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Environ Int. 2003 Apr;29(1):1-19.

Precaution, uncertainty and causation in environmental decisions.

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  • 1University of San Francisco, 2130 Fulton St, San Francisco, CA 94117, USA.


What measures of uncertainty and what causal analysis can improve the management of potentially severe, irreversible or dreaded environmental outcomes? Environmental choices show that policies intended to be precautionary (such as adding MTBE to petrol) can cause unanticipated harm (by mobilizing benzene, a known leukemogen, in the ground water). Many environmental law principles set the boundaries of what should be done but do not provide an operational construct to answer this question. Those principles, ranging from the precautionary principle to protecting human health from a significant risk of material health impairment, do not explain how to make environmental management choices when incomplete, inconsistent and complex scientific evidence characterizes potentially adverse environmental outcomes. Rather, they pass the task to lower jurisdictions such as agencies or authorities. To achieve the goals of the principle, those who draft it must deal with scientific casual conjectures, partial knowledge and variable data. In this paper we specifically deal with the qualitative and quantitative aspects of the European Union's (EU) explanation of consistency and on the examination of scientific developments relevant to variability and uncertain data and causation. Managing hazards under the precautionary principle requires inductive, empirical methods of assessment. However, acting on a scientific conjecture can also be socially unfair, costly, and detrimental when applied to complex environmental choices. We describe a constructive framework rationally to meet the command of the precautionary principle using alternative measures of uncertainty and recent statistical methods of causal analysis. These measures and methods can bridge the gap between conjectured future irreversible or severe harm and scant scientific evidence, thus leading to more confident and resilient social choices. We review two sets of measures and computational systems to deal with uncertainty and link them to causation through inductive empirical methods such as Bayesian Networks. We conclude that primary legislation concerned with large uncertainties and potential severe or dreaded environmental outcomes can produce accurate and efficient choices. To do so, primary legislation should specifically indicate what measures can represent uncertainty and how to deal with uncertain causation thus providing guidance to an agency's rulemaking or to an authority's writing secondary legislation. A corollary conclusion with legal, scientific and probabilistic implications concerns how to update past information when the state of information increases because a failure to update can result in regretting past choices. Elected legislators have the democratic mandate to formulate precautionary principles and are accountable. To preserve that mandate, imbedding formal methods to represent uncertainty in the statutory language of the precautionary principle enhances subsequent judicial review of legislative actions. The framework that we propose also reduces the Balkanized views and interpretations of probabilities, possibilities, likelihood and uncertainty that exists in environmental decision-making.

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