was in 1987 through the Montreal Protocol. Soon after, the principle integrated with many other legally binding international treaties such as the Rio Declaration and Kyoto Protocol.


1. Origins and theory

The concept "precautionary principle" is generally considered to have arisen in English from a translation of the German term Vorsorgeprinzip in the 1970s in response to forest degradation and sea pollution, where German lawmakers adopted clean air act banning use of certain substances suspected in causing the environmental damage even though evidence of their impact was inconclusive at that time. The concept was introduced into environmental legislation along with other innovative at that time mechanisms such as "polluter pays", principle of prevention and responsibility for survival of future ecosystems.

In 1988, Konrad von Moltke described the German concept for a British audience, which he translated into English as the precautionary principle.

In economics, the Precautionary Principle has been analyzed in terms of "the effect on rational decision-making", of "the interaction of irreversibility" and "uncertainty". Authors such as Epstein 1980 and Arrow and Fischer 1974 show that "irreversibility of possible future consequences" creates a "quasi-option effect" which should induce a "risk-neutral" society to favour current decisions that allow for more flexibility in the future. Gollier et al. conclude that "more scientific uncertainty as to the distribution of a future risk – that is, a larger variability of beliefs – should induce society to take stronger prevention measures today."

The principle was also derived from religious beliefs that particular areas of science and technology should be restricted as they "belong to the realm of God", as postulated by Prince Charles and Pope Benedict XVI.


2. Formulations

Many definitions of the precautionary principle exist: Precaution may be defined as "caution in advance", "caution practiced in the context of uncertainty", or informed prudence. Two ideas lie at the core of the principle:

  • the concept of proportionality of the risk and the cost and feasibility of a proposed action.
  • an expression of a need by decision-makers to anticipate harm before it occurs. Within this element lies an implicit reversal of the onus of proof: under the precautionary principle it is the responsibility of an activity-proponent to establish that the proposed activity will not or is very unlikely to result in significant harm.

One of the primary foundations of the precautionary principle, and globally accepted definitions, results from the work of the Rio Conference, or "Earth Summit" in 1992. The principle 15 of the Rio Declaration notes:

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

In 1998 Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle was convened by the Science and Environmental Health Network and concluded with the following formulation, described by Stewart Brand as "the clearest and most frequently cited":

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 fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.

In February 2000, the Commission of the European Communities noted in a Communication from the Commission on the Precautionary Principle that, "The precautionary principle is not defined in the Treaties of the European Union, which prescribes it mport, in order to avoid or minimize such potential adverse effects, from taking a decision, as appropriate, with regard to the import of the living modified organism in question."


3. Application

Various interests being represented by various groups proposing the principle resulted in great variability of its formulation: one study identified 14 different formulations of the principle in treaties and non-treaty declarations. R.B. Stewart 2002 reduced the precautionary principle to four basic versions:

  • Scientific uncertainty should not automatically preclude regulation of activities that pose a potential risk of significant harm Non-Preclusion.
  • Activities that present an uncertain potential for significant harm should be prohibited unless the proponent of the activity shows that it presents no appreciable risk of harm Prohibitory.
  • Regulatory controls should incorporate a margin of safety; activities should be limited below the level at which no adverse effect has been observed or predicted Margin of Safety.
  • Activities that present an uncertain potential for significant harm should be subject to best technology available requirements to minimize the risk of harm unless the proponent of the activity shows that they present no appreciable risk of harm BAT.

Carolyn Raffensperger of the Wingspread convention placed the principle in opposition to approaches based on risk management and cost-benefit analysis. Dave Brower Friends of the Earth concluded that "all technology should be assumed guilty until proven innocent". Freeman Dyson described the application of precautionary principle as "deliberately one-sided", for example when used as justification to destroy genetic engineering research plantations and threaten researchers in spite of scientific evidence demonstrating lack of harm.

The Precautionary Principle says that if some course of action carries even a remote chance of irreparable damage to the ecology, then you shouldn’t do it, no matter how great the possible advantages of the action may be. You are not allowed to balance costs against benefits when deciding what to do.

As noted by Rupert and ORiordan, the challenge in application of the principle is "in making it clear that absence of certainty, or there being insufficient evidence-based analysis, were not impediments to innovation, so long as there was no reasonable likelihood of serious harm". Lack of this nuanced application makes the principle "self-cancelling" according to Stewart Brand, because "nothing is fully established" in science, starting from the precautionary principle itself and including "gravity or Darwinian evolution". A balanced application should ensure that "precautionary measures should be" only taken "during early stages" and as "relevant scientific evidence becomes established", regulatory measures should only respond to that evidence.


