Politicians, climate change and evidence abuse Peter Griffin Apr 17

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I’ve recently been re-reading The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters, the book by former Times science editor Mark Henderson, which examines the often flagrant disregard for scientific evidence shown by politicians around the world.

New Zealand politicians of all persuasions are as guilty of evidence abuse as their overseas counterparts. Examples of this abound, most famously, the Prime Minister’s causal dismissal, during a BBC Hardtalk interview, of the claims of Massey University freshwater ecologist Dr Mike Joy about the health of our rivers and streams.

Ralph Sims

Ralph Sims

When asked by host Stephen Sackur how he responded to the serious claims Mike Joy made, the Prime Minister responded, rather tellingly:

“He’s one academic, and like lawyers, I can provide you with another one that will give you a counterview”.

This week another Massey researcher, Professor Ralph Sims was in the gun, as Tuesday’s Parliament question time was occupied by discussion of climate change and the recent IPCC climate mitigation report of which Professor Sims was one of the New Zealand lead authors.

Responding to questions from the Green Party’s climate change spokesman, Kennedy Graham, who quoted from commentary on the mitigation report from Professor Sims, climate change minister Tim Groser had this to say:

“I would respectfully suggest to the gentleman that he stick to his area of expertise. Because… when we look… at the wild statements that the gentleman made, they are palpably wrong on multiple levels.

“Going around pretending that every country in the world is doing 10, 20, 30 per cent reductions, is complete and utter nonsense… so I think ‘stick to the knitting’ would not be a bad piece of advice.”

“I think the community should listen very carefully to the Professor when he is talking about his specific area of scientific expertise, on which I would have nothing to comment.

“But when he steers across into broader questions of comparability I suggest that actually they would be better listening to the person who represents the Government and has access to a wide range of official advice.”

Palpably wrong on multiple levels? What exactly did Professor Sims say? At the Science Media Centre, we gathered commentary from Professor Sims as well as numerous other scientists from here and around the world on Sunday’s release of the IPCC’s Working Group III report on climate mitigation. Professor Sims was a lead author on the report. This is the statement he gave us and repeated in his Massey University release:

Prof Ralph Sims, Sustainable Energy, School of Engineering and Advanced Technology, Massey University, lead author of IPCC AR5 WG3 report, comments:

“The argument that New Zealand produces only 0.14% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (1) no longer holds. On average, each New Zealander is responsible for emitting around eight tonnes of carbon dioxide a year (2) and, with all the other greenhouse gases, now produces twice those of the average Chinese person and around eight times those of someone living in india (3). This means we are now the fourth highest emitter (4) per person in the world, behind Australia, the United States, and Canada.

“New Zealand has set a modest target to reduce our total greenhouse gas emissions by five per cent below the 1990 gross emission level in just six years time (5), yet no one knows how we will achieve this. In our Sixth Communication document to the United Nations in December 2013, the Ministry of Environment projected our net greenhouse gas emissions (the total emitted minus the carbon dioxide absorbed by forests planted after 1990) will reach more than 75 million tonnes in 2020 (6) if we continue with business as usual. To reach the five per cent reduction target below our 1990 emissions, we will need to somehow reduce these to 55 million tonnes (7).

“The various means of achieving this are clearly outlined in the IPCC Mitigation report released today. They relate to buildings, transport, industry, energy supplies, food production and processing, and forests, all of which can lead to the better “green economy” recently outlined in a New Zealand Royal Society report. Many of these solutions also provide major  additional benefits such as less air pollution, better health, reduced traffic congestion, more employment and they actually save money.

“In the foreword of New Zealand’s recent Communications document to the United Nations, Minister Groser stated, ‘The emissions reduction opportunities available to other nations through conversion to renewables, mass public transport and energy efficiency in industry have already been done or have far less scope in New Zealand’. The IPCC Mitigation report clearly shows this is far from correct.”

Okay, so lets do a bit of a fact check on Professor Sims. I’ve bolded the factual claims he made in the statement above and numbered them. How do the facts stack up?

(1) The Ministry for the Environment has New Zealand accounting for “approximately 0.15 per cent of total world emissions”. CORRECT

(2) According to the Ministry for the Environment, in 2010 “New Zealand’s emissions per capita are 7.6 tonnes per person for carbon dioxide”. CORRECT

(3) According to Carbon Footprint of Nations this is certainly true for the latest available carbon emissions figures (2010) - I can’t find a direct comparison of the three countries for total GHG emissions overall in the same year CORRECT

(4) According to the Ministry for the Environment and the OECD, “in 2011, New Zealand’s emissions per person were the fifth highest among 40 Annex 1 countries, at 16.6 tonnes CO2-e per person”. A variation of one ranking which may be due to more up to date data being released. CORRECT

(5) New Zealand’s official emissions reduction target according to climate change minister Tim Groser in an official release. CORRECT

(6) These projections are from the Ministry for the Environment’s Sixth National Communication to the UN CORRECT

(7) Confirmed by MfE, 1990 emissions were 59.6 Mt CO2-e so a five per cent reduction on that level would be around 55 million tonnes. CORRECT

Who is talking nonsense exactly?

