Like most of the actions we take to improve our safety, actions intended to reduce environmental health risks are rarely pure in their effects. We know that choices have consequences, and it’s a true Pollyanna who thinks that any significant action, risk-reducing or otherwise, can have purely positive consequences.
While some safety improvement may be gained through the impact of a given risk-reduction measure, we know that in many cases the unintended consequences of the measure can produce countervailing impacts which erase some or all of the perceived benefit. The recent debate over the countervailing impacts of automobile airbags is but one small example of such unintended consequences.
We also know that our available risk-reduction actions are not unlimited, but are constrained by the resources available to us as individuals and societies over a given span of time. We might like to pursue all risk-reduction measures at all possible speed at all times, but we know that such an approach is simply not possible for human beings, any more than it is possible for any other organism or society which exists in a constrained world. We must choose where to invest our risk-reduction resources, and we must do so wisely, or we will inevitably find ourselves living in a riskier world than we might otherwise.
Making sound public-policy decisions regarding risk-reduction measures requires a balanced net-benefit framework for portraying both the nature of environmentally conveyed health risks and the consequences of taking action – or choosing not to take action – to reduce them. It also requires an easily understood framework for choosing a strategy, whether that strategy is intended to head off a specific risk in a specific way, or is intended to help society and its members prepare for suspected, but poorly defined risks looming in the distance. Such a net-benefit / sound-strategy framework can help decisionmakers make sensible choices regarding public policy. While some individuals may prefer simply to make choices based on sentiment rather than a careful weighing of risk information, decisions made in the public-sector regarding risk mitigation should be strategically sound and based on a net-benefit assessment of available measures that incorporates an evaluation of risk shifting and tradeoffs.
Environmental advocacy groups and agencies have long favored an anticipatory strategy to dealing with climate change, heading possible problems off at the pass through what might be called a “fast-drive / fixed-target” approach. They advocate the selection of a series of fixed targets for greenhouse gas reductions, and then a rapid drive toward those targets through aggressive use of industrial policy, taxation, marketable permit trading, regulations, or a combination of these approaches. The Kyoto protocol, announced in December 1997, exemplifies this anticipatory approach and gives us a concrete proposal to evaluate as a public policy option.
While portrayed as a “step in the right direction” by many environmental agencies and advocacy groups, scientists involved in climate- change research have characterized the potential impacts of the actual accord reached in Kyoto as negligible in terms of environmental benefit. Benefits, it is acknowledged, would result only if predicted harms are averted many years from now as the result of many future steps in the same direction.
But since future steps are highly speculative, and present-day impacts are more concrete, it is important to view the pros and cons of this first step on its own merits. When one considers a holistic view of potential benefits and liabilities of the anticipatory Kyoto-protocol approach to climate change policy, one finds the near-term benefits are scant, and the liabilities significant:
The national debate over climate change policy illustrates the way that our current decision- making process takes a tunnel-vision view of important environmental health measures, and disregards the knowledge constraints that should guide our strategy selection.
This policy brief examines the way that a tunnel- vision approach can turn a public-safety measure into a potential public-health hazard. In a net-benefits framework, implementing the anticipatory Kyoto protocol may well do more harm than good in the near term and offer only uncertain benefits in the longer term.