Of all the questions raised by the controversy surrounding scientist Mike Joy’s quotes in the New York Times – and the heated response to them, this is the most important: can Dr Joy back up with evidence his claims about the parlous state of New Zealand’s environment?

He can and he has.

Dr Mike Joy

From the peer-reviewed journal PLoS to the Ministry for the Environment’s own reporting on the state of water quality in New Zealand, the literature suggests we have reason to be concerned about the health of our waterways.

How this impinges on the way we market our country to the rest of the world is arguable, but this scientist at least has a credible argument – backed up by evidence, to suggest it undermines our prominent claims to be 100% Pure.

It is not as if Mike Joy is a renegade among scientists, a lone voice in the freshwater science community. He shares the same concerns as many other freshwater scientists I have spoken to. He is just more forceful at putting his views across, more proactive at seeking media exposure. You could say that he is a very effective science communicator.

The only reason Mike Joy has attracted the ire of the Prime Minister and others, is that his comments about New Zealand’s environmental record have travelled so widely – carried on BBC Hardtalk last year and via the New York Times last week.

But you don’t have to look far to see that many of Dr Joy’s concerns are mirrored by his colleagues.

Views mirrored

Take this round-up of scientific commentary we at the Science Media Centre gathered last year in response to the Government’s release of a package of policy initiatives for regulating water quality and usage in New Zealand.

Here’s an excerpt from Dr Joy’s commentary:

“This national policy statement continues that trend of policy containing lots of nice words and lofty ideals but no teeth or standards, so this is a huge opportunity lost and we can expect more of the same the further degrading of the ‘clean green’ myth.”

Here’s what Angus McIntosh, Professor and Mackenzie Foundation Chair in Freshwater Ecology, University of Canterbury, had to say:

 “The need to halt declines in freshwater biodiversity values is critical. The current situation is really quite grim. In a recent survey of small waterways on the Canterbury Plains we have found over 80% are either moderately or severely polluted. For Canterbury urban waterways (pre earthquake), the situation is even worse”.

And Professor David Hamilton, Bay of Plenty Chair in Lakes Management & Restoration at Waikato University and President of the New Society Freshwater Sciences Society, weighed in with this:

“Over the past decade or so New Zealanders have witnessed accelerated degradation of many water bodies in response to diffuse nutrients derived mostly from agricultural sources.

He goes on to say… (full comments here)

“In the interests of ‘100% pure NZ’ we cannot continue along this pathway.”

We have gathered similar commentary from climate scientists highly critical of New Zealand’s emissions mitigation policies and the watering down of the Emissions Trading Scheme. None of them have been slammed for giving their honest, evidence-based views. I presume the only reason why they haven’t is because they haven’t been quoted by a major international news outlet.

Science is supposed to inform public debate – and policy making. That’s called an evidence-based approach. If we write off the work of scientists because the results of their research is inconvenient or because they take advantage of their right to academic freedom to highlight their findings, we are just paying lip-service to science. That’s a dangerous place to be when we face many complex issues that will only effectively be tackled by using good science.

International comparisons

Some will argue that Dr Joy is cherry-picking data and peer-reviewed journal papers to reinforce his arguments. But that is a facile argument – a smoke screen. True international benchmarks of environmental performance show we, not surprisingly, are clean and green compared to many other countries, but our performance is slipping and when you drill down into the details, indicators around freshwater resources, Dr Joy’s area of interest, are indeed concerning.

The Yale Environmental Performance Index 2012 looks at a wide range of countries and ranks them on a range of performance indicators – from air quality to land use to the quantity and quality of fresh water.

In the rankings, New Zealand comes in in 14th place out of 132 countries – between Iceland and Albania. Not a bad result. But Yale also issues an EPI Trend ranking – looking at how we’ve progressed over the past decade. Using this indicator we are ranked 50th, between Armenia and Slovenia.

If you look at the specific commentary on New Zealand, you can see the reasons why our performance is slipping. Where we are losing ground relative to other countries, as the graphic below shows, is in the areas of agriculture, forestry and water resources.

Source: Yale EPI 2012

These types of international comparisons are not perfect, but collectively there is enough evidence to suggest that while New Zealand is relatively clean and green, we are struggling in key areas that could in the longterm see us falling behind other countries overall in environmental performance.

This is what Dr Joy and his colleagues are pointing out and it is their responsibility to do so.