Rachel's Precaution Reporter, August 22, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: The World Trade Organization (WTO) refuses to accept the legitimacy of precautionary action by individual nations aiming to protect their citizens from harm. A recent report from the United Nations University says the problem stems from a vague definition of precaution. Columnist Carolyn Raffensperger shows that the definition of precaution is not vague at all.]

Carolyn Raffensperger

Wags and critics have said that the precautionary principle has been defined in so many ways that nobody really knows what it means. Not true. The words themselves have clear dictionary definitions. "Precautionary" is defined as foresight to protect against possible harm. "Principle" is defined as a habitual devotion to right.

But that's not what the critics are looking for. A legal dictionary would likely use three definitions, the Rio Declaration, Wingspread and the San Francisco ordinance.

The Rio Declaration, Principle 15, the most common definition of the precautionary principle in international law defines it as "In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. 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."

Compare that with the Wingspread definition, which states, "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically."

And finally, the San Francisco ordinance defines the precautionary principle as, "Where threats of serious or irreversible damage to people or nature exist, lack of full scientific certainty about cause and effect shall not be viewed as sufficient reason for the City to postpone cost effective measures to prevent the degradation of the environment or protect the health of its citizens."

The question raised by critics is whether these definitions are so different that we should throw up our hands and walk away from any attempt to use the principle as a legal matter. Is there a single definition of the precautionary princple?

The answer is "yes" for two reasons. First, every single definition of the precautionary principle (without exception) contains the same three elements:

** uncertainty

** possibility of damage

** and precautionary action or measures to prevent harm.

The idea embodied by all of these definitions is that we don't have to wait for absolute certainty before we prevent harm. We can use foresight and take action rather than wait for the dead bodies to pile up while we measure and manage risk. It is true that definitions can be stated passively or actively, negatively or positively. Rio is a relatively passive and negative formulation whereas Wingspread is active and positive. Adjectives like "serious", "irreversible", "cost- effective" can refine the kind of harm or action specified but this doesn't change the definition of taking precautionary measures to prevent harm in the face of uncertainty.

The second common feature of every definition is that they don't tell you exactly what action to take. For this reason the precautionary principle is not self-implementing. But this doesn't mean that the definition isn't very, very clear. It just means that there are additional steps that must be taken to implement the precautionary principle.

This is why San Francisco created an overarching environmental ordinance that articulates the vision, philosophy and definition of the precautionary principle but went on to enact additional ordinances that spell out what actions they will take to fulfill the principle.

There are five key steps in implementing the precautionary principle:

(1) heed early warnings

(2) set goals

(3) assess and choose the best alternative

(4) reverse the burden of proof (give the benefit of the doubt to public health and the environment)

(5) and use democracy.

One or another of the five steps will be more important than the others depending on the harm that is being prevented. Global warming, land use, whale survival and breast cancer can all be addressed using the precautionary principle, but there is no rigid formula that can or should be applied to every issue.

Not only have critics tried to muddy the clear waters of the definition, but they split hairs by arguing that the precautionary principle and precautionary approach are different and should not be confused. This is also false. The terms are used interchangeably. The precautionary principle and precautionary approach are the same thing. For instance, almost all would say that international attention to the precautionary principle began with Rio, which calls it the precautionary approach.

In summary, every definition of the precautionary approach or precautionary principle tells us to take action to prevent harm in the face of uncertainty. Arguing about the definition is a distraction from the real work of preventing harm.