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Irreversible and Catastrophic

Cass R. Sunstein

Harvard Law School

Cornell Law Review, Forthcoming

As many treaties and statutes emphasize, some risks are distinctive in the sense that they are potentially irreversible or catastrophic; for such risks, it is sensible to take extra precautions. When a harm is irreversible, and when regulators lack information about its magnitude and likelihood, they should purchase an "option" to prevent the harm at a later date - the Irreversible Harm Precautionary Principle. This principle brings standard option theory to bear on environmental law and risk regulation. And when catastrophic outcomes are possible, it makes sense to take special precautions against the worst-case scenarios - the Catastrophic Harm Precautionary Principle. This principle is based on two foundations: an appreciation of people's failure to appreciate the expected value of truly catastrophic losses; and an understanding of the distinction between risk and uncertainty. The Irreversible Harm precautionary Principle must, however, be applied with a recognition that irreversible harms are sometimes on all sides of social problems, and that such harms may be caused by regulation itself. The Catastrophic Harm Precautionary Principle must be applied with an understanding that in some cases, eliminating the worst-case scenario causes far more serious problems than it solves. The normative arguments are illustrated throughout with reference to the problem of global warming; other applications include injunctions in environmental cases, genetic modification of food, protection of endangered species, and terrorism.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 68

Keywords: precautionary principle, irreversibility, catastrophe, risk, uncertainty, probability

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Date posted: April 19, 2005  

Suggested Citation

Sunstein, Cass R., Irreversible and Catastrophic. Cornell Law Review, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=705323

Contact Information

Cass R. Sunstein (Contact Author)
Harvard Law School ( email )
1575 Massachusetts Ave
Areeda Hall 225
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-496-2291 (Phone)
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