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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter February 21, 2007

The Catastrophic Harm Precautionary Principle

Cass R. Sunstein

When catastrophic outcomes are possible, it makes sense to take precautions against the worst-case scenarios — the Catastrophic Harm Precautionary Principle. This principle is based on three foundations: an emphasis on people’s occasional failure to appreciate the expected value of truly catastrophic losses; a recognition that political actors may engage in unjustifiable delay when the costs of precautions would be incurred immediately and when the benefits would not be enjoyed until the distant future; and an understanding of the distinction between risk and uncertainty. The normative arguments are illustrated throughout with reference to the problem of climate change; other applications include avian flu, genetic modification of food, protection of endangered species, and terrorism.

Published Online: 2007-2-21

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