A recent report by the European Environment Agency (EEA) ought to be required reading for President Obama, members of Congress, and all other public officials right on down the line.
Entitled "Late Lessons from Early Warnings", the authors of the report use numerous examples to show how society has been slow to react to significant danger signs from looming environmental problems. The procrastination resulted in more losses in blood and treasure than needed to have occurred. Furthermore, the EEA expresses concern that in dealing with current warning signals, humanity has not learned sufficiently from past mistakes.
The constituent European countries of the EEA don't always practice the precautionary strategy that the agency preaches. But they resort to it in environmental matters more than we do on this side of the pond. For example, they are ahead of us in their precautionary strategies to mitigate global warming through carbon emission reduction and expanded renewable energy use. And in May, the European Commission defied the world's major chemical companies. A two year ban was instituted on three pesticides implicated as key factors in the precipitous decline of the global honey bee population, whose pollination is essential to a sustainable world food supply. By contrast, our Environmental Protection Agency has dragged its feet in coming to the aid of the bees.
Many in the business community argue that uncertainty negates the case for precautionary measures, that to commit to extra remedial acts is tantamount to "jumping the gun". It is an argument used against climate change, pesticides, and any other environmental threat associated with the complainants' products.
But the EEA notes that the risk of overspending on prevention of a significant threat is usually far outweighed by the risk of doing nothing. It laments that society has not learned sufficiently from experience with second hand tobacco smoke, leaded gasoline, and other environmental scourges whose early warning signs were largely ignored to the detriment of health and the national budget.
What about false alarms? EEA researchers say such phenomena have been rare, and even in those instances, the unnecessary preventive measures have usually turned out to be beneficial in their own right.
One distinct message stands out in the EEA report. There is a moral imperative to give future generations a fighting chance. If that is not enough to overcome worries about uncertainty and potential costs in addressing significant environmental threats, take note of the industry that is the leading expert on fiscal risk. Insurance companies don't vacillate in these challenging situations. Their credo is drawn from the venerable adage "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
It should be our credo, too.