GENET archive


9-Misc: "That's the precautionary principle, American-style."

genet-news mailing list

-------------------------------- GENET-news --------------------------------

TITLE:  Precaution Is for Europeans
SOURCE: The New York Times, USA, by Samual Loewenberg
DATE:   May 18, 2003

------------------ archive: ------------------

Precaution Is for Europeans

Here's another example of how the United States has decided that Europe
is stuck in the past. Bush administration officials are exasperated with
Europe's belief in the precautionary principle, a better-safe-than-sorry
approach to regulating everything from corn flakes to chemical plants.

As outlined in a treaty of the European Union, governments should
regulate industries when they pose risks to public health and the
environment - even before all the data about the threat has been collected.

In keeping with this precautionary approach, Europe has prohibited
bioengineered crops and American beef treated with growth hormones, and
is now crafting legislation that will require chemical companies to spend
billions of dollars on safety tests of their products.

But what looks like a question of safety to the Europeans often seems
more like protectionism to the United States. The Bush administration
believes the precautionary principle is an unjustified constraint on
business and does not even recognize the existence of the doctrine.

"We consider it to be a mythical concept, perhaps like a unicorn," said
John D. Graham, the administrator at the Office of Management and Budget
in charge of vetting new regulations, in a recent speech to European
Union regulators.

The United States was once a leader in precautionary legislation. The
Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, both enacted in the 1970's with
bipartisan support, explicitly allow regulators to act in the face of
uncertain findings. But in the Reagan era, precautionary regulation was
seen as an enemy of the free market.

It was not just a Republican aversion. Though the Clinton administration
was far more active in adopting health and environmental regulations, it
battled Europe over the bans on genetically engineered foods and hormone-
treated beef.

But the Bush administration has actively challenged the very premise on
which the European actions are based.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Graham said that rather than believing in a
single precautionary principle, the administration acts when it
determines that the economic and health benefits outweigh the costs.
Before implementing a rule, the administration calculates the evidence of
harm, the relative risk to a population and whether the effect on the
population justifies taking regulatory measures. Mr. Graham cited the
government's tightening of limits on diesel fuel emissions as an example
of how his agency can act preventively when the numbers add up.

"In the Bush administration, the focus is on smarter regulation, defined
as applying science, engineering and economics, to proposed rules," said
Mr. Graham, who became known for his cost-benefit theories after founding
the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. Mr. Graham said that when he
started in 2001, his office challenged dozens of rules proposed by
federal agencies, but these days his office has not needed to send any
rules back, as agencies have learned what is acceptable.

Critics argue that Mr. Graham's cost-benefit analyses often lead to the
delay or watering down of health and environmental regulations.

"It is a cloak in many respects for limiting regulation without having to
be openly antienvironmental or antiworker or anticonsumer," said Gary D.
Bass, the director of OMB Watch, a government watchdog group.

For instance, President Bush withdrew from the international agreement on
reducing carbon emissions in order to limit global warming, arguing that
more data was needed before taking action.

In another split, Europe recently required industry to run extensive
health and environmental tests on the 30,000 most common chemicals.
Nearly all of these chemicals have been around for decades, but European
officials say little data is available on the vast majority of the
chemicals, and that the potential benefits more than justify the cost to

The Bush administration is up in arms over the proposal. The American
Chemistry Council, the industry's main trade group, contends that the
European Union wants to "eliminate all risks from daily life" and
"replace science with speculation." The United States has a voluntary
program in which companies disclose information on 2,200 of their most
common chemicals. Mr. Graham says this is equally precautionary and a
better use of limited resources.

Cass Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago who is
writing a book on the precautionary principle, believes that strict
adherence to the principle can be counterproductive - like curbs on
biotechnology, which, he says, could help feed the developing world.

At the same time, he argues that it is unreasonable for governments to
demand absolute certainty before they act. "It's nutty to require
conclusive evidence when the risk, if it comes to fruition, is extremely
serious," Mr. Sunstein said.

This was the logic, Mr. Sunstein notes, of President Bush's pre-emptive
strike on Iraq. President Bush argued that the risk of weapons of mass
destruction was great enough to warrant an attack, without absolute proof
that Iraq was hiding such weapons.

That's the precautionary principle, American-style.