The Politics of Precaution: Regulating Health, Safety, and Environmental Risks in Europe and the United States

By David Vogel | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SEVEN
Public Risk Perceptions and the Preferences
of Policy Makers

THIS CHAPTER AND THE following one further develop my explanatory framework for the discontinuity in health, safety, and environmental risk regulations that took place on both sides of the Atlantic after around 1990. This chapter focuses on changes in public opinion, specifically the public’s risk perceptions, and the preferences of influential policy makers. Both separately and by their interaction with one another, they have had a critical impact on shaping the divergence in transatlantic regulatory stringency.

During the second half of the 1980s, the extent and intensity of public concerns about a wide range of health, safety, and environmental risks increased substantially on both sides of the Atlantic. These concerns in turn played a role in a major expansion of consumer and environmental regulation in both the European Union and the United States. The 1988 Republican presidential candidate, George H. W. Bush, campaigned on a strong pro-environmental platform, and two years later, the Democraticcontrolled Congress, with the strong support of the White House, passed three important new environmental laws: the Clean Air Act Amendments, the Oil Pollution Act, and the Pollution Prevention Act. Risk regulations were also substantially strengthened in the European Union at around the same time. In 1989, the EU approved the Small Car Directive, which significantly tightened automobile emissions standards, and the following year it imposed a temporary ban on the milk growth hormone rBST and adopted a rigorous regulatory framework for the introduction of genetically modified varieties.

But while these new regulatory policies represented the last major expansion of consumer and environmental risk regulation in the United States, they marked the beginning of a steady expansion in the adoption of more stringent risk regulations in Europe. Why, then, after around 1990, did the regulatory policy window narrow in the United States but widen in the European Union across a broad range of risk-related policy areas, and why did this shift in the pattern of relative regulatory stringency persist? What happened after 1990 to create such a marked discontinuity in regulatory politics and policies on both sides of the Atlantic?

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