Policy Sciences

, Volume 50, Issue 4, pp 721–743 | Cite as

Politics of the precautionary principle: assessing actors’ preferences in water protection policy

  • Florence MetzEmail author
  • Karin Ingold
Research Article


This paper analyzes the prospects for introducing the precautionary principle in water protection policy. In situations where a problem enters the political agenda and scientific uncertainties remain about causes or effects, political actors can justify state intervention based on the precautionary principle. It allows for public action even if risks related to the problem remain unclear. While the precautionary principle is widely applied in health and environmental policy fields all over the world, the mechanisms leading to its adoption are not fully understood. To close this gap, the paper investigates decision-makers preferences for the precautionary principle and further asks: Which factors promote political actors’ preferences for precautionary policy measures? In order to answer this question we study the case of emerging micropollutants—a water quality issue that recently entered political agendas, where many uncertainties remain about sources and effects. We rely on data gathered through a standardized survey among the political elite in Switzerland, which represents one of the first countries that adopted policy measures to reduce micropollutants in water bodies, despite the uncertainties that remain. Results analyzed through a temporal network autocorrelation model reveal that actors embedded in collaborative governance arrangements have the tendency to prefer precautionary action. Certain aspects of policy design, such as problem prioritization and target group membership, also impact the prospects for introducing the precautionary principle.


Precautionary principle Water protection policy Uncertainties Micropollutants Policy preferences Network modeling 



This work was suppported by the Swiss National Science Foundation. The authors would like to thank Laurence Brandenberger for her advice.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Political ScienceUniversity of BernBernSwitzerland
  2. 2.Oeschger Centre for Climate Change ResearchUniversity of BernBernSwitzerland
  3. 3.Department of Environmental Social SciencesSwiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag)DübendorfSwitzerland

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