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Risk has become a four-letter word in much of the environmental community. Carol Browner, the Clinton Administration's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator recently deleted risk from the list of the EPA's Guiding Principles, reportedly at the behest of environmental group leaders. This action, reversing the focus of prior administrations on risk-based priority setting, reflected the perception among environmentalists that making risk analysis a centerpiece of EPA's work inhibits regulatory activity and hampers environmental protection.
The retreat from risk as a central analytic focus of environmental decision-making represents a poor policy choice. Reducing risk is, almost by definition, the central purpose of environmental regulation. As John D. Graham and Jonathan B. Wiener point out in their new book Risk vs. Risk: Tradeoffs in Protecting Health and the Environment, "risk tradeoffs are a pervasive feature" of both individual and governmental decision-making regarding human health and the environment. Identifying, weighing, and comparing the risks (and benefits) of competing policy options are essential components of good environmental regulation. Fundamentally, there is no escaping risk analysis. If it is not done explicitly, with careful consideration of the alternatives available, risk tradeoffs will occur implicitly. Decisionmaking may be driven by public fear and special interest lobbying, and policies may not reflect the best interest of citizens.
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