The European Environment Agency (EEA) report on risks to the environment and people is important. Despite its length of 750 pages and sometimes overly technical discussions, the report is filled with engaging stories, tons of useful details, and persuasive arguments. Above all, it serves as a cumulative, convincing demonstration of the critical need for the precautionary principle.
The first issue is what to call the risks that are the subject of the report. At times the report calls them “mistakes”, at other times “disasters”, or “case studies”; once they are called “tragedies”, and once “wicked problems” (an engaging phrase). “Mistakes” seems particularly unhelpful as it means, ‘a wrong judgment or misunderstanding’; or ‘a wrong action or statement proceeding from faulty judgment, inadequate knowledge, or inattention’. (Merriam-Webster Online) The word suggests that what transpired was not the fault of whoever triggered the event; it almost absolves the actors, as in the phrase, “mistakes happen.” Certainly what happened in Minamata Japan could not be classified as a “mistake,” since many acts were irresponsible and some of the actions were intentional, as when the chemical company purposely suppressed facts that led to further instances of mercury poisoning in children and others. To the credit of the authors, Minamata is consistently described as a “disaster.” Chernobyl and Fukushima, as well as the doubt manufactured by the fossil fuel interests (to push for leaded gas, and against climate change action) also hardly seem like mistakes.
For our purposes, we will use the neutral term “case studies” that is relied on by most authors in the EEA report.
Trying to distil 750 pages is a real challenge, and each of the twenty-six case studies covered by the report has its own lessons. What we can offer is a sense of several key general lessons learned from reading the report, and then we will focus in more detail on several of twenty-six specific case studies covered by the report, in the hopes that we can whet your appetite to read more of the report.
A Few Lessons
Risks and Uncertainty:
The clash that emerges from the case studies is most often between private economic motive (making money), and the risk-taking that is often driven by that motive, and the public interest or common good that is served by the precautionary principle.
Risk takers thrive on uncertainty; it’s when they’re at their best. While others hold back and await clearer signals, or more or better information, the risk takers leap forward to seize an economic opportunity. Sometimes they fail, sometimes they succeed. If they fail, often only they suffer. Of course sometimes the risk taking does harm others, the bank crisis being an example. Sometimes the more uncertainty, the greater is the financial reward.
In contrast, the precautionary principle holds, according to the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992), “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.” If some action or practice or policy has a risk of harming people or the environment, and there is some uncertainty about the nature or scope of that risk, corrective action should nevertheless be taken in order to protect people and/or the environment. In effect, the action should be stopped, the practice discontinued, or the policy changed to avoid the risk. For instance, a recent instance of its application is when the EU banned certain pesticides to protect bees despite some uncertainty in the scientific reports.
Private economic actors take risks because there is uncertainty; public regulators oppose risks despite uncertainty. The two camps do not talk the same language.
In a perverse twist on the role of uncertainty, risk takers feed off it and take actions despite uncertainty, and yet they turn around and argue to others that government agencies should not be allowed to regulate their activities because there is too much uncertainty in the risks from their activities.
False claims about false positives:
Many in the regulated community have argued that governments and environmentalists have overreacted to risks that were not real, that there has been “over-regulation of minor risks and regulation of non-existent risks, often due to unwarranted public ‘fears’.” At 12. Such regulatory action leads, it is claimed, to false positives, or false alarms: an alarm about a risk is raised but the harm never materializes. More unkind characterisations of the false alarms include “unfounded health scares”, “environmental hoaxes”, “eco-myths.” At 50.
The EEA report investigated 88 cases where it was alleged government regulation was based on precaution but where it turned out that no harm happened and the regulation was unnecessary, and expensive. The report found that of the 88, there were only 4 false alarms: US swine flu, saccharin, food irradiation, and Southern leaf corn blight. In a third, about 30 cases, the scientific evidence showed a real risk that was not addressed. In the other cases, either it is still unclear if a risk exists or problems were found in how the risks were defined. In any case, only 4 cases were truly false alarms. The report concludes that, “Overall, the analysis shows that fear of false positives is misplaced and should not be a rationale for avoiding precautionary actions where warranted.’ At 12.
