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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…

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

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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

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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

 

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

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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.

Public not keen on climate engineering Peter Griffin Jan 13

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As political apathy and inaction on climate change dims hopes of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, scientists are increasing exploring plan B – engineering the climate to avoid the worst of what is predicted to come if emissions can’t be curtailed.

A Royal Society of London paper put the issue squarely in the spotlight in 2009 when it issued an influential paper that suggested we need to take geo-engineering seriously. It recommended that:

- Parties to the UNFCCC should make increased efforts towards mitigating and adapting to climate change and in particular to agreeing to global emissions reductions of at least 50% on 1990 levels by 2050 and more thereafter;

- CDR and SRM geoengineering methods should only be considered as part of a wider package of options for addressing climate change. CDR methods should be regarded as preferable to SRM methods.

- Relevant UK government departments, in association with the UK Research Councils, should together fund a 10 year geoengineering research programme at a level of the order of £10M per annum.

- The Royal Society, in collaboration with international science partners, should develop a code of practice for geoengineering research and provide recommendations to the international scientific community for a voluntary research governance framework.

Some of those recommendations have sunk without trace and there has been laughable progress on others (50% reduction on 1990 levels by 2050 is looking increasingly unrealistic).

The irony is that the later we leave action on climate change mitigation, the quicker our hand will be forced on geo-engineering schemes. As some New Zealand research featured in Nature Climate Change this week suggests, the public is wary of any efforts to engineer the climate, meaning legislative and funding measures to allow it to happen will not be popular.

The researchers conducted an online survey with 2,000 people across New Zealand and Australia and undertook 30 in-depth interviews. Lead author, Professor Malcolm Wright, deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor of Massey’s College of Business, said the interviewers drew on commercial methods used to evaluate perception of brands and new products to see what the public’s perception of various proposed climate engineering schemes was.

“The results show that the public has strong negative views towards climate engineering,” said Professor Wright. “Where there are positive reactions, they favour approaches that reduce carbon dioxide over those that reflected sunlight.”

So solar sails are out and biochar and carbon capture and storage are in.

Professor Wright added:

“It is a striking result and a very clear pattern. Interventions such as putting mirrors in space or fine particles into the stratosphere are not well received. More natural processes of cloud brightening or enhanced weathering are less likely to raise objections, but the public react best to creating biochar or capturing carbon directly from the air.”

The results are hardly surprising – and mirror other surveys conducted around the world. But are we willing to do anything not to avoid the wackier geoengineering schemes having to be seriously considered in the next few decades. That’s a different question and would perhaps make for an illuminating survey.

A selection of climate engineering schemes

Cloud seeding

Cloud seeding

A "slab" air contactor

A “slab” air contactor

Solar sails

Solar sails

Biochar

Biochar

Marine cloud whitening

Marine cloud whitening

 

Finding the right balance on Seven Sharp Peter Griffin Dec 20

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The TVNZ current affairs show Seven Sharp has been criticised this year for dumbing down current affairs. A shake-up of the show is coming in the New Year, with seasoned broadcaster Mike Hoskings to anchor the show when it returns.

Dr. James Renwick on Seven Sharp

Dr. James Renwick on Seven Sharp

But while the frivolous banter of the Seven Sharp presenters, social media pop-ups and soft news stories may put some off, Seven Sharp hasn’t abandoned current affairs entirely. Many of its stories are actually quite solidly put together. Take Gill Higgins’ piece in March that imagined a world in 2100 and examined the projected impact of a three degree temperature increase. Higgins interviewed Victoria University climate scientist Dr James Renwick on the potential environmental impacts of a three degree increase, while the University of Auckland’s Alistair Woodward, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics, looked at the potential impacts on human health.

All of what they said is backed up by models and research published in the peer reviewed literature.

Seven Sharp did quite an innovative treatment of the story, graphically re-imagining  Raumati Beach without its beachfront houses and a dairy farm re-cultivated with terraced rice paddy fields. Overall, a pretty informative and entertaining use of five minutes of prime time TV I thought.

However, Seven Sharp viewer Mario McMillan wasn’t happy. He complained to TVNZ then to the Broadcasting Standards Authority.

alleging that the claims made in the item about the impacts of climate change were presented as ‘fact’ and ‘inevitable’, which he argued was misleading because they represented ‘extreme projections… with a very low likelihood as actual outcomes’. The omission of ‘less alarmist’ viewpoints misled viewers to believe the projections were ‘uncontroversial or incontrovertible’…

The BSA recently threw out the complaint:

These claims were clearly framed as predictions and analysis and sourced to the experts interviewed in the item. Guideline 5a says that the accuracy standard does not apply to statements which are clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment or opinion. The reporter mostly used terms such as ‘could’ and ‘might’ throughout the item and the presenter used open-ended language in the introduction (see paragraph [6]), indicating that these were theories only, which by their very nature are disputable.