As you would expect from a professor, Ralph Sims is quoting official figures, not plucking them out of the air.

I can’t find any reference to Professor Sims claiming that, as Groser put it “every country in the world is doing 10, 20, 30 per cent reductions”. He didn’t mention anything of the sort in the SMC commentary or his Massey release. Maybe Groser heard him say something to that effect in the media, but if he did, I can’t find reference to it. Some countries have more ambitious emissions reduction targets than New Zealand, some are more conservative. That is not overly controversial.

The piece that likely raised Groser’s hackles is the claim that there are more “emissions reduction opportunities” than Groser is prepared to acknowledge, compared to other countries. Sure, that is grounds for an intelligent and robust debate – the whole argument hinges on what we could and should do to mitigate emissions relative to other countries. But Professor Sims co-authored the report looking at mitigation options. He knows what he is talking about. Actually, this is his area of expertise – check out his credentials. The fact that a senior scientist who has contributed to a major international scinetific report receives such dismissive contempt from a senior minister, is pretty sad.

For Groser to write off Professor Sims and his “wild statements” appears to be just another example of tired old evidence abuse and expert bashing because the evidence put forward is inconvenient to the Government’s position.

I was planning on sending my dog-eared copy of The Geek Manifesto to Mike Hosking (after his climate sceptic rant about climate change on Seven Sharp a couple of weeks ago). After the way science has been misused in the last week, I’m spoiled for choice as to who else I should consider sending it to…

WiFi revisited: my visit to the Press Council Peter Griffin Apr 11


Sciblogs readers may remember the kerfuffle in December when Otaki’s Damon Wyman led a campaign to have Wifi hotspots removed from classes at Te Horo School.

Damon Wyman

Damon Wyman

I wrote about it at the time here on Sciblogs, taking issue with Wyman’s misguided campaign, which was ultimately successful when the Te Horo Board of Trustees surveyed parents and then decided to switch off Wifi in the school’s junior classrooms.

If I was critical of the campaign, I was even more critical of Wyman and the anti-Wifi lobby in my New Zealand Listener column (subscription required), which was published in January after the decision had been made to switch off the Wifi.

In that piece I stated my opinion that Damon Wyman had confused correlation and causation in linking the death of his son Ethan from a brain tumour in 2012 to Ethan’s use of a Wifi-enabled iPod device, which the 10 year-old slept with under his pillow. I based that assertion on comments I’d seen Mr Wyman make in the media. I also wrote that anti-Wifi campaigners were cherry-picking papers to bolster their case and that the evidence didn’t stack up for many of the claims they made about health and safety concerns stemming from Wifi use.

Mr Wyman and Stephanie Honeychurch, who has for years campaigned to keep cellphone towers out of communities, complained to the New Zealand Press Council about the column. The council, which consists of journalists, lawyers and laypeople and is presided over by retired Judge of the High Court, Sir John Hansen, considered submissions from the complainants, myself and the Listener. My Wyman, his lawyer Sue Grey and myself also gave oral submissions to the Press Council here in Wellington.

The result of all of that is that the Press Council have not upheld the complaints, protecting my right to have an informed opinion on the issue. I stand by everything I wrote. The decision is published on the Press Council website and published below as well. I’m pleased with the outcome of the case and thank the Listener for its staunch support throughout the proceedings.

I met Damon Wyman in Wellington soon after I wrote the column and again at the Press Council. If is fair to say we don’t see eye to eye. I have huge sympathy for what he has been through, though as Damon pointed out to me, I wouldn’t even begin to understand his position, as I do not have children myself.

However, I think he is wrong in his anti-Wifi campaign. I also believe that, having put himself out there in the media making these claims about Wifi safety, he needs to learn to handle the inevitable criticism that will result. At the Press Council hearing I quoted Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. The evidence isn’t there to back up his position on Wifi. That’s not to say that the issue shouldn’t be closely monitored as our use of wireless networks increases.

I wish him all the best and hope he finds some peace with the tragedy that has taken place.

As for Stephanie Honeychurch, this email she sent to the Press Council to accompany her submission, says a lot about the way the woman thinks…

“I would so appreciate it if you can do this as this man is virulent, inaccurate and dangerous and I am sure you will agree his bigotry is putting children at risk…


Case Number: 2375 STEPHANIE HONEYCHURCH AGAINST NZ LISTENER (duplicate of WYMAN judgement)

Council Meeting MARCH 2014

There are two complaints about a Peter Griffin technology column, headlined Something in the air, in the February 1 issue of New Zealand Listener magazine published on January 25. The complainants are Damon Wyman and Stephanie Honeychurch and the complaints have been looked at as one in the absence of substantial differences.

Damon Wyman, supported by his wife Jo, and Sue Grey, their lawyer, attended the Press Council meeting and spoke in support of the complaint. Mr Wyman and Ms Grey divided their allocation of time between them.
Peter Griffin, author of the column, attended the meeting on behalf of the editor, and spoke in defence of his column.

