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Environment Magazine September/October 2008

 

October 2007

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Defining Precaution

The precautionary principle is frequently invoked as a basic principle of risk management and an essential guide to decisions on issues as varied as climate change, biodiversity loss, and food safety. The principle has many critics, on the other hand, who regard it as a vaguely worded doctrine sometimes used as a screen for shoddy science, trade protectionism, or anti-technology sentiment. This difference of opinion underlies many of the environmental controversies between the United States and Europe. Given that the principle itself exists in a number of alternative formulations, a clear and agreed-upon definition would be a useful contribution.

The Precautionary Principle, the United Nations Economic, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) panel report, is the latest in a long series of efforts to define the precautionary principle and, in so doing, underline its importance and defend it from its critics. It steps back from the fray to draw lessons from experience and argue for longer time horizons and a more rational approach to environmental decisionmaking. Its discussion of precaution is clear and coherent.

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