Don’t Stand in the Road: The Precautionary Principle and Overcoming Uncertainty

If I were to say you had a 100 percent chance of being hit by a car if you stood in the road for 5 minutes, would you consider it? How about a 50 percent chance? A 10 percent chance? Even a 1 percent chance? What if there was some sort of incentive, like a new car? Although this scenario may seem a bit ridiculous, it is not so different from coastal management decisions. Residents place themselves at risk to enjoy the many resources coastal areas provide. When it comes to the environment no one can ever provide 100 percent certainty, but how much information is really needed to make practical and informed decisions? In academic and scientific settings a confidence interval of 95 percent is preferred, but is it realistic to make decision based on a confidence of 95 percent? For me a 1 percent chance is enough to know standing in the road would be a poor decision and that is the difficulty with coastal management decisions; each situation, with its innumerable variables, must be evaluated individually.


There are two primary views on the precautionary principle:

  • 1992 Rio Declaration of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development stated “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” (Sandler, 2013).
  • The Wingspread Statement, “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 scientifically” (Sandler, 2013).


The difficulty in implementing the precautionary principle is simply due to the uncertainty and the lack of scientific evidence. However, environmental experimentation on the scale necessary to mitigate or proactively address climate impacts is unrealistic and could have possibly catastrophic effects. So the question is how much evidence is enough to reduce the uncertainty to levels where policy can be not just formulated but implemented?

Ironically, the same complexity and uncertainty of climate science drive the need for the best available knowledge of natural systems. This complexity and uncertainty is often a barrier to action in policy due to the minimal availability of site-specific predictions (Tobey et al. 2010). Pittock (2010) probably best explains why uncertainty should not inhibit decision making:

  • “The real world does not operate on certainties: it lives with uncertainties and makes decisions on the basis of conscious or unconscious assessments of probabilities, often without expert advice. It is better that we provide timely informed estimates than decision makers not expert in the areas make their own guesses. It is a matter of responsible risk management.”

In an effort to better make informed decisions, many organizations have turned to creating digital tools not only to educate the general public, but also those making critical coastal management decisions. These tools and visualizations provide a vast array of information ranging from highly accurate coastal lidar used to develop inundation maps to more simplified methods of creating representative images of what sea level rise may look like in the future. The greatest success comes from a combination of developing the tools using the best available data and creating an avenue to disseminate the data. Here at NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management, the delivery mechanism for all of web-based products is the Digital Coast, however there are a variety of available products. Below are a few highlights:


Coastal Lidar:

NOAA's Coastal Lidar“Many different partners and groups, and several Center-led data projects, have contributed to the lidar data collection housed and distributed by the NOAA Office for Coastal Management. The data span more than a decade and were collected using several different sensors. The collection includes data from topographic and bathymetric lidar sensors. Data are available for all of the coastal states and range from shoreline strips to full county coverage. The products have been delivered to the Office in various formats, projections, datums, and units. Once received, the data are reviewed, checked for errors, and standardized in a single format, projection, and datum.”


Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flooding Impacts Viewer:

“The purpose of this NOAA's Sea Level Rise Viewerdata viewer is to provide coastal managers and scientists with a preliminary look at sea level rise and coastal flooding impacts. The viewer is a screening-level tool that uses nationally consistent data sets and analyses. Data and maps provided can be used at several scales to help gauge trends and prioritize actions for different scenarios.”




FEMA GeoPlatform – Climate Resources:

FEMA's GeoPlatform“Find data and tools related to climate change and its impacts that can help inform, prepare, and strengthen America’s communities. This resource area is focused on providing easy access to data and resources related to coastal flooding, sea level rise, and their impacts. Over time, this area will expand to include additional data and tools relevant to other important climate-related impacts, including risks to human health, the food supply, and energy infrastructure.”




Climate Resilience Evaluation & Awareness Tool (CREAT):

Climate Resilience Evaluation & Awareness Tool “CREAT allows users to evaluate potential impacts of climate change on their utility and to evaluate adaptation options to address these impacts using both traditional risk assessment and scenario-based decision making. CREAT provides libraries of drinking water and wastewater utility assets (e.g., water resources, treatment plants, pump stations) that could be impacted by climate change, possible climate change-related threats (e.g., flooding, drought, water quality), and adaptive measures that can be implemented to reduce the impacts of climate change. The tool guides users through identifying threats based on regional differences in climate change projections and designing adaptation plans based on the types of threats being considered. Following assessment, CREAT provides a series of risk reduction and cost reports that will allow the user to evaluate various adaptation options as part of long-term planning.”


Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard:

CMECSThe Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard (CMECS) provides a comprehensive national framework for organizing information about coasts and oceans and their living systems. This information includes the physical, biological, and chemical data that are collectively used to define coastal and marine ecosystems. CMECS is designed for use within all waters ranging from the head of tide to the limits of the exclusive economic zone, and from the spray zone to the deep ocean. It is compatible with existing upland and wetland classification standards and can be used with most if not all data collection technologies. Because of these characteristics, this standardization allows scientists to use and compare data from various sources and time frames.


Coastal Change Analysis Program Regional Land Cover:

Coastal Change Analysis Program “The Coastal Change Analysis Program (C-CAP) produces a nationally standardized database of land cover and land change information for the coastal regions of the U.S. C-CAP products provide inventories of coastal intertidal areas, wetlands, and adjacent uplands with the goal of monitoring these habitats by updating the land cover maps every five years. C-CAP products are developed using multiple dates of remotely sensed imagery and consist of raster-based land cover maps for each date of analysis, as well as a file that highlights what changes have occurred between these dates and where the changes were located. NOAA also produces high resolution C-CAP land cover products, for select geographies. These products focus on bringing NOAA’s national mapping framework to the local level, by providing complimentary data, at a more detailed resolution to compliment regional C-CAP land cover.”


For a full list of tools and data available through the Office for Coastal Management, please visit the Digital Coast


For a more extensive list of available tools “to help coastal communities and others analyze and assess vulnerabilities of sea level rise, storm surges, and sinking lands,” please visit


Works Cited:

Pittock, Barrie. “From academic science to political hot potato: climatic change, risk and policy relevance.” Climatic change 100, no. 1 (2010): 203-209.

Tobey, James, Pamela Rubinoff, Donald Robadue Jr, Glen Ricci, Richard Volk, John Furlow, and Glen Anderson. “Practicing coastal adaptation to climate change: lessons from integrated coastal management.” Coastal Management 38, no. 3 (2010): 317-335.

Sandler, Ronald L., ed. Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Bradley Dean

Originally from South Jersey I was always in awe of the coast, better known as "the shore" where I am from. With a B.S. in marine science and biology from Coastal Carolina University, a M.S. from Florida Institute of Technology in environmental science and a M.S. from University of South Carolina in earth and environmental resource management, much of my work has been related to nearshore areas, benthic ecosystems in the surf zone, coastal erosion, and coastal management. I work for NOAA's Office for Coastal Management in Charleston, SC. Previously the focus of my work as a remote sensing specialist is to process DAV lidar for the Digital Coast. Now my new role as a project analyst in Washington D.C. allows me to learn even more about our organization, particularly policy. My current interests are determining ways to expedite and improve the coastal decision making process specifically, overcoming uncertainty, and proactive rather than reactive management.

One comment

  1. Evaluation of the risks is a delicate thing to do, especially when take into account the fact, that the residents tend to increase the estimates, while state authorities aren’t always that inclined.


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