In his column, Mr Griffin said it was not true that Wi-Fi devices were dangerous to users’ health; there was no compelling scientific evidence to suggest that electromagnetic radiation emitted from Wi-Fi devices posed elevated risk of developing brain tumours.
Mr Griffin cited a growing anti-Wi-Fi movement using “dubious research” to bolster counter claims. He used the example of two fathers, Damon Wyman and David Bird, successfully campaigning to have Wi-Fi removed from junior classrooms at Te Horo School.
The Wi-Fi removal followed Mr Wyman’s 10-year-old son Ethan dying after developing a brain tumour. Ethan had slept with a wireless iPod under his pillow and the column said “Wyman is convinced the device was responsible for his son’s brain tumour…”
Mr Griffin said Mr Wyman’s reaction confused correlation and causation and he quoted two scientists, Martin Gledhill and Bruce Armstrong, in his argument that Wi-Fi did not cause adverse health effects.

Mr Wyman complained that he had never categorically said Wi-Fi caused his son’s tumour, only that his son’s tumour has prompted him to research the subject. This is a key plank of Mr Wyman’s complaint.
He believed the innuendo in the opinion column was that there was no basis for health concerns and that the science around this was conclusive. Mr Wyman argued this was incorrect and there was scientific recognition of the need for precaution.

The column’s standfirst, ‘Scaremongers warning of the dire dangers of Wi-Fi are ignoring the science’ was presented as a statement of fact.

Mr Wyman met with Mr Griffin at the end of January and sought an apology, which was not forthcoming. Mr Griffin instead suggested Mr Wyman write to the Listener, which he did.
Mr Wyman was concerned at the impact publicity from Mr Griffin’s column was having on his three children.

Because Mr Griffin is also the manager of the Science Media Centre, Mr Wyman complained that he was being paid by the Government and defending its position. Martin Gledhill also received income from the Government and the telecommunications industry and, therefore, neither his nor Mr Griffin’s position was independent, expert or balanced.

The column, Mr Wyman said, breached Press Council principles of Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, Conflicts of Interest, Headlines and Captions, Comment and Fact, Children and Young People and Privacy.
Other than not suggesting a breach of the Press Council principle of Privacy, Stephanie Honeychurch’s complaint was not dissimilar to Mr Wyman’s.

Magazine editor’s response 
The complainants had a different view from Mr Griffin.
Based on several media reports quoting Mr Wyman, it was fair for Mr Griffin to conclude Mr Wyman believed the wireless iPod was responsible for his son’s brain tumour.
One particular article quoted Mr Wyman as saying, “We’re not saying that caused it, but it seems like a bit of a coincidence”. The editor argued that it was reasonable to draw from that comment that Mr Wyman believed the iPod was responsible for the tumour.

Mr Griffin’s column was not defamatory of Mr Wyman. Saying Mr Wyman believed a Wi-Fi device caused a tumour would not bring him into contempt, ridicule or disrepute.
The Listener column concerned matters of public interest and did not breach the privacy of Mr Wyman’s children. It did not name them and Mr Wyman had himself chosen to enter the public forum around this subject.

The Science Media Centre which Mr Griffin managed had a charter ensuring its editorial independence from the Government and, therefore, there was no conflict of interest.
The editor also included a response from Mr Griffin, which featured much of the same points, along with scientific references in support of the argument that Wi-Fi did not cause adverse health risks.

The Press Council sets a high bar when dealing with complaints against opinion columns. Mr Griffin was entitled to express his honestly held opinion, supported by scientific research he deemed relevant, and the Listener was equally entitled to publish it.
There is not a requirement for balance in an opinion column.

Use of the word ‘convinced’ to describe Mr Wyman’s view of a link between the tumour and the device was unnecessarily strong and does not align with what Mr Wyman says is his view.
Although the complainants strongly believe Mr Wyman had not categorically linked his son’s brain tumour to the use of the Wi-Fi iPod, it was not unreasonable for Mr Griffin to conclude this, at the time the column was written, based on public reports and comments by Mr Wyman.

The Council, and Mr Griffin, have now heard Mr Wyman state this is not his position.
Mr Griffin and the complainants have differing views on the science around the health risks posed by Wi-Fi devices. Both are entitled to such opinions and both provided much evidence in support of them. It is not for the Press Council to debate or rule on the science.

The column’s standfirst properly reflects its content.
Mr Wyman cannot expect to campaign or lobby on an issue without public scrutiny and comment. His children, other than Ethan, however, were not specifically referenced in the column and it did not breach their privacy.
The Listener published a letter from Mr Wyman which provided an alternative view to the science Mr Griffin had relied on for his column. The letter ran two weeks after the column was published, in part due to the magazine editor waiting for Mr Griffin to meet Mr Wyman.

The complaints are not upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Chris Darlow, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, John Roughan, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.

Daily News back pedals after climate blunder Peter Griffin Apr 03

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Credit to the Taranaki Daily News for running a completely new editorial in today’s paper that corrects the woeful mistake it made yesterday. 

Check out the column below (click to enlarge), which incidentally, ran above a column by Gwynne Dyer that looks at some of the dire predictions for global food production as climate change hits crop yields in the coming decades.

