Ralph L. Keeney.

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October 1973

Ralph L. Keeney

This paper was an invited presentation given at the Bavarian Academy
of Sciences International Symposium, "Multi disciplinary Approaches for
Solving Environmental Problems," held at Schloss Reisensburg, Gunsburg/Ulm,
West Germany from June 18-21, 1973. It will appear in the proceedings of
the Symposium. This work was supported in part by the Office of Naval
Research under contract N00014-67-A-0204-0056.

Decision Analysis of Environmental Problems

by Ralph L. Keeney

Operations Research Center and Sloan School of Managemsnt

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA


The purpose of this paper is to indicate the applicability of decision
analyses to environmental problems, which we define to be those problems
where the alternatives might alter the natural environment. Thus, we are
concerned with possible changes in our air, water, and lard caused by,
for example, auto emissions, noise, nuclear reactors, extinction of
animal or floral species, weather modification, irrigation, and over-

All of the problems of interest possess a number of characteristics
which contribute to their complexity. There is often no consensus on
what one should strive to achieve with regard to the environment, and
few standard measures to indicate this achievement. These problems
always have multiple objectives, and consequently, any analysis must
address the inevitable tradeoffs which occur. In this regard, the
basic tradeoff is usually between economic and material development and
the quality of the environment and these effects often reverber:^te for
many years after the initial decision is made. Furthermore, there is a
large degree of uncertainty about the eventual impact of each of the
alternative "solutions" to environmental problems. Finally, many of the
environmental problems do not clearly fall under the responsibility of


one person, who could make decisions accordingly, or even under one agency.
Rather many individuals, agencies, and sometimes even governments are

Decision analysis explicitly addresses these characteristics, and
although the methodology cannot "completely handle" each of the difficulties,
it is sufficiently developed to contribute substantially toward better
decision making. However, the non-technical problems associated with
conducting environmental analyses, interpreting them, and implementing
their implications seem to be bigger hinderances, although not insurmountable,
to a useful contribution toward shaping environmental policy and improving
our environment than any lack of theory or methodology. The interaction
of the analysis and the ensuing governmental process is examined with
emphasis on these non-technical problems.


1. Introduction and Outline

During the past decade, citizens and their governments have become
increasingly aware of the eroding quality of the environment. Along with
this increasing awareness, we have witnessed a strong desire voiced by
many people to improve their environment. Sure we all prefer better
environmental quality to the status quo, but are we willing to forego
other benefits, mainly in terms of material development, in order to
achieve it? Partly the answer depends on how much better the environmental
quality gets and how much material development must be curtailed. But
to each individual, the question probably goes a little deeper. An
individual is likely concerned about the overall impact of the improved
environment and the decreased material development on his or her own
quality of life. And so to some extent, quality of the environment can
be considered as one of the means for achieving a desired quality of
life. An implication is that at least some environmental analyses,
especially those done for or by governmental units which attempt to make
decisions in the interest of their constituents, must address the inter-
twined problems of the quality of the environment and the quality of life.

In this paper, I present some of my views on a useful approach toward
better understanding of these environmental problems and toward better
decision making concerning them. The approach is decision analysis, a
field in which I have some expertise. On the other hand, except for a
few experiences involving some specific pollution problems, my knowledge
of most of today's environmental problems is currently limited to that
of a concerned layman. It is from this background that I proceed.

In section 2, the complexities common to many environmental problems
are discussed. These complexities make it difficult to rationally synthesize


in one's mind all the relevant information influencing the selection of
"best" alternative courses of action with regard to these problems. Thus,
analysis may be desirable. A conceptual framework for this is outlined
in section 3. Decision analysis, as discussed in section 4, addresses
many of these complexities without oversimplifying the problem. The
role of decision analysis in public decision making and in setting
environmental policy is discussed in section 5.

2. Characteristics of Environmental Problems

Let us focus on some of the characteristic complexities of environmental
problems. These include:

(1) The difficulties in identifying the problem . What are the objectives,
appropriate measures of effectiveness for each, and the alternatives? If

the ultimate objective is to improve the quality of life, then we must take
this as a starting point and be more specific about what quality of life
means in terms of health, economic effects, psychological well-being,
aesthetics, recreational opportunities, etc. In this paper, we have no
precise definition of quality of life. To define it is an important part
of the problem. Quality of life is undoubtedly different for different
individuals, and these individuals' attitudes must somehow be integrated
to yield a quality of life indicator for any impacted society. For each
of the components of the quality of life, we need to identify or develop
useful measures for indicating the degree to which quality of life is

(2) The inherent multi-objective nature of environmental problem s.
With multiple objective problems, the decision makers are always faced with
the inevitable tradeoffs between achievement on one objective and achievement
on others.


(3) The complexity concerning time of impact . Effects of decisions
made today often continue for many years. Examples include irrigation of
arid lands and building nuclear power stations.

(4) The ever present uncertainties in environmental problems . One
cannot precisely forecast the extent to which alternatives create or solve
environmental problems. For instance, the impact a new law will have on
air pollutant emissions is not known with certainty nor are the resulting
pollution concentrations due to interaction between the weather and
emissions precisely predictable. And of course the impact of the
pollution concentrations on the quality of life is far from completely
understood. At the time decisions must be made, there are often large
uncertainties about the eventual effects of the various proposed alternatives,

(5) Frequent ambiguity as to who is responsible for making decisions
in environmental areas . Even if such responsibility is clear, the decision
making function may fall on a group rather than on an individual. Sometimes
important environmental problems fall under the governmental jurisdiction

of many different groups. For example, air pollution in the New York
City metropolitan area is partially the responsibility of the federal
government, the state governments of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut,
and several local authorities. Water pollution in the Rhine River Valley
is partially the responsibility of the governments of Switzerland, Austria,
Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Obviously, trying to reach
responsible decisions with such a diversity of actors involved in the
decision making process is, to say the least, challenging.

Any analysis which purports to address the entire problem must
consider all of the complexities listed above. The temptation to neglect
certain aspects is great because of their difficulty; but for precisely
this reason, a complete analysis might be wery worthwhile.

3. A Conceptual Framework for Examining Environmental Problems

Now that we have discussed some of the complexities of environmental
problems, let us loosely outline a general framework for examining alternatives
affecting environmental quality. Our inputs, as indicated in Figure 1,
are roughly speaking the contributors to environmental problems. For
instance, as the standard of living increases, the demand for electric
power rises, and the increased fuel consumption by electricity generation
facilities causes air pollution. In this example, the main physical
characteristic of the Earth which influences air pollution is the weather,
particularly wind and inversion factors. The environmental technology,
in the form of air pollution control devices, and the existing laws and
pollution control programs will obviously affect the level of the air
pollution emissions.

The degree to which the environment is altered from its natural state
can often be measured.' For our air pollution problem, one could measure
the various pollutant concentrations in the atmosphere at several locations
at various times. This information might be used differently depending
on whether or not the problem of concern was operational or strategic in
nature. In operational problems, such as when to require power cutbacks
or when to prohibit burning certain fuel oils, pollution levels can be
used directly in the decision and control process. For example, when
sulphur dioxide concentrations reach 50 parts per million in the atmosphere,
the use of sulphur fuel oils could be curtailed in a given area. With
strategic problems, such as whether a specific law forbidding use of low
quality fuel oils (i.e., high sulphur content) in a city should be passed,
it is necessary to relate the information on the degree to which the
environment is altered, along with costs of the program and impacts on













i). where x designates a
vector representing the levels of achievement on the different measures.

Often the process of specifying p •()


Online LibraryRalph L. KeeneyDecision analysis of environmental problems → online text (page 1 of 2)