The judgement makes for interesting reading and while I think it was the right one, I’m a little concerned by some of the BSA panel members’ thinking. Consider this:

…We note that the parties pointed to a range of conflicting research in support of their respective arguments, indicating the complexity of the issue and that climate change is not a black-and-white topic, but one which attracts a wide range of views and a divergence in scientific opinion. In light of this we think it was acceptable for the item to take a deliberately simplistic, light-hearted approach, and to deal solely with the predictions of the scientists referred to. It was presented in an entertaining way, in an attempt to distil one contribution to a complex debate down to basics and to engage with the audience.

So if the issue is extremely complex, just opt for a simplistic, light-hearted approach, eh? Really? Then there is this…

In our view, given the nature of the programme and the topic reported on, reasonable viewers would have interpreted the predictions with some scepticism. Climate change is a highly contentious issue attracting a wide range of differing opinions, meaning viewers were unlikely to draw any solid conclusions solely from the information presented in the item, particularly taking into account the light-hearted and jovial style of presentation.

So because the tone isn’t super-serious, viewers shouldn’t draw any solid conclusions? If that’s the case, we’ve got a bit of a problem in the age of news-lite where the tone is increasingly “light-hearted and jovial”. Just where are news consumers supposed to get information they should take seriously? Isn’t this what we rely on our public broadcaster to deliver in prime time current affairs shows?

This sort of logic opens the door for decisions that could just as easily go the way of climate sceptics in future. Heck, its all so complicated, what’s the harm in having the Climate Science Coalition on to explain how the climate scientists don’t really know anything? Viewers can go somewhere else to get the full story!

False balance

The BSA board agreed on the issues of responsible programming and accuracy, but wasn’t unanimous on the decision relating to coverage of controversial issues – there was a differing minority review that suggests the piece was not balanced:

In the Seven Sharp item there was no acknowledgment of any opposing viewpoint. While asking the question, ‘Is it just a sign of things to come? the programme presented only the views of the particular experts being reported. There was no acknowledgment that there is disagreement or that there are alternate views. This programme portrayed an unbalanced, and at times, overly simplistic view. That the issue is complex and attracts a wide range of views and a divergence in scientific opinion cannot in my view justify an unbalanced, deliberately simplistic, light-hearted approach.

Here again we find a broadcasting standards body struggling to apply the all-important balance requirement to a science story. For climate change, vaccination or mobile phone radiation, the important thing is the balance of evidence. Reflecting that balance is what is important. In the case of climate change, the projections for temperature increase have been endorsed around the world by scientific bodies and by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Are they certain to happen? No, but the uncertainty was acknowledged in the piece.

TVNZ was confident in where it was coming from. It’s complaints committee wrote that it:

…does not agree that the issue of human caused global climate change is a controversial issue. Most governments of the world accept that global climate change is occurring and have taken steps to address the issue.

TVNZ made the right call, in my view, in resisting the temptation to go to a climate sceptic token comment about how the models are flawed and the scientists are being alarmist. However, if we turn it around, lets say Seven Sharp does a one-sided interview in a funny, informal way with a climate sceptic. Would the BSA deem this to be okay, because viewers wouldn’t be expected to take it seriously and it should be assumed they can find elsewhere the information endorsed by the vast majority of experts?

If that is the case I think we are in for trouble ahead. After all, the BSA can’t rule on the accuracy of the science so can’t really take into account the fact that climate change predictions for 2100 are widely endorsed by scientists and peak bodies.

I’m not arguing for false balance – climate scientist given equal time with climate sceptic. I’m arguing for the balance of evidence to be properly reflected. That should be the same no matter what angle the news show is approaching the story from.

 

Top 10 science stories of 2013 Peter Griffin Dec 13

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From the first vat-grown hamburger to the discovery of the world’s largest volcano, scientists pushed back the limits of human knowledge in 2013 and developed technologies that could radically change how we live our lives. 

Over at the Science Media Centre, in conjunction with our colleagues at the AusSMC, we assembled the top 10 picks for the most significant science stories of the year. Contact the SMC if you would like more information about any of these stories, including copies of the research papers associated with them.

It was also a big year for New Zealand science with researchers publishing studies in some of the world’s most influential journals. See below for our Top 10 list of New Zealand science stories that captured the public’s attention in 2013.

Top 10 international science stories

Screen Shot 2013-12-13 at 5.46.09 PM1. Space sounds revealed Voyager 1 had boldly gone: In September, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft became the first man-made object to leave our solar system and venture into interstellar space. The probe, launched in 1977 with the aim of reaching Jupiter and Saturn, is now over 19 billion kilometres from the sun. Scientists listened in to vibrations in the plasma surrounding Voyager – the sound of interstellar space – after it was hit by a massive solar wave in April. The vibrations allowed them to calculate the plasma’s density, which differs between our solar system and interstellar space, confirming Voyager was no longer in our solar system.

2. Carbon dioxide hit a new peak and human influence on the climate was clearer than ever: In May, levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere reached a symbolic milestone, passing 400ppm (parts per million) for the first time in human history. Just a few months later in September, the leading international body for the assessment of climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), found that human influence on the climate system is clearer than ever -we are now 95 percent certain that humans are the cause of global warming. Climate scientists from New Zealand were among the more than 600 scientists and researchers who worked on the IPCC report.