Screen Shot 2014-04-03 at 7.35.08 AM

Still, today’s editorial would appear to me to continue to miss the point. It is not acceptable to put up the views of the IPCC, a legitimate UN body representing thousands of scientists and recognised by the world’s governments against the NIPCC, a lobby group of sceptics with no scientific credibility.

This is “false balance” pure and simple, a trap media outlets continue to fall into when it comes to covering climate change. The important thing to reflect is the “balance of evidence”, which the IPCC delivered with their 2,000 page report on Monday.

Daily newspaper embarrasses itself over climate coverage Peter Griffin Apr 02


I couldn’t believe it when I heard the news. Surely its a belated April Fool’s joke, I thought?

How could a respectable newspaper like the Taranaki Daily News really publish an editorial leader passing off pseudoscientific climate sceptic spin as the official view of the International Panel on Climate Change?

I still don’t know the answer to that question. What I do know is that the Taranaki Daily News has owned up to its mistake and will be correcting the piece in tomorrow’s paper. In the paper’s official editorial today, which read like it was ghost-written by the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition – a loose collective of climate sceptics who deny much of the established science on climate change, the editorial writer has confused the IPCC with the NIPCC.

The former is the United Nations body that released its 5th Assessment Report update on Monday, featuring input from thousands of the world’s top scientists. It painted a grim picture of the future if greenhouse gas emissions aren’t mitigated. The NIPCC (non-governmental Panel on Climate Change) is a sceptic lobby group set up to present an alternative view of climate science and named purposely to cause confusion. It claims humans have an “indiscernible” impact on climate and everything will be just fine as emissions continue to rise.

One is credible, evidence-based and informs the efforts of governments around the world – the IPCC. The other has no credibility at all – the NIPCC.

Read the piece below (click to enlarge) in full which at the time of writing was still online and uncorrected here. But check out the following paragraph, which comes from a NIPCC paper but which was quoted as coming directly from the IPCC’s latest Working Group II report.

“No unambiguous evidence exists of dangerous interference in the global climate caused by human-related CO2 emissions. In particular, the cryosphere is not melting at an enhanced rate; sea-level rise is not accelerating; and no systematic changes have been documented in evaporation or rainfall or in the magnitude or intensity of extreme meteorological events. Any human global climate signal is so small as to be nearly indiscernible against the background variability of the natural climate system. Climate change is always occurring.”

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 12.47.31 PM

In an email from the Taranaki Daily News, editor Roy Pilott told me that the error had “slipped under my radar” and would be corrected tomorrow. Really, what about the rest of it? I think it warrants a new editorial, such was the extent to which the paper’s editorial perverted the scientific view.

As for the thrust of the editorial – the Taranaki Daily News is free to take whatever stance it wishes on climate change. But this is the most rabidly sceptical editorial I’ve seen in a mainstream outlet in New Zealand in years. Is this a simple error of quotation or something much more insidious and anti-science…?

It is a real shame, because the Taranaki’s news coverage of the IPCC report was solid – the local impacts of the scientists’ projections were considered and an opinion piece from IPCC chairman Rajendra Pauchauri was prominently featured. Unfortunately the paper’s own editorial has undermined the work of its reporters.

Did Sea Shepherd do more harm than good? Peter Griffin Apr 01


After years of vitriolic and dangerous clashes in Antarctic waters between Japanese whaling vessels and the Sea Shepherd fleet, the news came in decidedly dry legalese. 

Remedies: Measures going beyond declaratory relief warranted. Japan required to revoke any extant authorization, permit or licence to kill, take or treat whales in relation to JARPA II and refrain from granting any further permits in pursuance of that programme. No need to order additional remedy requested by Australia.

Sea Shepherd's Bob Barker in Wellington Harbour

Sea Shepherd’s Bob Barker in Wellington Harbour

A judgement handed down overnight by the International Court of Justice ruled that state-sanctioned Japanese whaling in the Antarctic isn’t for scientific research at all and ordered a halt to such hunting.

The legal win is a major victory for Australia which brought the case in 2010 with support from New Zealand. It is also, indirectly, a win for Sea Shepherd, which has fought so long and hard to thwart the efforts of the whalers in the Southern Ocean.

This morning, the Sea Shepherd ship Bob Barker was tied up in Wellington Harbour, still and quiet as I walked past on the way to work. A bearded crew member tapped away on a MacBook on deck – but no one else was to be seen – maybe the celebrations last night went into the early hours. A rusty gash along the Bob Barker’s hull was a reminder of the close quarters combat the ship regularly engaged in.

This is not necessarily the end of the issue. Japan could flout the ruling. But it has indicated that it will not, in which case it will have to wind up its whaling operations, or change them drastically to meet the definition of whaling for scientific purposes.

I don’t know any New Zealanders, except the Wellington-based PR consultant Glenn Inwood, Japan’s Institute for Cetacean Research’s spin doctor, who support Japan’s claim to hunt minke whales in the Southern Ocean. Scientists I’ve talked to say they see no legitimate scientific purpose to hunting and killing large numbers of whales. Most people will be in agreement that the ICJ judgement is great news.