The lack of evidence of any substantial amount of false alarms, yet the perception by many that they exist, is attributed in part to the concerted effort by vested interests to manufacture doubt about the science showing a risk and the fact that “many risk assessments and impact analyses are conducted by those with a vested interest in a particular technology.” At 66.
The twenty-six situations explored here present an entirely different issue: false negatives, i.e., where regulation was not or is not being enacted, largely because of lobbying by vested interests, and yet the warnings of a risk have turned or are turning out to be accurate. In other words, “instances where early warnings existed but no preventive actions were taken.” At 9. The report finds that there are many false negatives — no protective measures taken yet risk was real — whereas false alarms are rare.
The story of the mercury poisoning of adults and children in Minamata, Japan is sad, outrageous, and compelling. The sadness comes directly from the suffering of the victims of Minamata Disease, a form of mercury poisoning that eats away the brain, and especially from the congenital victims who were poisoned while in utero and came into this world with little to help them survive, except their caring families. The outrage is directed at the chemical company that discharged mercury-contaminated wastewater into the Bay that supplied the people of Minamata with the fish that they sold and ate. As the fish were filled were mercury, so too were those who ate the fish. When the Disease first appeared, many believed it was somehow related to the chemical company’s discharges but the company denied any responsibility, blamed others, and refused to provide any help to authorities in tracing the source of the mercury. Then the chief doctor at the company’s hospital conducted some experiments and identified the source in the company’s wastewater. The company suppressed the results, instructed the doctor to destroy his experiments, and forbid him to discuss the matter. Meanwhile it continued to discharge mercury into the Bay knowing full well it was inflicting the suffering on the people, including the children.
The story is compelling because despite the extent of the suffering and the criminal conduct of the chemical company (several employees were criminally prosecuted), the victims organized and persisted in a 50-year struggle to get an apology and justice. They were resilient. Note 1
The story is told much more dispassionately in the EEA report, which tends to focus on many of the technical issues related to the efforts to discover the cause and the convoluted process of trying to get certified as a victim of Minamata Disease. At first the chemical company and then the governments took responsibility for setting the criteria for who was inflicted with Minamata Disease, and what proof was required. Eventually the governments became responsible for the compensation paid to the victims. So those who were paying the claims were setting the terms, and the terms kept changing over the years. To this date “several tens of thousands have neurological symptoms characteristic of methylmercury poisoning but remain formally unrecognized as Minamata disease patients.” At 126.
Lawsuits against the company and later against the governments found the company responsible and the government complicit in the delays and failure to support the victims.
The EEA report rightly concludes that the company’s conduct was a classic example of how “spurious demands” for greater certainty about the cause of the harm “resulted in unnecessary delay and continuing exposure (‘analysis by paralysis’).” At 143. Perhaps it’s really paralysis by analysis, sometimes called “manufactured doubt.” While the company was manufacturing doubt, the regional and national governments’ “legalistic approach to accreditation and compensation compounded the problems.” At 144.
The notion of a ”precautionary principle” was decades away when the Minamata Disease surfaced in the 1950s. Yet we can see its critical role in dealing with disasters or “wicked problems.” The obstructionist, even criminal, behavior of the chemical company advanced a private economic interest and there was no countervailing pressure from the people’s representatives — the regional and national governments — pushing for an early identification of the cause of the disease or the extent of the disease. Instead the governments were complicit in the delays and denials, and the victims suffered all the more because of it. Indeed some never would have become victims if the governments had interceded earlier and the company had not suppressed the results of the cat experiments.
Only the resilience and courage of the people afflicted, and their families, was eventually to overcome all the economic, legal, and political obstacles to obtain justice, including an apology. Had the precautionary principle been operative, and applied, the suffering of the people of Minamata could have been cut short by fifty years.
Until the 2011 nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Japan, the explosion and resulting radioactive discharges in 1986 at Chernobyl, in Belarus was the “worst.” At Chernobyl, over a 6-day period, 30-60% of the reactor’s core of radioactive products discharged to the atmosphere. That means, of course, that 40-70% of the radioactive materials remain enclosed in an unsecure and deteriorating containment structure, called a sarcophagus.
The released radioactive materials were spread over 200,000 square kilometers (km2), or 77,200 square miles. Back at the plant, eventually about 335,000 citizens had to be evacuated and relocated. An area of 30 km(18m) around the plant, the exclusion or dead zone, has remained uninhabitable, and likely will remain so forever. That’s a long time. Remediation of the site will take another half century, and the sarcophagus has to be replaced in that time, its costs still unknown and unaccounted for.
