Renewing the Precautionary Principle for the Development of Complex Systems Technologies

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Nicholson, Lukas
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University of Guelph

Arguments against developing or adopting new technologies often rely on the precautionary principle (PP). Conceivable harms that could arise from new technologies suggest a cautious approach that requires key decision-makers to demonstrate some acceptable level of safety. If they cannot, then the PP is thought to provide reasons for maintaining the technological status quo. Critics of the PP sometimes raise the ‘arbitrariness objection’ (AO). According to the AO, the PP arbitrarily privileges risk aversion by neglecting opportunity costs and advocating a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach to decision-making. I argue that the AO fails when applied to the development of what I call complex systems technologies (CSTs). Some CSTs introduce more uncertainty, portend worse harms, and therefore pose greater risks than does merely foregoing their development. Through an analysis of one particular class of CSTs – namely, solar radiation management (SRM) technologies – I argue that choosing to precautionarily forego their development is far from arbitrary. Lastly, through my analysis of SRM technologies, I develop a modified version of the PP that surmounts the AO and can therefore guide the development of SRM technologies and new CSTs more broadly.

precautionary principle, solar radiation management, complex systems, climate change, decision theory, technology risk assessment