Loss of face

But could this conclusion have been reached sooner if the Southern Ocean warfare between environmentalists and whalers not taken place? Foreign affairs minister Murray McCully suggested as much on Radio New Zealand this morning. Asked by host Simon Mercep whether Sea Shepherd deserved thanks for the role it has played in the dispute, McCully responded with an emphatic “no”:

This is a programme that is carried out today largely for reasons of pride on Japan’s part, rather than because there’s any use for the whale meat or any good scientific outcomes. One of the problems has been that the protest activity down there has rather made Japan dig its heels in. So while I am sure some of the Sea Shepherd people will claim credit for it, in fact, my own perspective has been that Japan needs a bit of space here to work its way out of a practise that has got no future.

Sea Shepherd footage of Japanese whalers

Sea Shepherd footage of Japanese whalers

McCully is saying that an end to whaling in Antarctica could have been brought about sooner if purely diplomatic efforts had been undertaken to convince Japan to give up whaling. Sea Shepherd and its supporters will scoff at that suggestion. It can’t be disputed that the dramatic footage of ships colliding in the Southern Ocean has captured media attention and kept the issue of whaling in the spotlight for years. But it also made it incredibly difficult for the Japanese to recall its ships and shut down its whaling programme.

As this Discovery Channel article suggests, that resistance has its roots in deep-seated cultural values around whaling that are held dear by the Japanese.

This history is an important part of why the Japanese continue to hunt whales. Attempts to stop the nation’s whaling are perceived by many as a threat to Japanese culture. According to its defenders, eating whale meat is an old and impenetrable Japanese tradition. “No one has the right to criticize the food culture of another people,” said Matayuki Komatsu of Japan’s Fisheries Agency.

A sense of pride also fuels Japan’s commitment to whaling. To some, the words and actions of those who oppose Japanese whaling are “culturally arrogant” and unnecessarily harsh. This only serves to strengthen the country’s resolve to maintain its whaling, according to some.

It is unclear as to what progress a different course of action would have taken. If Sea Shepherd had left the issue in the hands of McCully and his fellow diplomats around the world, would Japan quietly have wound down its whaling operations sooner?

Personally, I doubt it. Sea Shepherd forced the issue onto the media agenda, with graphic footage of whales being butchered and environmentalists clashing with whalers. They understood the power this would have and got the response they wanted – worldwide condemnation of Japan. They couldn’t shame Japan into stopping, no one could. It was legal action that succeeded in compelling Japan to agree to stop whaling in Antarctica, which may suggest the activist group actually had limited impact on the decision. But without Sea Shepherd, would there have been the political will on the part of Australia to take Japan to the ICJ?

The impact on public perception of Japan’s whaling efforts can’t be underestimated – arguably the group has done more to raise awareness of whaling and the health of whale populations than any other group.

But Sea Shepherd has many detractors, including in the scientific community. Marine scientists writing at Deep Sea News have long condemned Sea Shepherd’s actions:

  1. Ramming another vessel is against every maritime code and general sense of decency I can think of.

  2. For a captain to put both his own vessel and crew at risk but another as well, intentionally, is beyond forgiveness.

  3. To conduct such an act that serves absolutely no function other than showboating or putting on a good show for television crews is cheap

  4. To waste donation money for boat repair, given the three points above, is unethical and betrays the confidence of donors.

  5. For a certain media company who owns this channel to be involved in such stunts, when the purported mission of said group is supposedly education, is hypocritical among many other not so nice terms.

Shark divers and conservationists who followed Sea Shepherd’s progress were unimpressed at the group’s approach:

The question most credible NGO’s are asking themselves these days, what is worse? Killing whales for bogus research, or exploiting the killing of whales for television ratings and eco donations from a well meaning and ill informed public?

So what now for Sea Shepherd? There are other campaigns to fight, with Iceland and Norway still whaling and Japan undertaking whaling in the northern Pacific. Many environmentalists will see the Sea Shepherd approach as being the most effective one when there is stubborn resistance to change on environmental issues.

But the lingering suspicion remains that a bit of cultural sensitivity and diplomacy could have got the job done quicker, saving the lives of thousands of whales and avoiding putting the lives of human beings in danger.



Climate change, agriculture and decreasing yields Peter Griffin Mar 31

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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Working Group II report is out and paints a stark picture for agricultural productivity in a warming world.

Screen Shot 2014-03-31 at 5.11.31 PMOver at the Science Media Centre, we gathered reaction from climate scientists here and in Australia and the UK. Much of the commentary focuses on things like climbing emissions, sea level rise and extreme weather events.

But the press conference in Yokohama today that accompanied the release of the report, paid a lot of attention to the impact climate change will have on efforts to feed a burgeoning global population, as it impacts on crops and fisheries that sustain billions of people.

You see, scientists predict that yields for some major crops, particularly food grains that form the basis of a staple diet for millions, will begin to decline later this century.

Here’s how the IPCC puts it in its summary for policymakers:

Source: IPCC Assemmment Report 5 - WG2 Summary for Policymakers

Source: IPCC Assessment Report 5 – WG2 Summary for Policymakers

The Guardian, in the first of a two-part series on the issue of crop yields, points to research recently released that backs up the high-level statements of the IPCC, that we face falling crop yields in a warming world.

