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Wall Street Journal Editorial Revives the Sport of Precaution Bashing

Shockingly, the newspaper's editorial page is arguing against the precautionary approach to environmental policy that undergirds our system of environmental laws.

With characteristic audacity, the Wall Street Journal editorial page today is arguing against the precautionary approach to environmental policy that undergirds our system of environmental laws, even as the oil continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico. Instead, they want to shift the burden of proof and only allow regulators to restrain corporate greed when the government can first quantify and monetize the environmental harm that will result and demonstrate that it outweighs the money to be made by taking environmental risks. The problem is, of course, that when you require cost-benefit analysis, the environment loses, because most of the values at stake on that side of the equation—human lives, air you can breathe, water you can swim and fish in—just can’t be measured in dollar terms. 

The editorial writers of the Wall Street Journal lament that the disaster in the Gulf is causing a resurgence of the precautionary principle in environmental policy, which they claim was long ago “discredited” in favor of cost-benefit analysis. This battle is as old as the environmental movement itself. From the beginning, advocates of environmental protection have argued for a precautionary approach to environmental hazards, while industry has argued for cost-benefit analysis. But the Journal doesn’t quite get its history right. Despite the enormous amount of money they’ve put into this fight, industry hasn’t won—at least not yet.

Far from being “thoroughly discredited,” the precautionary principle is widely accepted throughout the world.   It forms the basis for a whole host of international environmental treaties and agreements, including the Rio Declaration, negotiated by the first President Bush. And, as the Journal acknowledges, it undergirds the “architecture” of much of our domestic environmental law. 

In fact, it is cost-benefit analysis that has been discredited. It has been subject to decades of scathing critique in the academic literature, showing that it is both theoretically incoherent and practically unworkable. When Congress passed the bulk of our environmental statutes back in the 1970s, it specifically rejected cost-benefit analysis precisely because it was afraid that the vast scientific uncertainties involved and the intractable difficulties inherent in trying to price environmental values would make any meaningful comparison of costs and benefits impossible. Instead, in the vast majority of our environmental statutes, Congress adopted a precautionary approach, which said, in essence, where there’s a threat of significant environmental harm, let’s reduce the threat as much as we can within reasonable technological and economic limits. The results have been, by all accounts, remarkably successful.   (Just ask my students from China, who tell me repeatedly that they can’t believe how blue the sky is in Philadelphia.) Indeed, studies have shown that if we had waited to limit environmentally harmful activities until cost-benefit analysis said it was okay, we would never have achieved many of the environmental successes we benefit from today. The phase-out of lead from gasoline, for example, could have been delayed by decades.

In order to shoot down a straw man, the Journal misstates the precautionary principle, claiming that it requires government to “attempt to prevent any risk—regardless of the costs involved, however minor the benefits and even without understanding what those risks really are.” That’s not the precautionary principle. That’s just a dumb principle that no one would argue for. 

Here’s how the 1992 Rio Declaration articulates the precautionary principle: “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 other words, it’s basic common sense. If you don’t know whether that dark pool ahead of you is quick sand, and you can walk around it without taking on some other life threatening danger, then spend the extra effort to walk around.

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