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Should we beware of the Precautionary Principle?

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  • Christian Gollier

Abstract

How should society deal with risks when there is scientific uncertainty about the size of these risks? There has been much recent discussion of the Precautionary Principle, which states that lack of full scientific knowledge should not be used as a reason to postpone cost-effective preventive measures. We show in this paper that the Precautionary Principle contradicts one important intuition about the right way to act in the face of risk, namely the principle of 'looking before you leap'. When we expect to learn more about the future, the effectiveness of our preventive measures will be greater if we learn before we act. However, a number of other ways of taking uncertainty into account are consistent with a reasonable interpretation of the Precautionary Principle. First, postponing preventive measures may increase our vulnerability to damage, which induces a precautionary motive for risk-prevention, similar to the precautionary savings motive. Secondly, stronger preventive actions often yield more flexibility for the future, so that acting early has an option value. Thirdly, when better information comes from a process of learning-by-doing, the risk associated with early events is amplified by the information they yield about the future. This plays a role analogous to that of an increase in risk aversion, making us more cautious. Fourthly, because imperfect knowledge of the risk makes it difficult to insure, the social cost of risk should include a risk premium. Finally, uncertainty about the economic environment enjoyed by future generations should be taken into account. This raises the benefit of acting early to prevent long-term risks. Copyright CEPR, CES, MSH, 2001.

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  • Christian Gollier, 2001. "Should we beware of the Precautionary Principle?," Economic Policy, CEPR;CES;MSH, vol. 16(33), pages 301-328, October.
  • Handle: RePEc:bla:ecpoli:v:16:y:2001:i:33:p:301-328
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    Citations

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    Cited by:

    1. Pauline Barrieu & Bernard Sinclair-Desgagné, 2006. "On Precautionary Policies," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 52(8), pages 1145-1154, August.
    2. GianCarlo Moschini, 2008. "Biotechnology and the development of food markets: retrospect and prospects," European Review of Agricultural Economics, Foundation for the European Review of Agricultural Economics, vol. 35(3), pages 331-355, September.
    3. Charles Sims & David Finnoff, 2016. "Opposing Irreversibilities and Tipping Point Uncertainty," Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, University of Chicago Press, vol. 3(4), pages 985-1022.
    4. Tiffany Shih & Brian Wright, 2011. "Agricultural Innovation," NBER Chapters,in: Accelerating Energy Innovation: Insights from Multiple Sectors, pages 49-85 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    5. Tania Bouglet & Thomas Lanzi & Jean-Christophe Vergnaud, 2006. "Incertitude scientifique et décision publique : le recours au Principe de pré-caution," Recherches économiques de Louvain, De Boeck Université, vol. 72(2), pages 109-127.
    6. Sheldon, Ian M. & Josling, Timothy E., 2002. "Biotechnology Regulations And The Wto," Working Papers 14594, International Agricultural Trade Research Consortium.
    7. Lawrence Summers & Richard Zeckhauser, 2008. "Policymaking for posterity," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 37(2), pages 115-140, December.
    8. Harrell Chesson & W. Viscusi, 2003. "Commonalities in Time and Ambiguity Aversion for Long-Term Risks ," Theory and Decision, Springer, vol. 54(1), pages 57-71, February.
    9. Jeffrey A. Frankel, 2003. "The Environment and Globalization," NBER Working Papers 10090, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    10. Felix R. FitzRoy & Ian Smith, 2002. "Welfare, Growth and Environment: A Sceptical Review of The Skeptical Environmentalist(Bjørn Lomborg, Cambridge University Press, 2001)," Discussion Paper Series, Department of Economics 200204, Department of Economics, University of St. Andrews.
    11. Venturini, Luciano, 2003. "The Food System In Transition: An E.U. Perspective," Working Papers 14362, University of Minnesota, Center for International Food and Agricultural Policy.
    12. Pauline Barrieu & Bernard Sinclair-Desgagné, 2003. "The Paradox of Precaution," CIRANO Working Papers 2003s-63, CIRANO.
    13. Farrer, Benjamin & Holahan, Robert & Shvetsova, Olga, 2017. "Accounting for heterogeneous private risks in the provision of collective goods: Controversial compulsory contracting institutions in horizontal hydrofracturing," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 133(C), pages 138-150.
    14. Randall, Alan, 2009. "We Already Have Risk Management - Do We Really Need the Precautionary Principle?," International Review of Environmental and Resource Economics, now publishers, vol. 3(1), pages 39-74, August.
    15. Laure Cabantous & Denis Hilton, 2006. "De l'aversion à l'ambiguïté aux attitudes face à l'ambiguïté. Les apports d'une perspective psychologique en économie," Revue économique, Presses de Sciences-Po, vol. 57(2), pages 259-280.
    16. Giuseppe Attanasi & Christian Gollier & Aldo Montesano & Noemi Pace, 2014. "Eliciting ambiguity aversion in unknown and in compound lotteries: a smooth ambiguity model experimental study," Theory and Decision, Springer, vol. 77(4), pages 485-530, December.
    17. Gollier, Christian, 2002. "Optimal Prevention of Unknown Risks: A Dynamic Approach with Learning," IDEI Working Papers 139, Institut d'Économie Industrielle (IDEI), Toulouse.

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