Cass R. Sunstein
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Harvard University Press
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Nuclear bombs in suitcases, anthrax bacilli in ventilators, tsunamis and meteors, avian flu, scorchingly hot temperatures: nightmares that were once the plot of Hollywood movies are now frighteningly real possibilities. Sunstein explores these and other worst-case scenarios and how we might best prevent them in this vivid, illuminating, and highly original analysis.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-03353-5
    Subjects: Political Science, Economics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
    (pp. 1-16)

    How do human beings and their governments approach worst-case scenarios? Do they tend to neglect them or do they give them excessive weight? Whatever we actually do, howshouldwe deal with unlikely risks of catastrophe?

    In the aftermath of the attacks on 9/11, Vice President Dick Cheney set out what has become known as The One Percent Doctrine: “We have to deal with this new type of threat in a way we haven’t yet defined … With a low-probability, high-impact event like this … if there’s a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al Qaeda build or...

    (pp. 17-70)

    When I was a child, and facing some difficult situation, my mother would often ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?” This was an extremely comforting question. True, the worst was bad, but it wasn’t all that bad. I might miss a few days of school from a nasty cold. My Little League baseball team might lose a game or I might strike out every time I went to bat. I might flunk a math quiz. A friend might decide he didn’t really like me.

    In retrospect, I am not at all sure why my mother’s question was so comforting....

    (pp. 71-117)

    We can learn a great deal about potentially catastrophic risks by exploring the problem of ozone depletion, and the world’s reaction to it. Climate change and stratospheric ozone depletion are so similar that many people are unable to distinguish between the two.¹ Consider some shared characteristics of the two problems.

    (1) The threats from both ozone depletion and climate change have received public recognition as a result of relatively recent scientific work, theoretical and empirical. Ozone depletion was initially explored in a theoretical paper in 1974. One of the first papers about climate change was published much earlier, in 1896,...

    (pp. 118-175)

    How should nations think about worst-case scenarios? If people’s intuitions misfire, and if private and public decisions go badly wrong, can we devise a framework that might help? The Precautionary Principle, now used in many international documents, is often said to provide an answer.¹ Consider a few examples:

    (1) The closing Ministerial Declaration from the United Nations Economic Conference for Europe in 1990 asserts, “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation.”²

    (2) The 1992 Rio Declaration proclaims, “Where there...

    (pp. 176-197)

    Most worst-case scenarios appear to have an element of irreversibility. Once a species is lost, it is lost forever. The special concern for endangered species stems from the permanence of their loss (outside of Jurassic Park). One of the most serious fears associated with genetically modified organisms is that they might lead to irreversible ecological harm. Because some greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere for centuries, the problem of climate change may be irreversible, at least for all practical purposes.¹ Transgenic crops can impose irreversible losses too, because they can make pests more resistant to pesticides.² If we invest significant...

    (pp. 198-243)

    In the United States, cost-benefit analysis is in the ascendancy. For over twenty years, American presidents have required agencies to perform CBA for major regulations; indeed, they have told agencies to regulate only if the benefits of regulation justify its costs.¹ Congress has also shown considerable interest in CBA, most prominently in the Safe Drinking Water Act, which asks agencies to produce quantitative assessments of both costs and benefits. For their part, federal courts have adopted a series of principles that promote CBA—saying that if Congress has not been clear, agencies may consider costs, take account of the substitute...

    (pp. 244-274)

    Suppose that a proposed regulation, designed to reduce some risk, will not produce benefits for many years. Suppose too that the government is interested in engaging in some form of cost-benefit analysis before it proceeds with the regulation. Everyone agrees that future monetary costs will be discounted, on the theory that a dollar today is worth more than a dollar in twenty years. But what should the government do about improved health or lengthened lives? Should these too be discounted, or should a death in 2025 be treated the same as a death today?

    In terms of ultimate outcomes, the...

    (pp. 275-286)

    According to an old saying: “If you make a plan, God laughs. If you make two plans, God smiles.”

    The topic of worst-case scenarios is not exactly cheerful. Mental health professionals spend a lot of time dealing with those fixated on the worst that might happen. If you think about the worst possibilities, you might end up thinking about little else. To be sure, many people are paid a lot of money to think about bad outcomes. The group of worst-case specialists is large; it includes doctors, lawyers, military leaders, the secretary of defense, environmentalists, and those who work at...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 289-328)
    (pp. 329-330)
  13. Index
    (pp. 331-340)