3.1. Application Strong vs. weak

Strong precaution holds that regulation is required whenever there is a possible risk to health, safety, or the environment, even if the supporting evidence is speculative and even if the economic costs of regulation are high. In 1982, the United Nations World Charter for Nature gave the first international recognition to the strong version of the principle, suggesting that when "potential adverse effects are not fully understood, the activities should not proceed". The widely publicised Wingspread Declaration, from a meeting of environmentalists in 1998, is another example of the strong version. Strong precaution can also be termed as a "no-regrets" principle, where costs are not considered in preventative action.

Weak precaution holds that lack of scientific evidence does not preclude action if damage would otherwise be serious and irreversible. Humans practice weak precaution every day, and often incur costs, to avoid hazards that are far from certain: we do not walk in moderately dangerous areas at night, we exercise, we buy smoke detectors, we buckle our seatbelts.

According to a publication by the New Zealand Treasury Department,

The weak version ". In other words, the decision rule states that once the aforementioned low evidential bar is met, then we should act in a precautionary way. Finally, Birchs proposal "deliberately leaves open the question of how, and to what extent, the treatment of these animals should be regulated", thus also leaving open the content of the regulations, as this will largely depend on the animal in question.


4.1. Criticisms Internal inconsistency: applying strong PP risks causing harm

Strong formulations of the precautionary principle - without regard to its most basic provisions i.e., that it is to be applied only where risks are potentially high AND not easily calculable - when applied to the principle itself as a policy decision, may rule out its own use. The reason suggested is that preventing innovation from coming to market means that only current technology may be used, and current technology itself may cause harm or leave needs unmet; there is a risk of causing harm by blocking innovation. As Michael Crichton wrote in his novel State of Fear: "The precautionary principle, properly applied, forbids the precautionary principle." For example, forbidding nuclear power plants based on concerns about risk means continuing to rely on power plants that burn fossil fuels, which continue to release greenhouse gases. In another example, the Hazardous Air Pollutant provisions in the 1990 amendments to the US Clean Air Act are an example of the Precautionary Principle where the onus is now on showing a listed compound is harmless. Under this rule no distinction is made between those air Pollutants that provide a higher or lower risk, so operators tend to choose less-examined agents that are not on the existing list.


4.2. Criticisms Blocking innovation and progress generally

Because applications of strong formulations of the precautionary principle can be used to block innovation, a technology which brings advantages may be banned by precautionary principle because of its potential for negative impacts, leaving the positive benefits unrealised.

The precautionary principle has been ethically questioned on the basis that its application could block progress in developing countries.


4.3. Criticisms Vagueness and plausibility

The precautionary principle calls for action in the face of scientific uncertainty, but some formulations do not specify the minimal threshold of plausibility of risk that acts as a "triggering" condition, so that any indication that a proposed product or activity might harm health or the environment is sufficient to invoke the principle. In Sancho vs. DOE, Helen Gillmor, Senior District Judge, wrote in a dismissal of Wagners lawsuit which included a popular worry that the LHC could cause "destruction of the earth" by a black hole:

Injury in fact requires some "credible threat of harm." Cent. Delta Water Agency v. United States, 306 F.3d 938, 950 9th Cir. 2002. At most, Wagner has alleged that experiments at the Large Hadron Collider the "Collider" have "potential adverse consequences." Speculative fear of future harm does not constitute an injury in fact sufficient to confer standing. Mayfield, 599 F.3d at 970.


4.4. Criticisms The Precautionary Dilemma

The most commonly pressed objection to the precautionary principle ties together two of the above objections into the form of a dilemma. This maintains that, of the two available interpretations of the principle, neither are plausible: weak formulations which hold that precaution in the face of uncertain harms is permissible are trivial, while strong formulations which hold that precaution in the face of uncertain harms is required are incoherent. On the first horn of the dilemma Cass Sunstein states:

The weak versions of the Precautionary Principle state a truism - uncontroversial in principle and necessary in practice only to combat public confusion or the self-interested claims of private groups demanding unambiguous evidence of harm, which no rational society requires.p.24

If all that the weak principle states is that it is permissible to act in a precautionary manner where there is a possible risk of harm, then it constitutes a trivial truism and thus fails to be useful.

If we formulate the principle in the stronger sense however, it looks like it rules out all courses of action, including the precautionary measures it is intended to advocate. This is because, if we stipulate that precaution is required in the face of uncertain harms, and precautionary measures also carry a risk of harm, the precautionary principle can both demand and prohibit action at the same time. The risk of a policy resulting in catastrophic harm is always possible. For example: prohibiting genetically modified crops risks significantly reduced food production; placing a moratorium on nuclear power risks an over-reliance on coal that could lead to more air pollution; implementing extreme measures to slow global warming risks impoverishment and bad health outcomes for some people. The strong version of the precautionary principle, in that "t bans the very steps that it requires"p. 26, thus fails to be coherent. As Sunstein states, it is not protective, it is "paralyzing".p. 34