Precaution as a science-politics game
Table 1 illustrates the dilemma facing a decision maker confronted with a demand for action yet unsure of the pay-off. The options for action are:
1. Do nothing but monitor the environmental situation. This is nowadays politically untenable, but where uncertainties are very great or the environmental system is regarded as tolerant it may still be a sensible course.
2. Do nothing but embark on a programme of research. This is the desired British position, at least as expressed by the government in its environmental policy statements of 1990 (HM Government, 1990). Of course, if the UK government were serious about this view it should be supporting research, at least to the point where a reasonable judgement could be made over the degree of advance investment required.
Table 1 Pay-off matrix: science, economics, and politics in precaution
3. Combine research with action to contain pollutants. This is a form of "environmental insurance," and is a tactic adopted by the North Sea states. It is vital that the research mode combines both scientific investigation and economic valuation of removal or status quo, based on sensitivity analysis and public debate.
4. Take action in advance of definitive/final research. This is the pressure for making precaution legitimate, in which science is subservient, or at least secondary. This tactic can result in avoidable economic waste in the minor damage case, but can be vital in the case of irreversible damage.
It can be seen that the optimal strategy requires a combination of innovative science, economics, and politics, working sequentially and progressively. This is why we need to embark on extending science into the realms of economic and political analysis, to weld the concepts of negotiation, adaptation, and learning into political institutions and economic valuations. At the same time we need to find ways of depicting the outcomes of each of these pay-offs so that the interested public can negotiate and participate in the outcome as it weaves its way backwards and forwards through the matrix. Public involvement based on well-founded images of possible futures and their economic consequences provides one way of characterizing the valuation of uncertain environmental situations. It is this "negotiated science" that becomes one of the off-springs of the precaution principle.
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