The researchers found this by comparing results from almost 100 independent studies—more than double the number used in the IPCC’s fourth assessment—that measured the impact of higher temperatures on three of the globe’s primary staple crops: maize, wheat, and rice. It’s currently the largest dataset we have that demonstrates how crops will respond to changing climates, and it suggests that decreases in yields will grow larger, affect both temperate regions and the tropics, and become increasingly erratic as the weather turns more unpredictable too.

Once mid-century hits, crop losses of up to 25% will become more commonplace, as well—a number that does account for basic mitigation efforts in farming regimes.

The green revolution saw, over the past 50 years, dramatic increased in agricultural productivity, which has fueled the world’s population growth. The suggestion from the latest IPCC report is that we will struggle to maintain this productivity growth as the climate changes, leading to rising tensions over food security. Humans have engineered their way out of lean food supply before. Can we do it again?

Key points of the IPCC WR-II report

* In many regions, changing precipitation or melting snow and ice are altering hydrological systems, affecting water resources in terms of quantity and quality

* Glaciers continue to shrink almost worldwide due to climate change, affecting run-off and water resources downstream

* Climate change is causing permafrost warming and thawing in high-latitude regions and in high-elevation regions

* Many terrestrial, freshwater, and marine species have shifted their geographic ranges, seasonal activities, migration patterns, abundances, and species interactions in response to ongoing climate change

* Based on many studies covering a wide range of regions and crops, negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts

* Climate change has negatively affected wheat and maize yields for many regions and in the global aggregate. Effects on rice and soybean yield have been smaller in major production regions and globally

* Climate-related hazards affect poor people’s lives directly through impacts on livelihoods, reductions in crop yields, or destruction of homes and indirectly through, for example, increased food prices and food insecurity

* Freshwater-related risks of climate change increase significantly with increasing greenhouse gas concentrations. The fraction of global population experiencing water scarcity and the fraction affected by major river floods increase with the level of warming in the 21st century

* Climate change over the 21st century is projected to reduce renewable surface water and groundwater resources significantly in most dry subtropical regions, intensifying competition for water among sectors

* Due to sea-level rise projected throughout the 21st century and beyond, coastal systems and low-lying areas will increasingly experience adverse impacts such as submergence, coastal flooding, and coastal erosion

* Some low-lying developing countries and small island states are expected to face very high impacts that, in some cases, could have associated damage and adaptation costs of several percentage points of GDP

* Due to projected climate change by the mid 21st century and beyond, global marine-species redistribution and marine-biodiversity reduction in sensitive regions will challenge the sustained provision of fisheries productivity and other ecosystem services

* Spatial shifts of marine species due to projected warming will cause high-latitude invasions and high local-extinction rates in the tropics and semi-enclosed seas

* Species richness and fisheries catch potential are projected to increase, on average, at mid and high latitudes and decrease at tropical latitudes

* Climate change will impact human health mainly by exacerbating health problems that already exist

* Throughout the 21st century, climate change is expected to lead to increases in ill-health in many regions and especially in developing countries with low income, as compared to a baseline without climate change

* For the major crops (wheat, rice, and maize) in tropical and temperate regions, climate change without adaptation is projected to negatively impact production for local temperature increases of 2°C or more above late-20th-century level


Science communication as TV spectacle Peter Griffin Mar 12

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The reviews are in for Neil de Grasse Tyson’s reboot of the classic Carl Sagan TV series Cosmos and the reception has been overwhelmingly positive.

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 5.11.36 PM

The first episode of the series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey debuted on Sunday night in the US with an estimated 8.5 million people tuning in to watch it across Fox channels. According to Neilsen, 40 million people worldwide will have watched it by the end of the week. That’s pretty staggering reach when it comes to a science TV show.

The series debuts here in New Zealand on Sunday night on Sky TV’s National Geographic channel. Those using a virtual private network to stream video from US TV shows can watch the first episode on Fox’s website or on the Hulu TV portal. I’ve seen it. I was very impressed. It honours the brilliant original series while updating it, content wise and graphically. Neil de Grasse Tyson does a great job fronting it.

The series shows what can be achieved when top notch talent and a large amount of money are thrown at a TV project. But science-related TV events like this are rare. President Obama even recorded a promo for the show in which he said that Cosmos reminded Americans of their capacity to reach for the stars:

“There are no limits. So open your eyes and your imagination. The next big discovercould be yours”.

Imaginations captured

All very inspiring stuff. But what will the real impact of Cosmos be? Do popular TV series like this have the power to inspire and capture the imagination the way they did back when Sagan made the original?

Others have been mulling the same question. From The Atlantic:

Looking back on the 1980s, it’s hard to say how much public support for scientific research, including the planetary exploration missions so dear to Sagan’s heart, can be credited directly to programs like Cosmos, and how much depended on Congressional support for a space industry that might play some yet-to-be-determined role in World War III. Today, the federal government continues to invest in R&D, but those funds skew toward defense projects, health research, and technology-oriented innovation. Instead of space war, defense R&D focuses on cybersecurity, remote-sensing technologies, and neurowarfare. NASA, meanwhile, limps along. That seems unlikely to change, whether Cosmosscores 5 or 500 million viewers.

