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

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We employ the term “social interactions” as an umbrella term which includes different types of relations between actors such as collaboration, negotiations, advice-seeking, information exchange.

  2. 2.

    http://www.fischnetz.ch/index_e.htm (last access on August 21, 2017).

  3. 3.

    http://www.snf.ch/en/researchinFocus/nrp/nrp50-endocrine-disruptors-relevance-to-humans-animals-andecosystems/Pages/default.aspx (last access on August 21, 2017).

  4. 4.

    Population equivalent of more than 100,000.

  5. 5.

    Population equivalent of 10,000 to 100,000.

  6. 6.

    A total of 12 actors reported having a common position or not having participated enough to respond to the survey questions; another six actors (i.e., federal agencies who must formally partake in consultations internal to the government, but who do not necessarily have a stake in the issue of aquatic micropollutants) only partly responded to the survey; three actors did not reply.

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Acknowledgement

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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Correspondence to Florence Metz.

Appendix: Actor list

Appendix: Actor list

Full name Type of actor
Swiss Association for Agricultural Development and Rural Areas Science, laboratories, consulting
Western Swiss Association for Water and Air Protection Environmental association
Federal Office for the Environment, Department of Air Protection and Chemicals National-level state actor
Federal Office for the Environment, Department for Water National-level state actor
Federal Office for Health National-level state actor
Federal Office for Agriculture National-level state actor
BMG Engineering AG Science, laboratories, consulting
Conference of Cantonal Directors of Construction, Planning and Environmental Protection Cantonal-level state actor
Cercl’eau Cantonal-level state actor
Christian Democratic People’s Party Political party
Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology Science, laboratories, consulting
Economiesuisse Trade association
Sewage Treatment Plants in Large Cities Initiative Municipalities, cities, water or wastewater association
Free Democratic Party. The Liberals Political party
University of Applied Sciences of North-West Switzerland Science, laboratories, consulting
Swiss Fishery Association Environmental association
Swiss Green Party Political party
Western Swiss Group of Sewage Treatment Plants Operators Municipalities, cities, water or wastewater association.
Basel Chamber of Commerce Trade association
Hunziker-Betatech Science, laboratories, consulting
Scienceindustries Trade association
Consumer Forum Consumer association
Communal Infrastructure Municipalities, cities, water or wastewater association
Conference of Heads of Cantonal Offices for Environmental Protection Cantonal-level state actor
Competence Network of Cantonal Laboratories for Water and Environmental Protection Cantonal-level state actor
Ecotox Centre Science, laboratories, consulting
Pro Natura Environmental association
Swiss Farmers’ Association Trade association
Swiss Trade Association Trade association
Swiss Cosmetics and Detergent Association Trade association
Swiss Mechanical and Electrical Engineering Industry Association Trade association
Swiss Social Democratic Party Political party
Swiss Gas and Water Industry Association Municipalities, cities, water or wastewater association
Swiss People’s Party Political party
University of Basel Science, laboratories, consulting
University of Lausanne Science, laboratories, consulting
National Council’s Committee on the Environment, Spatial Planning and Energy Legislature
Council of State’s Committee on the Environment, Spatial Planning and Energy Legislature
Association of Cantonal Chemists of Switzerland Cantonal-level state actor
Swiss Water Association Municipalities, cities, water or wastewater association
World Wide Fund For Nature Switzerland Environmental association

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Metz, F., Ingold, K. Politics of the precautionary principle: assessing actors’ preferences in water protection policy. Policy Sci 50, 721–743 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11077-017-9295-z

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Keywords

  • Precautionary principle
  • Water protection policy
  • Uncertainties
  • Micropollutants
  • Policy preferences
  • Network modeling