Policy Analysis for Natural Hazards: Some Cautionary Lessons from Environmental Policy Analysis

By Adler, Matthew D. | Duke Law Journal, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Policy Analysis for Natural Hazards: Some Cautionary Lessons from Environmental Policy Analysis


Adler, Matthew D., Duke Law Journal


ABSTRACT

How should agencies and legislatures evaluate possible policies to mitigate the impacts of earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and other natural hazards? In particular, should governmental bodies adopt the sorts of policy-analytic and risk assessment techniques that are widely used in the area of environmental hazards (chemical toxins and radiation)? Environmental hazards policy analysis regularly employs proxy tests, in particular tests of technological "feasibility," rather than focusing on a policy's impact on well-being. When human welfare does enter the analysis, particular aspects of well-being, such as health and safety, are often given priority over others. "Individual risk" tests and other features of environmental policy analysis sometimes make policy choice fairly insensitive to the size of the exposed population. Seemingly arbitrary numerical cutoffs, such as the one-in-one million incremental risk level, help structure policy evaluation. Risk assessment techniques are often deterministic rather than probabilistic, and in estimating point values often rely on "conservative" rather than central-tendency estimates.

The Article argues that these sorts of features of environmental policy analysis may be justifiable, but only on institutional grounds--if they sufficiently reduce decision costs or bureaucratic error or shirking--and should not be reflexively adopted by natural hazards policymakers. Absent persuasive institutional justification, natural hazards policy analysis should be welfare-focused, multidimensional, and sensitive to population size, and natural hazards risk assessment techniques should provide information suitable for policy-analytic techniques of this sort.

INTRODUCTION

How should policy analysis for natural hazards be structured? Academics have given relatively little systematic attention to this question, by contrast with the question of structuring policy analysis for so-called "environmental" hazards (that is, chemical toxins and radiation). (1) To be sure, scholarly literatures focusing on risk assessment and management of certain specific natural hazards are well-developed--consider the literatures on flood, hurricane, and seismic risks. (2) But there is no general paradigm for natural hazards risk assessment comparable to the overarching framework for environmental risk assessment that the seminal Red Book (1983) (3) put in place. Since the publication of the Red Book, numerous governmental commission reports and academic reports on environmental risk assessment or management have appeared; (4) the counterpart literature, which treats natural hazards as a general problem for policy analysis, is much smaller. (5)

Turning from academic work to governmental practice, there certainly are agencies that have well-developed policy-analytic protocols for addressing natural hazards--consider the guidance documents for evaluating flood reduction measures that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) has developed over the years. (6) But expertise in policy analysis varies widely among natural hazards agencies. Compare ACE with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which has only fairly recently begun to develop risk assessment models. (7) By contrast, all the leading federal agencies that focus on chemical toxins and radiation--the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)--have adopted risk assessment as a key component of their decisionmaking. (8)

It is interesting to speculate about the reasons for the differential development of policy analysis in the environmental and natural hazards bureaucracies. The reasons may be in part historical (the happenstance of the Red Book's publication), cultural (the culture of science at EPA, and of toxicology at FDA, both of which were receptive to risk assessment), or structural (the fact that natural hazards policymaking is more highly devolved to the states than environmental policymaking; for example, FEMA's main tool for hazards mitigation is the funding of state mitigation plans and measures (9)). …

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