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Values – Objective Risk Assessment, Quantification Methods, Role of Science
A. Introduction
We now begin our final area of examination, values. The types of values referenced in this section are focused primarily on how humans assess risk. We will see that human assessment of risk follows our previous discussion of information, dividing the kind of information that leads to risk assessment into two major categories: objective and subjective forms of risk. In this section, we will discuss the objective form of risk assessment, looking at how science helps us understand the concept of risk. In the following section we will look at subjective forms of risk assessment and try to understand how they help to inform opinion and thus drive policy directions.

B. Risk Assessment
Think for a moment about how you might assess a risk? What are the factors you might apply in defining a risk? Why those particular factors? And, importantly, do you think the factors you might choose to describe a risk are the same factors others might choose? This is really at the heart of this section on risk assessment. Remember, we are using the process of identifying risk as a proxy for understanding values. Thus, the factors we use in coming to a sense of a risk are an important way of understanding how humans think about environmental problems within a risk context. In this section our focus is on understanding objective forms of risk assessment. One of the ways of establishing objective forms of risk assessment is to gain a perspective of the ‘risk’ in a particular policy direction that is, to the extent practicable, immune from bias. Bias speaks to the subjective experiences of humans, as well as to flaws in interpretation of data (via human perspective), and can thus impact both results (bias in methods used) and conclusions (bias in interpreting results). Thus, objective forms of measuring risk are meant to help prevent the formation of bias and thus give us a clearer indication of risk.

C. Assumptions Under Objective Forms of Risk Assessment
Objective forms of risk assessment are directly linked to the scientific method. This means that the assumptions and limitations built into our understanding of the world under science (discussed earlier in this course) exist in our objective assessments of risk. To reinforce this point from the text, consider the following generalized relationship between the probability of harm and magnitude of harm visually presented here:

As noted in the text, there is an inverse relationship presumed between probability and magnitude of harm: as the probability increases, the magnitude decreases – and viceversa. This general presumption helps us understand risk assessment in environmental policy (and other policy arenas). We assume that high probability events will tend to be of lower magnitude, and low probability events will tend to be of higher magnitude (at least if we are employing policy correctly to mitigate risk). This relationship between probability and magnitude of harm is also a general presumption inherent in equilibrium theory and natural systems discussed earlier in this course. A well-mixed natural system provides the background upon which life is capable of developing. A natural system like our Earth has a lot of life (and variety of life on it) that has developed and thrived under background conditions. Thus, the background conditions that exist present the relationship between probability and magnitude of harm suggested above. For example, the sun ‘rises’ every day and drenches the Earth in solar irradiance; much of what is potentially toxic to humans and other species. However, the worst parts of the sun’s irradiance are ‘filtered’ by protective layers that surround the Earth (like the ozone layer for instance). Life has developed on Earth based on this filtering so the spectrum of the sun that arrives at the Earth’s surface (particular the thermal bands of electromagnetic energy) is not harmful. Thus, we can say the following regarding this background condition of the Earth: • The portion of the sun’s rays that reach the earth surface are a high probability event (because it happens all the time), and because this is a high probability

event the magnitude of harm from this part of the electromagnetic spectrum (like heat energy) is low (we are ‘adapted’ to actually thrive from this energy – plants actually need it to grow and we need the plants to give off oxygen for our survival). • The portions of the sun’s rays that are filtered from reaching the earth surface (including ultra-violet radiation) under normal circumstances have a low probability likelihood of actually reaching the earth surface (because of the filtering agents like the ozone layer). Thus, if this particular energy did reach the earth, it would lead to a high magnitude of harm because the natural system (including the living things on the system) is not adapted to dealing with the event (low probability).1

Environmental policy follows the same precepts in its assumptions about human actions and the environment. The example provided in the text is on nuclear energy; we know that a nuclear disaster would provide a high magnitude event that would be extremely harmful to life on Earth. Thus, we have to assume that allowing the development and use of nuclear materials must have included some assessment (and policy initiatives) to ensure that the probability of risk was low, otherwise why would we ever engage in such a risky activity as enriching and using such a dangerous thing? In other words, our current state of knowledge and policies derived around the creation, refinement, and use of nuclear material must have included a risk assessment process that ensured the probability of risk remained low. If this were not the case – if we ended up with both a high probability of harm and high risk of harm – we would really need to revisit the policy behind the development of nuclear materials (whether for energy, weaponry, medicine, science, etc.). So objective risk assessment, in many ways, is about understanding the relationship between magnitude of harm and probability of harm. From this assessment, policies can be developed that attempt to ensure and maintain the inverse relationship between magnitude and probability; in other words the goal of environmental policy, from a risk assessment standpoint, is to ensure the inverse relationship is maintained. Any policy that deviates from this inverse relationship may be considered suspect. You may also see the role of adaptive management in the process described above. Recall that science is always updating (refining) our understanding of what we know about the natural world. This refinement process certainly includes our understanding of objective risk. As science comes up with new information about known risks, we can update our policies by referencing this updated risk knowledge against the probabilitymagnitude relationship described above. Where policies show a weak inverse relationship based on new information, this may signal a trigger that the policy needs to be revisited in light of this new information. Examples were provided in this text on when