I don’t think anyone should be looking to a show like Cosmos to be doing anything other than entertaining and to an extent educating people about our world and the universe. The impact of such things is cumulative – exposure to them can change perception and foster interest over time. When I think about what got me interested in science and technology as a child it was a mix of BBC documentaries, sci-fi books, enthusiastic teachers and my father, who as a technician at Philips in Dublin, got his hands on some of the newest consumer electronics devices first. I fondly remember Sagan’s Cosmos, but it was a small part of the mix of influences.

If children sit down in front of the box to watch Cosmos and come away with what I took from the original it has more than achieved its purpose.

Away from the US, down here in a small country like New Zealand, its interesting to ponder what the impact of a locally-produced science-related show like Cosmos could be. We have few real TV events in this country that are not sports or election related. Late last year a fantastic series called Wild About New Zealand aired that, I think, stands out as a series that really got people thinking and talking about the wonderful place we live in.

The production values were outstanding. This was TV that was well thought-out, well constructed, and followed a format that ignored faddish TV conventions. It will still be a good doco in 30 years time.

Do we have more shows like this in us? Do we have a science show that could get the nation talking the way Cosmos has in the US?

Some of the Cosmos reviews

Scienceblogsthe first episode is a win

The VergeMaking science cool again

VarietyCosmos review

Don’t hang-up – cellphones safe says UK study Peter Griffin Feb 11


Following my last post on Wi-fi networks and their alleged health effects and my follow-up Listener column that resulted in several complaints about me to the editor from the anti Wi-fi lobby, I’m quite pleased to see the latest major study out of the UK on mobile phone and electromagnetic fields.

Screen Shot 2014-02-11 at 3.31.24 PMBasically it says that there’s no link between mobile phone use and cancer. It points out that over the long term, we still need to do more research in case there is any delay in the onset of cancers associated with mobile use over several decades. The COSMOS study has been set up to do just that. But from what the researchers have gathered to date and what the rest of the literature says, there is no link.

This was a big, long-running study funded to the tune of 13.6 million pounds:

Over a period of 11 years, the MTHR Programme has supported 31 individual research projects that between them have resulted in almost 60 papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals. All but one of the research projects is now complete, and the Department of Health has decided that this is an opportune time to bring research on mobile phones and health into its mainstream research portfolio.

I’ll blog in more detail about this later… but for the meantime, here’s the paper to download

MTHR report 2012

Below is the press release from the authors:

The UK’s largest programme of research into possible health risks from mobile phone technology has today published its final report, and finds no evidence of biological or adverse health effects.  The report summarises studies completed since an earlier report in 2007.

The research programme found no evidence that exposure to base station emissions during pregnancy affects the risk of developing cancer in early childhood, and no evidence that use of mobile phones leads to an increased risk of leukaemia.

Professor David Coggon, Chairman of MTHR, said “When the MTHR programme was first set up, there were many scientific uncertainties about possible health risks from mobile phones and related technology.  This independent programme is now complete, and despite exhaustive research, we have found no evidence of risks to health from the radio waves produced by mobile phones or their base stations. Thanks to the research conducted within the programme, we can now be much more confident about the safety of modern telecommunications systems.  To be sure that there are no delayed adverse effects, which only become apparent after many years, the programme provided funding to set up an epidemiological investigation (the COSMOS study) which will follow-up a large population of mobile phone users long-term.  Future Government support for this study and any new research on mobile phones and health will be managed by the Department of Health.”

Recognising concerns among members of the public and workers in the emergency services, the MTHR programme included large and well-designed investigations into the possible effects of emissions from TETRA radios and base stations that are used by the emergency services. Reassuringly this research found no evidence for adverse effects associated with exposure.

The programme also included research to investigate whether the modulation of radio signals that is used to encode speech and data for telecommunications could elicit specific effects in cells or tissues. No effects were found in any of the experiments, which used a wide range of tissue types and endpoints. When taken together with the results from provocation studies described in the previous MTHR report, this now constitutes a significant body of evidence that modulation of signals does not lead to health risks.

The £13.6 million MTHR programme has been jointly funded by the UK government and the telecommunications industry.  Throughout its existence, the programme has been overseen by an independent Programme Management Committee (PMC), to ensure that none of the funding bodies could influence the outcomes of the research.  The PMC selected and monitored all studies in the programme.

This report effectively brings the programme to a conclusion after 11 years of detailed research and, when taken together with the earlier 2007 Report, provides a complete summary of the projects supported. It also summarises work undertaken to improve the assessment of exposures, and includes detailed descriptions of the exposure systems used for the provocation studies in the programme. Most of the research results generated by the programme have been published in the peer-reviewed scientific and medical literature, resulting in around 60 papers.



Ring man has a whale of a tale Peter Griffin Jan 22


Ken Ring has discovered Twitter – and yet another channel to embarrass himself with his pseudoscientific theories.

This time, Ring is linking recent whale strandings at Farewell Spit with the seismic activity that had my fellow movie-goers scurrying out of a showing of The Book Thief at 3.52pm on Monday afternoon in Wellington.

No Ken, its not odd, you are odd.

