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Not everyone looks on the dark side of life

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Peter Smith wants to know if I have heard of the precautionary principle (Chatroom, AJ 12.04.01). I co-organised the conference 'Interrogating the Precautionary Principle' at the Royal Institution last summer.

The principle is based on the proposition that those in authority should always anticipate the worst possible outcome of their actions, and proceed with appropriate caution. Smith does not seem to have considered that someone may have decided not to 'always look on the dark side of life'.

I would like to ask Smith whether he has heard of the research from the Benfield Greig Hazard Research Centre that shows tropical cyclones have, if anything, decreased in the northern hemisphere in the 1990s despite it being the warmest decade last century.

And has he not heard the argument put forward by many scientists that more precipitation does not necessarily mean 'more intense rainfall with consequent flooding'?

Julian Hunt (now Lord Hunt), professor of climate modelling in the Department of Space, Climate Physics and Geological Sciences at University College London, says 'rain could come down in a beautiful drizzle every day for three months in the winter, as opposed to a few tremendous events'.

Dr Helene Guldberg, lecturer, Open University

Austin Williams writes:

Unfortunately, knowing the way the precautionary principle works, even this explanation won't be reassuring. The logic of accepting a 'balance of nature' has led some to assert that catastrophic weather conditions are the natural way for some regions of the world. To suggest that it is positive that tropical cyclones have decreased will simply reinforce their belief that the world is out of control.

Nick Porcelli's article ('Water, water everywhere, AJ 21.12.00), specifically looking at increased rainfall - whether drizzle or downpour - concluded that 'it seems that it is easier to prevent development on the basis of the precautionary principle then to look for possible infrastructural solutions'. How true. Even those in the IPCC undertake a cost/benefit analysis.

It would be interesting to hear how the advocates of the precautionary principle deal with the IPCC statement that 'ice sheets will continue to react to climate warming and contribute to sea level rise for thousands of years after climate has been stabilized'. I suppose we may as well kill ourselves now.

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