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Precautionary principle

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The precautionary principle, a phrase coined circa 1988, is the belief that if there is scientific uncertainty regarding a risk and its consequences then preventative measures may be justified even in the absence of proof of such risk. The phrase is often used by supporters of the green movement.

Several versions of the principle may be defined.

From the rule of abstention[?], according to three criteria:

  • reference to zero damage
  • necessity to avoid the worse situation
  • necessity to include a shift in the burden of proof in dispute settlements proceedings

This rule is usually considered unenforceable as, on one hand there may never be any absolute certainty, nor zero risk, and on the other hand, defining the best of many worse scenarios is a matter of controversy.

A weaker version establishes that a lack of certainties, related to the actual state of scientific knowledge, should not postpone the adoption of effective and proportional measures to prevent the risk. Other criteria come up to justify the decision-making: public debate, comparison of costs and advantages of the anticipated preventive measures.

This version avoids drastic application of the precautionary principle, to allow technological innovation development to proceed under minimal constraints. It searches to avoid limiting citizens and consumers liberty, as well as economical restrictions.

Interpretations of the principle vary greatly, depending on the interests of each group, each one giving its own definition of risk and measures to take.

The precautionary principle was born of growing environmental concerns as early as 1980, and is reflected in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (signed at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change).

It is in particular discussed by non-governmental organizations such as Greenpeace.

Application of the precautionary principle

The principle is not a juridical principle, as it can hardly provide regulations sanctioned by laws. It doesn't describe what actions to take, but seeks to trigger reactions in advance, before any irreversible damage occur.

Fields typically concerned by the precautionary principle are:

The precautionary principle often applies to biological fields because changes cannot be easily contained[?]; they affect everyone. The principle has less relevance to contained fields such as aeronautics, where the few people (eg. test pilots) undergoing risk have given informed consent.

Application of the principle modifies the status of innovation and risk assessment: it is not the risk that must be avoided or amended, but a potential risk that must be be prevented. The temptation towards scientific authoritarianism and interdiction of democratic debate is high, if the only parties concerned are the scientist (who recognises the danger) and the politician (who faces the danger). Besides, consumer reactions and fears that do not rely on scientific facts are often considered irrational or emotional, and so are not considered in final decisions.

However, many countries choose to consider consumer points of view, and media reporting, to create a new space for debate, where politicians, experts and journalists are answerable to other actors (e.g. consumer associations, juridical authorities).

The principle appears as a new mode of collective action. Some see in it new standards, others a political tool for decision-making. Its use is often interpretated as protectionism (such as the case of beef fed with hormones, dealt by the World Trade Organisation).

Clarification of the content of the precautionary principle is much needed -- in and out of the WTO system -- in particular on the subject of multilateral agreements on environmental issues.

See: safe trade, biosafety, biosecurity, informed consent, opportunity cost.

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