How can we deal with unknown risks?

We cannot always foresee the consequences of new technology. What kind of rational and intelligent decision-making do we need in such situations?

I was reminded of this question during the KTH Sustainability Research Day last week, when we learnt about a number of case studies of what kind of penetration and impact research at KTH has had or can possibly have on social development. The first example was the fridge. That was a product that has had an enormous impact on our everyday lives and on the world’s food supply.

Fridges were developed in part by KTH students in the early 20th Century. In the 1920s and 30s, freons started being used as coolant media. They were considered to be a fantastic product for many years. They were stable, non-flammable, and moderately toxic. However, the first suspicions began to arise in the 1970s as to whether they were so stable that they could spread to the stratosphere, that is to say the layer tens of kilometres up in the atmosphere. When freons reach that level, they can break down ozone which, in turn, is needed to protect the earth against harmful ultraviolet radiation. Some ten years later, these suspicions were confirmed by the discovery of the so-called ozone hole above the Antarctic.

A reduced level of ozone in the stratosphere can result in serious health effects, such as skin cancer, and also affect the eco system. Demands for a ban on freons came pretty quickly and this time, within a few years, decision-makers around the world managed to agree on the so-called Montreal Protocol in 1987 to phase out freons. That was a wise decision. Large parts of industry protested, but alternatives were able to be quickly developed and most of us can go into the kitchen today and see a fridge that performs well even though we do not know which refrigerant it contains.

Many aspects of the history of freons and the ozone hole provide lessons we can learn from. One thing we can ponder about is whether we could have foreseen that freons could have the effect they have on the ozone layer. Could we have understood what would happen to the freons when we scrap a fridge, and did we know enough about atmospheric chemistry and the special conditions that apply above the Antarctic at certain times of the year? Many people would say no, we could not have foreseen that. And the same also applies to many other classic environment problems such as DDT and PCB for example. It was very difficult to predict the very specific spreading pathways and effect mechanisms these substances have.

But if we cannot foresee the consequences of a new technology, how should we then deal with its risks when the decision is made? One lesson is perhaps to watch out for warning signs.

When research signals that there can be a problem, these signals need to be picked up and investigated properly. In such situations, there are special interests that want to tone down the risks, which makes it even more important to investigate them in a neutral way. Another lesson is the need to find opportunities to make decisions quickly enough. In the case of freon, it did not take that many years between discovering the ozone hole and phasing out fridges with freons. These decisions faced opposition but were implemented anyway and that was important. A third lesson is to be especially vigilant about substances that are persistent, that is to say, difficult to break down. Freons, DDT, PCB, plastics in the ocean and carbon dioxide are all examples of substances that are persistent. Which means they can spread far and wide and appear in places that are unexpected and continue to have an effect long after they were used. It then also becomes difficult to deal with the problem as it takes a long time for these substances to disappear.

These lessons come from the environment area above all. However, I believe we have reason to think long and hard about how we can deal with unknown risks in other areas, too.

Tip of the week: The CrosscutsFilm festivalin Stockholm 23-25 November organised by the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory (EHL) in Stockholm