Several dozen people died directly as a result of the explosion and ensuing fire and efforts to stop further releases of radioactive materials, and several thousand of the “liquidators” —those who responded to the explosion and fires — suffered varying degrees of radioactive sicknesses. See, also, “Chernobyl” in Hernan in Sources.
The EEA report covers the widely different estimates of death from cancer from exposure to the radioactive substances, as well as non-cancer illnesses. The International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), an entity that supports nuclear energy, has offered an estimate of 4,000 deaths that can be attributed to exposures associated with Chernobyl, while other organizations dispute that number as too conservative. The EEA report, based on IAEA, US and other international data, estimates the deaths from cancer in the range from 17,000 to 68,000 over a 50-year period. AT 467.
In addition, there are risks of people contracting cancer as a result of Chernobyl exposures. Some 4,000 to 5,000 children were diagnosed with, and treated for, thyroid cancer, and the EEA report notes the recent findings of an increased incidence of leukemia among clean-up workers and those who were infants at the time of the disaster. It is also noted that the latency period for leukemia can exceed more than 40 years, whereas Chernobyl occurred only 27 years ago.
Besides the direct deaths, estimated deaths from cancer, and the cancer risks, there have been other health effects, including cardiovascular and immunological disorders, as well as increased levels of stress and depression.
Finally, there has been the environmental damage caused by the loss of the 30 km dead zone, and the astronomic costs of the cleanup and health care imposed on the affected countries, totaling in the hundreds of billions of dollars. At 477.
Based on what we learned from Chernobyl, it is too early to assess the long-term impacts from the earthquake and tsunami that hit the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, and which released, and continues to threaten to release, radioactive material into the atmosphere, seas, and land. We know that low levels of radioactive materials from Fukushima ended up in Greece, Russia and the United States, and an area between 500 and 1,300 km2 likely will need remediation over a half-century.
Between Chernobyl and Fukushima, we have experienced two catastrophic meltdowns in four nuclear reactors over 25 years. As a result, the probability of a major nuclear incident is no longer one every 100 years but one every 20 years. No wonder the Germans have decided against further nuclear power. You have to ask why the Japanese are now reconsidering a further reliance on nuclear power.
Nuclear reactors are usually located on or near water bodies. If rising sea levels, storm surges, and flooding — climate change impacts —were to be considered in the risk analysis for nuclear power, the odds of another nuclear meltdown likely could be less than 20 years.
One clear lesson, consistent with the precautionary principle, is that the possibility of a catastrophic disaster and the resulting economic and personal injury liabilities, and the very long-term loss of a part of the earth, and all the problems with disposal of nuclear waste, must be accounted for in any policy, regulation and economic assessment of nuclear energy. This assessment is also required by the polluter pays principle. In light of the many risks presented, it is hardly surprising that many ministers in the EU countries have concluded that “nuclear power was not compatible with the concept of sustainable development, suggesting that nuclear power does not provide a viable option in combating climate change.” At 476
While earthquakes and tsunamis can kill hundreds of thousands of people, far more than nuclear disasters, when the shock and water recede, the earth is restored and the disaster is over. A nuclear disaster continues to affect the earth forever.
People have always been attracted to living near rivers and river valleys as the rivers promote fertile soils, offer flat terrain for farming, and provide water for farming, drinking and transport. Coasts likewise have attracted large populations, for many of the same reasons, as well as for recreational activities.
Those rivers and coasts now represent major threats, thanks to nature and poor planning that have joined together to turn flooding into a more frequent and more intense, and more damaging, force.
Lands along rivers and coasts have been overbuilt. In Europe, as well as in North America and Japan, 90% of floodplains have become extinct or converted to cropland or urban developments. In Bangladesh, the most densely populated country, about 80% of the country is covered by a delta floodplain, subject to repeated flooding. In a 1998 flooding, more than two-thirds of the country was inundated.
