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Feb 20, 2012

The precautionary principle v the fierce urgency of now

What is the precautionary principle? And how does it apply to the issues surrounding the development of coal seam gas? asks FAQ Research's Dr Robert Merkel.


In discussions of the coal seam gas issue, the precautionary principle is regularly invoked as a reason to abandon or delay the development of the industry.  But what is the precautionary principle? And how does it apply to the issues surrounding the development of coal seam gas?

A deceptively simple principle

It is common to refer to “the” precautionary principle.  However, there is no such beast – at least, there is no single, consensus wording of the precautionary principle. It is an idea that has evolved over time, and found written expression in different ways.  While those one-sentence statements of the principle seem clear enough on first reading, using it as a practical decision-making tool is, as is often the case, far less straightforward.

Queensland’s Sustainable Planning Act states that that one of the act’s very purposes is to ensure that decisions made under it “apply the precautionary principle”, and defines the precautionary principle as follows:

“…the principle that lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing a measure to prevent degradation of the environment if there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage.”

At one level, such a statement is a very basic consequence of the nature of science and any attempt to use it as a public policy tool.  Science does not do “certainty”. As philosopher of science Karl Popper put it, “there can be no ultimate statements in science: there can be no statements in science which cannot be tested, and therefore none which cannot in principle be refuted.”  Therefore, to make use of scientific knowledge, one can never wait for “full scientific certainty”, as there never will be such certainty.

So, if “full scientific certainty” is not to be our threshold for action, what is?

As Willem Vervoort, Associate Professor of Hydrology and Catchment Management at the University of Western Sydney observed, interpreting the principle as meaning that  any possibility of an environmental threat, no matter how implausible, is sufficient to postpone a development until the threat is completely ruled out would mean no development – or any other action – ever.   It would be an absurdity.

Differing Formulations

Variations in the expression of the precautionary principle help to illustrate when, and how, it might be applied. Economist Deborah Petersen described three broad classes of formulations. The version that appears in Queensland’s Planning Act is, in this classification scheme, a “weak” formulation, one that merely states that lack of scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing action”.

It is in this form that the precautionary principle is most commonly found in legislation. In “Moderate” versions, the threat of environmental damage justifies or even requires action to address it, if the threat meets a defined threshold for intervention.  However, like the weak versions, moderate versions place the onus on those seeking intervention to justify that intervention.

Finally, “strong” wordings of the principle have been proposed that reverse the burden of proof that an activity will not cause harm. That is, the proponents of a potentially environmentally harmful activity must prove that it is safe.  Such wordings have been used in symbolic documents such as the Earth Charter, and the Windscale Declaration.  The Canadian branch of environmental activist group Greenpeace has, in the past, stated that “the” precautionary principle means such a reversal of proof. Strong wordings of the precautionary principle are not currently found in Australian law.

Of course, questions relating to the precautionary principle are not only matters of law, they are matters of politics.  But there is, unsurprisingly, little clarity from political actors about the exact version of the precautionary principle they seek to apply to the topic of coal seam gas.  Not even the Australian Greens, a party whose very origins are based in environmental activism, define the precautionary principle in their policy platform, even though the platform states that it “must be adopted”.

Radically Uncertain

The precautionary principle uses the word “threat” to describe the potential adverse events which action might be taken to avoid.  In general conversation, we might use the word “risk” interchangeably with threat.  However, in academic discussions of the precautionary principle, “risk” is often shorthand  for “quantified risks” –  that is, we have some estimate of the likelihood and impact of the threat.

However, not all threats are quantified risks.  In many cases, we do not know how likely a threat is to occur.  For example, car accidents are risks – across the Australian population, we have reasonably good estimates of how likely they are to occur.  Invasion by malevolent aliens is an instance of “radical uncertainty” – while some people believe that it could occur, we have virtually no scientific information about its likelihood.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)’s discussion paper on the precautionary principleargues that the precautionary principle is primarily a tool for managing such uncertainties, not quantified risks:

Because the PP deals with risks with poorly known outcomes and poorly known probability, the unquantified possibility is sufficient to trigger the consideration of the PP. This distinguishes the PP from the prevention principle: if one does have a credible ground for quantifying probabilities, then the prevention principle applies instead. In that case, risks can be managed by, for instance, agreeing on an acceptable risk level for the activity and putting enough measures in place to keep the risk below that level.

