Any regulatory regime is faced with the question of how to make regulatory decisions under uncertainty or even ignorance. It may be helpful in this respect to resort to a differentiation that Resnik has proposed:

• Decisions under certainty. The outcomes of different choices are known.

• Decisions under risk. Probabilities can be assigned to the outcomes of different choices.

• Decisions under ignorance. It is not possible to assign probabilities to the outcomes of different choices.

Using precaution for the first two cases seems neither necessary nor prudent given that regulation needs to meet both objectives: ecological protection and securing economic welfare. The legitimate realm of using precaution is in the case of ignorance or other forms of remaining uncertainties (such as system boundaries or truly stochastic events). This is the place where precaution should be applied. The main purpose of precaution in this respect is to avoid irreversible decisions. Where it is clearly impossible to calculate expected values, a precautious approach can help societies to be more resilient against unpleasant surprises and to invest in decreasing vulnerabilities.

See also: Biogeochemical Approaches to Environmental Risk Assessment; Ecological Complexity; Ecological Risk Assessment; Risk Management Safety Factor.

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