Environmental Law The Precautionary Principle

As God's people we are called to stewardship of the earth and all that dwells therein.

At this point in human history, the human race is experiencing warning signs that our bodies and the natural environment have limits to their abilities to absorb and overcome the harm from some of our actions, technologies, and substances. These warning signs include the dying off of plant and animal species, the depletion of stratospheric ozone, global climate instability and increased rates of some learning disabilities, reproductive disorders, cancers, respiratory diseases including asthma, and other environmentally related illnesses.

In addition to the issue of pollution, the earth is experiencing environmental problems such as global climate instability, the loss of bio-diversity, and the destruction of marine fisheries, which may threaten food supplies and lead to disastrous human health consequences.

There is continuing controversy in the promotion of world trade regarding the appropriate level of caution and protection of the environment. Where the preponderance of evidence would indicate that an activity will be harmful to the earth's environment, producers of pollution have insisted that there be "scientific certainty" on each point in question before caution is exercised. This policy results in very substantial harm occuring to the earth and its creatures in order to prove that an activity is dangerous.

Current environmental regulations are aimed primarily at controlling pollution rather than taking the preventative approach of limiting the use, production or release of toxic materials in the first place. Under the current system, enterprises, projects, technologies and substances are in effect "innocent until proved guilty", and the vast majority of chemicals in production have not been adequately tested for their effects on humans and ecosystems.

Producers of pollution have repeatedly used their influence to delay preventative action, arguing that the immediate expense of redesign to achieve pollution prevention is unwarranted in the face of any uncertainty about eventual harmful health effects.

The Precautionary Principle is considered to be an emerging general principle of international environmental law. The United States signed and ratified the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development which states: "In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by states according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation." (Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, June 14, 1992, 31 ILM 874)

Likewise the International Joint Commission in 1994 stated that "the burden of proof concerning the safety of chemicals should lie with the proponent for the manufacture, import or use of at least substances new to commerce in Canada and the United States, rather than with society as a whole to provide absolute proof of adverse impacts . . . The onus should be on the producers and users of any suspected toxic substance to prove that it is, in fact, both safe and necessary, even if it is already in commerce." (International Joint Commission, Seventh Biennial Report Under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1978 to the Governments of the United States and Canada, 1994)

Likewise the Wingspread Statement of January 1998, formulated by prominent members of the environmental community, states: "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established. In this context the proponent of an activity rather than the public should bear the burden of proof. The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed, and democratic and must involve potentially affected parties. The process must include a comprehensive, systematic examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action."

We urge all United Methodists in their daily lives and official capacities to hold society to this higher standard of care for God's creation; that where the preponderance of evidence indicates the probability of harm from some action, even in the absence of full scientific certainty, that an alternative path must be found.

In this context we advocate for significant increases in efforts toward pollution prevention, for identifying goals for reducing exposure to toxic chemicals, for incentives to replace known toxic chemicals with the least toxic alternatives, and we support the practice of organic farming methods in order to reduce the use of toxic chemicals in agriculture.

We encourage government at all levels to promote and abide by the Precautionary Principle in order to protect human health and the environment.

We urge the United States to honor the Precautionary Principle during the negotiations of international agreements and to work toward the establishment of the Precautionary Principle as a guiding principle of international law.


See Social Principles, 160A, B, E, and F.

From The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church 2004. Copyright 2004 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.

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