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That absence makes it difficult to determine the value that environmental goods hold for society. For example, the market price of a jar of peanut butter or a can of soup signals the value each item holds for consumers, but there are no prices attached to environmental goods that can provide similar signals. To some it may seem unethical to try to place a dollar value on the natural environment. However, there are plenty of cases in which ethics demands such a valuation.
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Indeed, in cases of extreme environmental damage, as resulted from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in , an unwillingness to apply a value to that environmental loss could be considered equivalent to stating that clean Alaskan waters have no value to anyone. The assessment of appropriate damages, fines, or both in such cases often depends on the careful valuation of aspects of the environment. That would, in effect, undervalue environmental goods and could possibly lead policy makers to believe that certain environmental regulations are not worth the costs they impose on society when, in fact, they are.
Economists have long tried to accurately determine the value of environmental goods to society. That effort has led to several valuation techniques.
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Contingent valuation, or stated preferences, is a seemingly simple method that involves asking people directly about their values for a particular environmental good. This method is particularly useful in determining the value of environmental goods that individuals have yet to experience or may never actually experience themselves.
Contingent valuation was useful in the Exxon Valdez oil spill. This method was used to determine, among other things, the value placed on simply knowing that a pristine Alaskan wilderness exists the existence value , even though many respondents might never actually experience that wilderness. More generally, the contingent-valuation method is often used in policy development to determine how much respondents would be willing to pay for a higher-quality environment.
However, despite its simple concept, the contingent-valuation method carries with it a host of complex problems that must be taken into account for the results of a survey to be considered credible. The problems usually stem from one or more of the following: information bias where the respondent has no information , hypothetical bias where the respondent will neither pay nor give a reasonable answer , starting-point bias where the respondent is influenced by the initial numbers given as examples or as part of a range in survey , and strategic bias where the respondent wants a specific outcome.
Because any bias can hinder the usefulness of a contingent valuation survey, special care must be taken to ensure that bias is minimized. With information bias, hypothetical bias, and starting-point bias, respondents unintentionally misrepresent the value that they hold for an environmental good.
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With information bias, respondents lack enough information to form an accurate response. To avoid that type of bias, surveyors will usually provide a great deal of information to respondents about the survey topic. Hypothetical bias occurs because individuals tend to respond differently to hypothetical scenarios than they do to the same scenarios in the real world. One solution to that problem is to conduct the contingent-valuation surveys in a laboratory setting. The surveyor can then remind respondents to consider the financial ramifications that their responses would produce in a real-world setting.
The surveyor can also use experimental techniques that mimic real-world conditions. Starting-point bias results when respondents are influenced by the set of available responses to the survey. Unlike the other types of response bias mentioned above, strategic bias occurs when respondents intentionally try to manipulate the outcome of a survey. It is not always possible to eliminate intentionally biased responses.
However, it is generally best to randomly survey a large number of individuals, because that will decrease the likelihood that strategic bias will undermine the results.