A bold environmental code becomes law in San Francisco today, one whose
overarching framework is called the Precautionary Principle. Through it,
San Francisco is taking a significant step away from the Bush
administration's anti-environmental policies.
The Precautionary Principle sets out to improve the way we make
environmental decisions. While the Bush team asks, "How much environmental
harm will be allowed?," in San Francisco, decision-makers will ask a very
different question: "How little harm is possible?"
San Francisco is a leader in making choices based on the least
environmentally harmful alternatives, thereby challenging traditional
assumptions about risk management. The 11 existing laws consolidated in the
Environment Code have introduced more than 700 zero- or low-emission
vehicles to the city's fleet, conserved 6,800 trees and more than
half-a-million gallons of water each year by purchasing recycled content
paper, cut toxic- pesticide use in half and protected worker health by
designing buildings that use less energy and other precious natural
We acknowledge that our world will never be free from risk. However, a risk
that is unnecessary, and not freely chosen, is never acceptable. San
Francisco's Precautionary Principle, enacted as part of the Environment
Code, insists that environmental decision-making be based on rigorous
science -- science that is explicit about what is known, what is not known
and what may never be known about potential hazards.
Unfortunately, in today's regulatory system lack of proof of harm is
usually misinterpreted as proof of safety. In San Francisco, we want to
create a means to take action despite scientific uncertainty about the
degree of a given risk. Too often, regulatory agencies get stuck in
"paralysis by analysis"; the new framework removes excuses for inaction on
the grounds of scientific uncertainty.
The costs of not taking precautionary action are often very high, as we've
seen in the case of tobacco, lead and asbestos. Early scientific warnings
about risks to health went unheeded by government agencies. As a result,
billions of dollars have been spent to deal with the consequences of these
problems. Costs include health care and health insurance, lost economic
productivity, absenteeism, lost wages and cleanup. The Precautionary
Principle process also requires decision-makers to consider possible impact
to the local economy.
Our Precautionary Principle calls for a careful analysis of a range of
alternatives using the best available information. The goal of this process
is to determine whether a potentially hazardous activity is necessary, and
whether less hazardous options are available. For instance, our pesticide
reduction program eliminated all of the most toxic chemicals used by city
gardeners and identified less-toxic ways to solve weed and pest problems,
some as benign as using goats to clear weed-choked hillsides or heat
cannons to kill termites in walls. Science provides vital evidence for
making these decisions. However, elected officials will ultimately use a
combination of scientific data and judgments of what is necessary, useful
and fair to make environmental decisions.
Both locally and internationally, the public bears the direct consequences
of environmental decisions. A government's course of action is necessarily
enriched by broadly based public participation when a range of alternatives
is considered. This concept of environmental democracy is deeply ingrained
in San Francisco's Precautionary Principle.
At the World Trade Organization, the Bush administration is fighting the
European Union's right to restrict imports of genetically modified foods;
beef containing hormones, and proposed legislation that would require some
30,000 chemicals now in use to be immediately registered with EU
authorities. The failure of the United States to adopt the Precautionary
Principle is yet another way in which we are ostracizing ourselves from the
rest of the planet.
San Francisco's Precautionary Principle presents a historic opportunity to
refocus environmental decision-making on reducing harm. In doing so, we are
sending a message to Washington: The days of letting polluters and
industries set our health and environmental agenda may be over sooner than