See how important systems thinking is in understanding these concepts?

such information may trigger a reassessment of existing policy, and also where such information may trigger the need to develop new policy directions. What remains to be discussed is the precise process used in coming up with a probability and magnitude of harm rating, particularly understanding the magnitude of harm. To understand the objective methods for assessing a likelihood of harm, we must review the ways in which risk is quantified.

D. Quantification Methods
In order to quantify risk, we first need to come to some agreement on what a risk is (and is not). Sometimes it is hard to determine a ‘risk’ in absolute terms, meaning the risk is somewhat dependent on context. We do have the relationship between probability and magnitude of harm described above; this relationship offers us one method of assessing risk: the greater the magnitude and probability of harm together, the greater the risk. Visually, this can be represented in our previous figure as follows:

The context expressed in this relationship is clear: greater risk exists where the probability and magnitude of harm are both high (red shading); less risk exists where the probability and magnitude of harm are both low (green shading). While this is helpful in some ways, we still need to understand how magnitude of harm is determined as a function of risk. To begin, we can create a rank-ordering (priority) system that helps us

identify risk in relation to certain policy goals. As stated in the text, the traditional rankorder presented for environmental policy is the following: • • • • Priority #1: Human Health Priority #2: Human Wellbeing Priority #3: Ecosystem Integrity Priority #4: Aesthetic Considerations

Each priority is discussed in some detail in the text materials. One thing we might consider here is the relationship this rank-ordering system has to certain assumptions we have made about the interrelationships between society and environment, particularly about the natural system as a necessary background prerequisite to human wellbeing. To help with understanding this point, the relationship between environment, society, and economy we explored earlier is reproduced here:

If we accept the underlying premises of this figure, particularly that the environment creates the outer limits for social and economic prosperity, then the ranking system identified above may seem incomplete. For example, ecosystem integrity (Priority #3) may be inextricably linked to human health (Priority #1) and human wellbeing (Priority #2) under a natural systems theory, meaning ecosystem integrity is a necessary prerequisite for human health and wellbeing. In a way we may identify ecosystem integrity as a singular goal under a natural systems analysis, meaning that if our focus in

environmental policy is on enhancing and maintaining ecosystem integrity, then other closely associated factors like human health and wellbeing will follow. In this context, a defined risk to ecosystem health is a risk to human health and wellbeing: there is no real prioritization between these categories of risk. Putting aside the question of ranking systems, or priorities, in risk assessment, we can review the general risk assessment process, which is as follows: • First, identify the hazard. What precisely is a hazard can be a measure of magnitude and harm as described earlier, as well as a determination of potential impacts on our priority listing; something may be considered ‘more’ hazardous if it impacts human health, but less hazardous if it is shown to only impact aesthetics. Second, engage in a dose-response assessment. At what levels might the potential hazard create a true risk under stated priorities? For example, there are background rates of radiation in our environment that are not considered to have a high magnitude of harm. However, at certain concentrations, the radiation moves from a low magnitude to a high magnitude of harm. Third, engage in an exposure assessment. Once a magnitude of harm is known, exposure assessment provides some evidence on the probability of harm; under what conditions might the probability of harm increase, and what actions (policies) might be taken to decrease this probability?

These are the three steps in engaging in a risk assessment process. A visual representation of this process is reproduced from the text here:

In summary, we can see that objective values are really not ‘objective’ in a literal sense. Rather, the process of understanding values as a representation of risk utilizes science as a means of identifying the magnitude and probability of potential harms, but there is no absolute way of determining a risk itself: what we decide to determine as ‘risky’ has a lot to do with how we rank our priorities. If we are focused on human health as the basis for identifying risk, then we may capture risks that are immediate and obvious, while potentially failing to capture long-term exposure risks that are more incremental in nature (like climate change). In this way we may see how difficult certain environmental problems are, particularly those where the risks are not obvious and acute, but rather accumulate over time. We may also see the connection between these kinds of risks and concepts of intergenerational equity, or fairness of passing on incremental risks today that may accrue to more substantial (realized) risks for future generations. END OF SECTION.