Many of the issues facing society involve choices that extend beyond the bounds of greater scientific knowledge, into subjective value-laden judgements, which are influenced by different motives and beliefs.
Risk based decisions are shown to have two dimensions: a scientific assessment and a cultural interpretation. These different dimensions of risk are discussed. In particular, the current lack of public trust that companies and authorities will "tell them the truth" about risks is highlighted.
This paper attempts to describe the sound arguments for companies to move away from the "decide-announce-defend" system to an approach involving greater dialogue with external interest groups, when facing decisions that involve balancing environmental (and societal) risks and benefits.
Two case studies are presented. The first case study relates to the Shell U.K. strategy to find an acceptable, disposal option for the Brent Spar oil storage buoy. The progression of a technical solution is supported by a parallel, open dialogue process. The second case study, illustrates how a decision to voluntarily complete and share the results of a Societal Risk Assessment for the Braefoot Bay Marine Loading Terminal is helping to build better trust-based relationships between Shell U.K. and the local community.
The development of anticipatory and comprehensive risk-based communications strategies, is helping Shell U.K. to avoid generating unnecessary public outrage, win public trust, and, meet its objectives to be seen as a leading and socially responsible company.
Risk means different things to different people. Scientists talk about risks in terms of probability. Members of the public are more interested in the consequences of risk than they are in the "unlikelihood" of something happening. The public's perception of risk is shaped by their emotions, experiences and beliefs, e.g. fears of something happening to them, or their loved ones, and their level of trust in whoever is controlling the risk.
Society, in general, is moving from a dominance of ‘old-type’ risks, imposed by nature, e.g. plagues, floods and earthquakes, to ‘new-style’ risks, which are "manufactured" through developments in science and technology.
Initially, societal risk-management was based on intuition. Ancient historians, alchemists and record keepers assessed risks on the basis of past experience and observations collected and passed down through time, e.g. tribal knowledge about the location of flood plains. In more recent times, improved scientific method and understanding has enabled us to project historical trend data forward in time, e.g. the on-in-one hundred year storm.
In modern society, our progress is no longer shaped by risks relating only to the fates of nature, but is driven by choices about the future, and increasingly, about how to balance the advantages and drawbacks of new-style risks. In effect, we have stopped being worried about what nature could do to us and are now concerned with what we can do to nature!
However, new-style risks, e.g. global climate change, ozone depletion and the release of artificially genetically modified organisms, are difficult to determine: associated impacts are only perceptible by scientific investigation. We no longer know intuitively how to balance all the risks we face and increasingly look towards science to provide an answer.