The Cato Institute thinks that the “any risk is too great” is exactly the same when applied to environmental issues and geopolitical issues. This is hilariously illogical.
I recently came across this piece from the Cato Institute (a libertarian think-tank), titled “Taking Environmentalists Seriously” (spoiler: the article does not take environmentalism very seriously). The article attempts to argue against the environmentalist standard of “any risk is too great” by showing how using such logic in other scenarios yields irrational or counter-productive results.
However, trying to argue that standards of risk-assessment in political-military affairs should be equivalent to risk-assessment in environmental science is absurd for two reasons: 1) Risk-assessment in geopolitical affairs is done through institutions that have inherent interests one way or another toward, and thus is highly susceptible to falsification and corruption, and 2) the responses to political-military risks are remarkably different from responses to environmental risks, and thus the standards of gauging and acting on perceived risks should be different.
Now, to be clear, I am generally against blindly adhering to the standard of “any risk is too great”. Entropy is real (unfortunately!), and thus there is no way for our efforts sustain our day-to-day life, as well as our efforts to improve our standard of living, to be 100% insulated from effecting the environment. And of course, there is the question of opportunity cost–is it worth spending millions to prevent a specific pollutant from being released into the air, if this means that a factory that supplies valuable medical products will be shut down? Or if the possible health effects could be dealt with in a reasonable way for much less money? Or another example: is it worth trying to campaign for nuclear power plants to be shut down, if the immediate effect will be either 1) an increase in the costs of electricity, which may further immiserate the already economically marginalized, or 2) an increase in fossil-fuel plants, which contributes to local air-quality problems global climate change, and release more radiation than nuclear plants?
In other words, I do agree with the argument in the Cato piece that incorporating cost-benefit analysis into questions of ecological security and public health is important. There are probably one too many single-issue environmental campaigns that make no effort to understand the complexities of a certain scenario, and the opportunity costs involved.
However, the Cato piece quickly turns bizarre as the authors attempt to equivocate the risk assessments done prior to the Iraq War to environmentalists rallying to ban an environmental pollutant:
…substitute the phrase “environmental pollutant” with the phrase “Saddam Hussein” and you’ve actually got a reasonably fair depiction of the debate about whether the United States should preemptively strike Iraq to prevent chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons from falling into al Qaeda’s hands.
Apparently, its okay to approach different types of risk, in different situations and contexts, with the same exact logic:
Risk is risk. Whether we’re talking about the risk of global warming or the risk of being subject to a nuclear attack, the fundamentals about how we should think about risk and how we should go about dealing with it shouldn’t vary based upon the particular risk at hand.
Except that this is not how real-world risk is analyzed at all. Stripping the idea of “risk” away from all context, specifics, and contingencies of a situation completely destroys any practical use for risk-assessment (incidentally, I find that libertarians and anarcho-capitalists tend to often displace discussions of practical and real-world situations with abstract, homogeneous theory).
Characterizing Risk-Assessment Quality
One major error in generalizing all risks in all fields as fundamentally the same comes from the inability to distinguish the quality of the risk-assessment. To put it into statistical terms, different scenarios of risk have different confidence intervals, wider margins of error, and whatnot. Or broadly speaking, some risk-assessments are more scientific than others. And between political-military risk assessments and environmental risk-assessments, I think we can all guess which one is more scientific.
And when we’re talking about geopolitical risks, the quality of these assessments is especially suspect, because geopolitics today is so interwoven with conflicting interests that are often opposed (sometimes violently) to the global public interest. Geopolitical risk-assessments often are seen purely through the lens of hegemonic institutions like the military-industrial complex of the United States or multinational corporations with investments being threatened by unruly locals. The Iraq War is an especially good (and depressing) example of the lengths to which geopolitical risk-assessment is hopelessly muddled and unreliable, given the great lengths to which the Bush administration was willing to distort facts and information to fit their agenda.
Environmental science, on the other hand–while obviously being subject to interference from overzealous green groups or powerful corporations trying to improve their bottom line–is generally much more scientific than Washington (to put it lightly). There are numerous independent scientific organizations and journals that create a systemic pressure for the Truth about potential pollutants or ecological externalities to eventually come to light. So in general, risk-assessments in the field of ecological protection is generally of much higher quality than assessments in politics, both because there are checks and balances against abuses and lies, and because they actually use the scientific method. Therefore, it should be much easier to accept the existence of environmental risks, than it should be to accept the risks asserted by political elites based on secret information that they just can’t tell us…because “national security”.
Characterizing the Risks of Responding to Risk
The other major error in pretending we can approach all risks in the same way is that the responses to risks in different fields has very different effects. A response to a risk can itself have a certain amount of risk. This should be readily apparent in the context of geopolitical risk-responses like the Iraq War–the “solution” to the risk of Saddam Hussein acquiring and using WMDs was a bloody invasion that has wrecked havoc in Iraq, leaving somewhere around half a million people dead and millions more displaced and/or wounded–not to mention the enormous damage to Iraqi infrastructure and the economy in general. Point being, that responding to geopolitical risks–especially the preferred type of response by America’s military-industrial and political elites–requires an active engagement and an active expenditure of resources.
On the flip side, responding to environmental risks posed by a new type of chemical or industrial practice will typically require a “stagnation” of a certain activity, rather than active engagement. That is, responding to the risk of an environmental externality entails 1) a moratorium on a practice or the use of a substance until the risk becomes better understood and quantified, and/or 2) a tax/fine levied on the entity to discourage the continuation of a practice, and to collect resources to rectify the possible harms. Unlike the standard responses to a geopolitical risk, the responses to an environmental risk are easily curtailed or withdrawn, and the level of risk associated with responding to the original risk is of a much smaller magnitude than the risks associated with responding to political-military risks.
To conclude, I think there are extremely obvious answers to the question that Cato poses toward the end of their piece:
Why do we think one way about environmental risks but another about public risks in other contexts? Or to put it another way, why do some of us have far greater tolerances for some risks (like getting nuked by bin Laden because he got the bomb from Saddam Hussein) but not for others (like getting cancer from PCBs because you ate too many fish from the Hudson)?
We think about these risks in different ways because risk-assessment by the State is far more unreliable and subject to corruption than is risk-assessment by scientific organizations, and also because the responses that the State typically wishes to take toward perceived risks are themselves full of risk–as opposed to the easily-rectifiable responses toward environmental risk.
Addendum: I also want to comment on this bit of ideological gold found at the bottom of the Cato piece:
The science behind many of the environmental risks we worry about, after all, is no more certain than the geopolitical calculations used to justify war or peace. The cost-benefit calculations are just as tough.
…is Cato serious? Scientific investigation is just as uncertain as the political wrangling and ideological debates that beset Washington? Some “libertarians” these guys are.