Are global environmental risks really new risks? If so, in what sense are they new, or how do they differ from risks that societies have faced throughout history? Or is it the global political context in which such risks occur, the fragmented management setting, and the weak international institutions that differ so markedly from other risk situations?
This section addresses the nature of global environmental risks and how they may best be characterized. In the field of risk analysis, the 1990s have been an active period of exploring ways of characterizing and comparing risks. Rightly so, because progress in our ability to identify the essential properties of a given risk (including its perceptual, social, and economic dimensions) is the basis for more systematic and well-founded social engagement of risk. Nearly three decades after the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, the extent to which societies throughout the world still deal with environmental and health threats in a risque-du-jour fashion is striking. The conclusion from the self-examination by the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA 1987) – that public outcries, media attention, and legislative concerns drive risk-management efforts more than the agency's own assessment of what problems most need attention and are most amenable to control – is a telling result. No less striking has been the self-assessment of the UK Interdepartmental Liaison Group on Risk Assessment (1998) that broader approaches are needed to capture the concerns of the public in risk matters. How best to manage risks is a matter for societal debate and introspection and undoubtedly varies with economic and cultural