Ethical Dimensions of Renewable Energy and Sustainability Systems

3.5 Risk and Precaution


3.5 Risk and Precaution

Emerging Risks

Approaching any new territory in science and technology can present great payoffs and public goods, but it can also present daunting challenges that can change and shape international relations. For example, nuclear science and technology continue to present similar challenges to governments and populations across the world. Once certain knowledge or technology is produced, published, circulated, or otherwise manifested into the world, it cannot be undone.

Assessing Risks

Understanding and fully defining the risks of a given technical scenario require both an analysis of the science itself (see intrinsic ethics issues on handling of uncertainty), and a projection as to how the technology could potentially cause harm or otherwise negatively impact human well-being. Risk has two aspects that need to be considered when thinking about a project. Could the research or technology itself present any apparent or immediate risk? Could the technology increase the overall risk profile of a society?

What constitutes a viable risk assessment for energy and environment technologies? Precaution in the face of risk needs to be considered and taken into account in any case, and certain aspects of energy production can present an exceptional risk to human and environmental health. As such, regulation will need to be comprehensive, robust, and conservative with respect to risk projections.

The Precautionary Principle

Precautionary measures mandate that we proceed cautiously (but not necessarily slowly) and deliberatively in the face of high risks coupled with any uncertainties. The precautionary principle in its most simple expression suggests that we plan for worst-case scenarios in the face of high risks coupled with uncertainties. The main idea is that, when faced with taking risks (intended and unintended) that could affect a significant portion of the population or environment, we proceed through the process cautiously and deliberately. The precautionary principle should be invoked when high-risk, irreversible, or catastrophic situations are possible, even at a very low probability.