Week 8: Decisions: science, risk and knowledge

The environment risk management approaches for environmental decision making at four different levels. It is part of a long term project aimed at developing decision-making processes consistent with sustainable management.


Basic criteria for “good” decision making are efficiency, effectiveness and equity. A further criterion specific to environmental decision making is flexibility. In the context of environmental decision-making, efficiency can be interpreted as good process (rather than economic efficiency), and effectiveness as good outcomes. Ideally, if outcomes can be predicted with reasonable certainty, then good process should lead to good outcomes. In practice, the concept of a “good” decision depends on a combination of good process and good outcomes, and, according to the circumstances, different weights may be given to different aspects. In environmental situations, long lead time between action and outcome means that deducing effect from cause is not always possible; a decision maker must rely on judgment. Improving decision making therefore requires looking for ways of improving the quality of the judgment of the decision maker.


Risk exists when there is the possibility of adverse outcomes. Decisions affecting the natural and social environment are characterized by uncertainty. Recent work has developed this taxonomy:


risk: where system behavior is essentially known and outcomes can be assigned a probabilistic value;

scientific uncertainty: where significant systems parameters are known, but not probabilistic distributions;

ignorance: regarding what is unknown;

indeterminacy: where causal links, networks and/or processes are open and defy prediction.

Additional factors affecting environmental decision making include possible irreversible outcomes and the difficulties of balancing short term gain against long term, uncertain loss.

Environmental risk is not simply risk to the natural environment. New Zealand’s Resource Management Act (NZRMA) defines “environment” as including people and their social and cultural beliefs, as well as the natural environment. Environmental risk, therefore, includes ecological risk, human health risk, social, and cultural risk. This is consistent with the approach taken by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with their comparative risk assessment prioritization of environmental problems.


Source from:

[1]            Janet D. Gough & Jonet C. Ward, Environmental Decision Making and Lake Management, 48 J. Env’l Management (1994).

[2]            Baruch Fischhoff, Understanding Long Term Environmental Risks, 6 J. Risk & Uncertainty 315 (1990).

[3]            Steven R. Dovers & John W. Handmer, Ignorance, the Precautionary Principle and Sustainability, 24 Ambio 92 (1995); Silvio O. Funtowicz & Jerome R. Ravetz, Uncertainty and Quality in Science for Policy (1990); Silvio O. Funtowicz & Jerome R. Ravetz, Three Types of Risk Assessment and the Emergence of Post-Normal Science, in Social Theories of Risk (Dominic Golding and Sheldon Krimsky, eds. 1992); Silvio O. Funtowicz & Jerome R. Ravetz, Science for the Post-Normal Age, 25 Futures 735 (1993); Brian Wynne, Uncertainty and Environmental Learning: Reconceiving Science and Policy in the Preventive Paradigm, 2 Global Environ. Change 111 (1992); Brian Wynne & S. Mayer, How Science Fails the Environment, New Scientist, June 1993, at 33.

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