Justice Paul Stein, in a landmark decision in the NSW Land and Environment Court, expressed similar sentiments:

It is directed towards the prevention of serious or irreversible harm to the environment in situations of scientific uncertainty. Its premise is that where uncertainty exists concerning the nature or scope of environmental harm (whether this follows from policies, decisions or activities), decision makers should be cautious.

For coal seam gas, then, key questions for invoking the precautionary principle (as distinct from other approaches to decision-making) is whether a threat has some  scientific plausibility, but there remains substantial uncertainty as to the scope and likelihood of the threat occurring.

One complicating factor here is the limitations of scientific risk assessment itself.  Author Nassim Taleb has argued that much statistical modelling ignores the importance of what he terms “black swan events” – very rare, very impactful events for which explanations are created only in retrospect.  The possibility of such events is an additional incentive not to be overconfident in risk assessment, and to keep the precautionary principle in mind.

Costs and benefits

Some formulations of the precautionary principle explicitly include consideration of the costs and benefits of intervention.  For instance, the Rio Declaration states that “lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation”.

The European Commission’s statement on the Precautionary Principle expands on this notion, recommending that costs and benefits be assessed before deciding on a course of action.  Such examination, however, should broader than an economic analysis of costs and benefits.  As noted earlier, the very use of the principle is strongest when quantification is at its weakest; similarly, inappropriate usage of economic cost-benefit analyses may fail to take into account the distribution of costs and benefits.

In the case of coal seam gas, the economic beneficiaries of coal seam gas production are in large part not those who bear the environmental risk; and if there are environmental benefits to coal seam gas production (by reducing the use of more damaging fossil fuels like coal) they are global and diffuse.

Appropriately valuing the distribution of such benefits and costs is, yet again, not at all obvious from a simple statement of the principle.

From Both Sides Now

The precautionary principle does not provide explicit guidance to deal with situations where all potential courses of action have environmental consequences, some of which may be positive.  UNESCO’s report points distinguishes between “action” and “omission”, and argues that, contrary to mathematical decision theory where “do nothing” is merely one of a number of possible decisions, a decision-maker is more responsible for a decision to “act” than “fail to act”.   However, even if you accept this proposition, “acting” and “not acting’ are, arguably, two sides of the same coin.  Is a court, or a state or federal Minister, “acting” or “not acting” when they make a decision that allows a company to commence or continue a coal seam gas development?   And should it matter?

As noted, there are potential environmental benefits to CSG development – or, put another way, restricting CSG development poses its own threat to the environment.  It is a concern that, globally, restricted natural gas supplies could lead to increased coal usage and, ultimately, greater greenhouse gas emissions.  But it is almost impossible to assess this threat in the context of a single development decision in Queensland.  It is a striking example of “radical uncertainty”, in fact.  What is more certain is that piecewise, well-by-well planning decisions, or even statewide policies,  are unlikely to be a good way to tackle these consequences.

Conclusion: The Fierce Urgency of Now

The precautionary principle is not some kind of latter-day Oracle of Delphi, unerringly guiding us to appropriate environmental decisions.  There is no single, agreed, statement of the principle, let alone consensus interpretations.   It applies to threats that are plausible, but not sufficiently well understood to permit more traditional risk mitigation approaches.  And there are a number of complicating factors when it is applied.

If the precautionary principle is to be applied to the broad question of CSG development, one potential response is to slow new CSG projects to allow as many of the radical scientific uncertainties as possible to be assessed as risks.  However, this is likely to run head-on in to the commercial interests of CSG developers.  While market conditions have been favourable for CSG development in Queensland over the past few years, this may not be true for too much longer. The radical uncertainty of future contract prices is a threat that Queensland’s CSG producers are desperate to avoid.  It is the responsibility of our politicians, courts, and ultimately all of us as citizens, to ensure that sound environmental decision making is not lost in the rush.

Dr Robert Merkel is a Lecturer in Software Engineering at Monash University. Read more about FAQ Research authors here.


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