“We” Ken? Who would that be? The voices inside your head?

The whale strandings-earthquake theory pops up from time to time, thanks largely to the work of Indian Dr Arunachalam Kumar who has regularly suggested that whale strandings are a precursor to large seismic events. He has been helped along by breathlessly uncritical media coverage from, among others, the Times of India:

A Manglorean academic’s prediction of natural disaster following whale deaths at New Zealand on August 20, has come true.

Dr Arunachalam Kumar, professor at KS Hedge Medical Academy, had espoused the theory that the unexplained whale deaths are linked to natural disasters over the years and has been proved to be spot-on this time also.

After whale deaths of the New Zealand coast, he had received an e-mail query regarding the possible outcome of this event. He had said the incident was prelude to eruption of a volcano in Indonesia within seven days and an earthquake would follow within two weeks.

Both predictions, based on the observations of Dr Kumar on changes in whale behaviour, have turned out to be absolutely right. On August 29, Mt Sinabung, a long dormant volcano in Sumatra erupted suddenly, forcing the evacuation of thousands of people from its vicinity. On September 4, Christchurch, New Zealand, was rocked by one of the most powerful earthquakes in its history.

The doctor had in December 2004 predicted the coming of the titanic Asian tsunami a full three weeks before it struck, killing 150,000 people.

Professor Kumar’s undeserved claim to fame is that he wrote on an email forum on December 4, 2004 that the stranding of 120 whales on an Australian beach in late November, would be followed by a major seismic event.

I have noted with alarm, the last week report of such mass deaths of marine mammals in an Australian beachside. I will not be surprised if within a few days a massive quake hits some part of the globe.

Three weeks later, the Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami occurred. This Independent piece that ran in early 2005 summarises what is still the view of scientists…

Mark Simmonds is director of science at Britain’s Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS).

He has studied strandings in detail because one of the questions most frequently asked of him and the WDCS is why they happen. The main answer is, he says, that most whales are intensely social animals, and act together. If one heads into the beach, the others follow. It may be an accident; sometimes human agency may be partly to blame; sometimes the Earth’s magnetic field may play a role.

“But nobody has shown any correlation between whale strandings and earthquakes. If you’re saying there is, you would have to present the data to prove your case.”

Over to Professor Kumar. His original email strongly implies that he is in possession of such data. But, contacted at his office in Mangalore, he was unable to provide any.

Did he have a list of the correlations between previous whale strandings and earthquakes? The correlations in which he had tracked the data and plotted the locales? “I don’t have a lot of these things,” he said. “I’m just an avid reader. I watch with particular interest.

“As a science man, I don’t want to put these things on paper,” he replied. “It would take me a long time to put it right.”

So Kumar appears to have no evidence at all for backing up his core assertion that cetacean strandings and earthquakes are linked.

Yet he undoubtedly did post his solemn warning just three weeks before the biggest earthquake of the past 40 years: “I will not be surprised if within a few days a massive quake hits some part of the globe.” Chance? Luck? Science? Make of it what you will. Plenty of others are.

As a science man, he doesn’t want to put these things down on paper? Enough said.

Whales stranded at Farewell Spit Source: Department of Conservation

Whales stranded at Farewell Spit Source: Department of Conservation

Bathurst trashes the environment – literally Peter Griffin Jan 22

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I went for a walk around central Wellington last night, something I often do to make my Fitbit pedometer register the 10,000 steps it recommends I take every day.

The rain had stopped, but it was windy. As I walked down Willeston St. scraps of trash were blowing about. I passed a collection of plastic shopping bags, the contents of which were spewing out of one, about to take flight in the wind. It looked like a series of pictures – all of the same thing – a kiwi. I looked more closely. It turns out they weren’t pictures, but postcards – hundreds of them. They were postmarked September and October 2013.

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 10.43.59 AM

They had been posted to Green MP Catherine Delahunty and contained the same generic message:

Dear Bathurst Resources,

I call on you to withdraw your proposal for an open cast coal mine on the Denniston Plateau.

Please let it remain the home of great spotted kiwi, the green gecko, ground weta, and giant snail.

Denniston Plateau is an ecological and historic treasure, please don’t dig up the stunning 40 million year old limestone landscape.

Your proposal to dig up coal will contribute to damaging climate change.

Signed __________

The cards contained names, email addresses and in some cases mailing addresses of the people writing in.

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 10.31.52 AMWould the Greens dump on the footpath, postcards from supporters voicing their opposition to mining on the Denniston Plateau? Unlikely. Their office is also on Garrett St. in Te Aro, so they weren’t mistakenly dumped with their trash. But you know whose office is based on Willeston St? Bathurst Resources.

It looks like the mining company was doing a spring clean and all the postcards that were presumably presented to them by the Green Party, ended up on the footpath beneath their office.

I’m sure a good number of the people who wrote in will draw a parallel between Bathurst’s careless littering and its plans to undertake open cast mining on Denniston Plateau.

At the very least, Bathurst should have shredded the postcards containing all those personal contact details or put them in a proper council rubbish bag along with all the other junk they left on the footpath. Don’t worry Bathurst, I’ll shred them for you.

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