Global economic losses from extreme weather events, including floods, increased 10-fold between 1950s and 1990s. And it could get worse. The report points out that one of the highest point precipitation amounts ever recorded for one day was 1,825 millimeters (mm), and that if such precipitation occurred over a large city, or directly upstream, “the result could be expected to be utter destruction.” At 384. What were once 100-year floods by 2100 will become 50-year floods in some areas. In light of these growing risks, the report examines the various early warning systems for impending floods, and how they can be improved.
Climate change, by all reasonable accounts, will continue to exacerbate river floods at the same time as it results in sea level rise leading to coastal flooding. While climate skeptics may continue to deny such impacts, insurance companies are firm believers.
The EEA report shows how we have fought back against flooding by construction of hard infrastructure, e.g., dams, dikes, reservoirs, floodways, only to find they are inadequate, or even destroyed by flooding. The report stresses that the current strategy for dealing with floods is to learn to “live with floods” (Germany) or “making space for water” (Netherlands, UK).
The Swiss now require flood control measures to be linked to improvements in river floodplain ecosystems. The Dutch are allowing for the periodic flooding of land that can no longer be protected with hard infrastructure, after moving residents to ground high enough to account for climate change sea level rises. There are many other examples of living with floods, including land use planning (don’t build in flood-prone areas), creation of wetlands, and managed realignment of coasts and rivers
Precautionary thinking is beginning to infiltrate planning policies. For example in the UK, projections of increased river flow volumes are required now to reflect possible effects of climate change, at 10% up to 2025 and 20% after 2085. The Dutch require a climate change factor in any new plans for flood control measures.
As the report rightly explores, the need for such precautionary planning is all the more necessary because of the unfortunate reality that as flood waters recede, so do the memories of the destruction caused by the flooding.
The section on “Climate change: science and the precautionary principle,” is primarily a re-telling of the unfolding of the climate change debate and what actions, and failures, are reflected in that debate. Of course, there is no debate any more about the reality of climate change – the global climate is changing as a result of human actions, primarily the burning of fossil fuels, and the earth and its inhabitants are at serious risk from these changes. The history is well told and a useful summary.
As discussed at the end of the section, the real challenge, with deadly consequences, is whether the precautionary principle will prevail in the fight over mitigation and adaptation to the impacts from climate change. Despite some uncertainty about the scope and geographic impacts from climate change, can the international community muster the will power to engage in a global agreement on reducing, drastically, even moderately, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions? The verdict is not unexpected: “…the sum of international political action over the last 20 years is inconsistent with a strict interpretation of the precautionary principle, which would require taking necessary action in the absence of full information.” At 368. Only time will tell.
The stories told above — Minamata, nuclear, floods, and climate change — are just examples of what is offered by the EEA report with 26 case studies. There are also case studies on leaded petrol, PCE water contamination, tobacco companies manufactured doubt on smoking hazards, DDT, vinyl chloride, GM crops, mobile phones and others.
One powerful tool often relied on by the EEA throughout its work is that of stories in the form of case studies, as here, or the EEA Signals. Of course the EEA provides the most current data and extensive analysis in its work, but it also seems to recognize the need to provide access to the issues through stories, or narrative, as well as through evidence and data. They are right about this focus.
As the report notes, the application of the precautionary principle is needed even more now as technologies develop and are applied globally with lightening speed. Just remember that cell phones have become widely available and used across the globe only in the last thirty years. Only those over 30 know about life before cell phones.
Note 1. The synopsis is based on the story of Minamata as told in the author’s book on environmental disasters. Robert Emmet Hernan, This Borrowed Earth: Lessons From the Fifteen Worst Environmental Disasters Around the World (in English, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010; in Chinese, China Machine Press, 2011).
European Environment Agency, Late lessons from early warnings: science, precaution, innovation www.eea.europa.eu/publications/late-lessons-2
“Precautionary Principle,” Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992) www.unep.org/Documents.multilingual/Default.asp?DocumentID=78&ArticleID=1163
UK Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (defra), Making space for water: Taking forward a new Government strategy for flood and coastal erosion risk management in England (March 2005). archive.defra.gov.uk/environment/flooding/documents/policy/strategy/strategy-response1.pdf
“Bee-harming pesticides banned in Europe,” The Guardian, 29 April 2013. www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/apr/29/bee-harming-pesticides-banned-europe
See, also, “Precautionary Principle,” in the iePEDIA section of the current (May 2013) issue of irish environment.