Risk management rather than paralysis
Politics

Risk management rather than paralysis

Europe struggles with risk management. Rather than weighing the benefits and risks of technologies, it focuses mainly on a cautious approach. However, too much risk aversion leads to paralysis in the short or long term. As a result, caution can turn into avoidance.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

In brief

  • Rapid technological progress also produces ever new risks.
  • The advantages and disadvantages of new technologies must be carefully weighed against each other.
  • Instead of a strict precautionary principle, the risks of non-application should also be increasingly taken into account.

Writing in editorial appearing in Saturday’s edition of the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” newspaper Sven Titz criticizes the way we handle risks. The coronavirus pandemic offers a good example here. The author notes three problems: “Whenever there are new or rare threats, Europe responds, first of all, in a way that is far too inflexible; second, in a way that doesn’t succeed; and third, with insufficient communication.” The modern world is full of latent threats. The rapid pace of research and development of new technologies therefore makes handling risks adequately all the more important.


Take account of the risks and costs of not using technologies, too
Titz identifies a fundamental difference between English-speaking countries and Continental Europe when it comes to handling risks. While a cautious approach has prevailed in Europe since the 1970s, North America and the UK primarily rely on cost-benefit analysis. The cautious approach says that new technologies (including when there is incomplete knowledge regarding possible harm) should generally be avoided. Technologies should not be used as long as potential negative consequences for people or the environment cannot be ruled out. Risks should be avoided as much as possible. With a cost-benefit analysis, by contrast, the costs of not using the technology are considered in addition to the potential negative effects of the technology. This is because not using new technologies entails risk as well. The latest example of this is the authorization of Covid vaccines. Should the risk of isolated side effects be weighed more heavily than the virus itself? Or the authorization of new pesticides: In recent years, not a single new pesticide has received authorization in Switzerland. More than 200 products are in the pipeline. This poses a risk to food security and the environment, because chemical agents are more targeted and safer, as a rule.


Communicating transparently
But in addition to their troubles when handling risks, Europeans also struggle to communicate risks. For example, figures are sometimes communicated without the corresponding reference values. If a newspaper article says that eating a certain food doubles the risk of cancer, it sounds frightening at first glance. But when it turns out that the risk of the disease is a millionth of a fraction, then doubling the risk takes on a different light. It is absolutely essential to separate what seems frightening and what is actually dangerous. Titz’s conclusion: An awareness of risks and probabilities should be discussed much more – and starting as early as grade school. Business, political and administrative decision-makers should be much more conscious of risk management.

The precautionary principle should increasingly be combined with cost-benefit analyses. Forbidding risks or taking a zero-tolerance approach toward risk will result in paralysis.

The case of chlorothalonil
More should be invested in the transparent communication of risks, too. The example of chlorothalonil provides a prime example of why this is an urgent issue. Government authorities, despite their own scientific findings, made the blanket declaration that all fungicide degradation products to be “relevant” and therefore potentially harmful to the environment and human health. As a result, the limit was increased 100-fold almost overnight. The pesticide has been banned since January 1, 2020. This about-face by the federal government caused panic among water companies, which had already invested millions of francs and were now required to comply with the new limit – even though there was no risk to human health. This is anything but good risk management.

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