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Even if our impacts are extremely unlikely they still outweigh—it’s more devastating than repetitive systemic harm

Sunstein 2007 – Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, clerked for Justice Marshall in the Supreme Court (Cass, Harvard University Press, “Worst-case scenarios”, pages 138-9)
A Catastrophic Harm Precautionary Principle, of the modest kind just sketched, raises several questions. The most obvious is whether a low-probability risk of catastrophe might not deserve more attention than higher-probability risks, even when the expected value appears to be equal. The reason is that the loss of 200 million people may be more than 1,000 times worse than the loss of 2,000 people. Pause over the real-world meaning of a loss of 200 million people in the United States. The nation would find it extremely hard to recover. Private and public institutions would be damaged for a long time, perhaps forever. What kind of government would emerge? What would its economy look like? Future generations would inevitably suffer. The effect of a catastrophe greatly outruns a simple multiplication of a certain number of lives lost. The overall "cost" of losing two-thirds of the American population is far more than 100,000 times the cost of losing 2,000 people.

The same point holds when the numbers are smaller. Following the collapse of a dam that left 120 people dead and 4,000 homeless in Buffalo Creek, Virginia, psychiatric researchers continued to find significant psychological and sociological changes two years after the disaster occurred. Survivors still suffered a loss of direction and energy, along with other disabling character changes.41 One evaluator attributed this "Buffalo Creek Syndrome" specifically to "the loss of traditional bonds of kinship and neighborliness."42

Genuine catastrophes, involving tens of thousands or millions of deaths, would magnify that loss to an unimaginable degree. A detailed literature on the "social amplification of risk" explores the secondary social losses that greatly outrun the initial effects of given events.43 The harm done by the attacks of 9/11, for instance, far exceeded the deaths on that day, horrendous as those were. One telling example: Many people switched, in the aftermath of the attack, to driving long distances rather than flying, and the switch produced almost as many highway deaths as the attacks themselves, simply because driving is more dangerous than flying.44 The attacks had huge effects on other behaviors of individuals, businesses, and governments, resulting in costs of hundreds of billions of dollars, along with continuing fear, anxiety, and many thousands of additional deaths from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

We might therefore identify a second version of the Catastrophic Harm Precautionary Principle, also attuned to expected value but emphasizing some features of catastrophic risk that might otherwise be neglected: Regulators should consider the expected value of catastrophic risks, even when the worst-case scenario is highly unlikely. In assessing expected value, regulators should consider the distinctive features of catastrophic harm, including the "social amplification” of such harm. Regulators should choose cost-effective measures to reduce those risks and should attempt to compare the expected value of the risk with the expected value of precautionary measures.



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