3. Scientists created human stem cells using cloning techniques: In May, researchers used therapeutic cloning tocreate human embryonic stem cells for the first time. The process involved taking the nucleus – which contains the genetic material – from a normal cell and transferring it into an unfertilised egg with its own genetic material removed. While this approach had previously been used in monkeys and mice, it had never succeeded using human cells. This discovery, described by Australian scientists as “a major breakthrough in regenerative medicine”, could help develop personalised therapies for a range of currently untreatable diseases. However, the process requires human donor eggs, which are not easy to obtain, and raises a number of ethical issues.

4. Do you want fries with that? The world’s most expensive burger was grown in the lab: The world’s first lab-grown burger was cooked and eaten at a news conference in London in August this year – generating headlines around the world. The burger patty – which one food critic described as ‘close to meat’ – was developed by scientists fromMaastricht University in the Netherlands through research funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Starting with stem cells from a biopsy of two cows (a Belgian Blue and a Blonde d’Aquitaine), the scientists grew muscle fibres in the lab. The fibres were pressed together with breadcrumbs and binding ingredients, then coloured with beetroot juice and saffron, resulting in the most expensive hamburger in history at a cost of around NZ$400,000.

5. Doctors stopped HIV in its tracks in the “Mississippi baby”: A child born with HIV and treated with a series of antiviral drugs for the first 18 months of its life was found to be free of the virus more than 12 months after treatment ended. When the infant was 30 months of age, HIV-1 antibodies remained completely undetectable. However, the big question of whether this child, known as the “Mississippi baby”, has truly been cured of HIV remains unanswered. “The best answer at the moment is a definitive maybe”, HIV expert Scott Hammer, wrote in a New England Journal of Medicine editorial which accompanied the research.

6. Redefining mental illness: In May, the new version of the diagnostic reference manual used by clinicians in the U.S. and around the world to diagnose mental disorders was released. The fifth revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is the first update in nearly 20 years and followed a decade of review and consultation. It’s publication met with widespread controversy. One of its major changes is to introduce a graded scale known as Autism Spectrum Disorder combining the former four autism-related disorders: autistic, Asperger’s, childhood disintegrative, and pervasive developmental disorder. Elsewhere, several new disorders were added, new suicide risk assessment scales were introduced and the threshold for diagnosing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was lowered. Critics of DSM-5, including New Zealand experts,  argue that it will lead to the over-diagnosis of mental disorders, stigmatising millions of people who are essentially normal.

7. Human liver grown in mouse: Scientists successfully transplanted tiny ‘liver buds’ derived from human stem cells into mice with disable immune systems, staving off the deaths of the animals. The preliminary results, published in Nature, will need years of follow-up research and trials, but hint at a potential solution to the worldwide scarcity of human livers available for transplant. Major technical hurdles have to be overcome before the treatment is useful for humans, including mass-producing the trillions of human iPS-derived precursor cells to even replace even part of a human liver.

8. A king turned up in a car park: In February the bones of Richard III were discovered in the inauspicious surroundings of a car park in Leicester, England – more than 500 years after he died. Radiocarbon dating, radiological evidence, DNA and bone analysis all helped confirm the identity of last Plantagenet king. As if the indignity of being dug up in a car park wasn’t bad enough, further research revealed Richard was infected with roundworms in his intestines.

9. The croaking dead: An Aussie frog was resurrected: Australian scientists announced in March that they had succeeded in growing early stage embryos containing the DNA of an extinct frog. The research is the first step of Project Lazarus, which aims to bring the Australian gastric-brooding frog back to life. The scientists took nuclei – which contain the extinct frog’s DNA – from frozen tissue samples collected in the 1970s. The nuclei were injected into donor eggs from a distantly-related frog, and some of the eggs went on to divide and grow into embryos, reviving hopes for an animal that has been extinct since 1983. The research was listed as one of Time magazine’s top 25 inventions of this year

10. The world’s largest volcano was discovered: In September, scientists discovered the largest single volcano on Earth under the Pacific Ocean. The megavolcano spans 650 km – similar to the distance between Melbourne and Canberra – but don’t worry, it’s been slumbering for the last 145m years. Scientists had thought the volcano, known as Tamu Massif, was a series of volcanoes, but the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program – of which Australia is a partner – showed that it is in fact a single, immense volcano, constructed from massive lava flows that emanated from the volcanic centre to form a broad, shield-like shape.

Top 10 New Zealand science stories

1. The big dry: The year started with incredibly dry conditions that soon had farmers throughout the country struggling to feed their animals. The entire North Island was officially declared a drought zone and ongoing water restrictions were imposed in many regions. A comparative study on the 2013 drought released by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) confirmed it as one of the most extreme on record for New Zealand and the worst since 1945-46. Scientists also concluded that farmers would have to employ more extensive catchment infrastructure to prepare for a future of more frequent droughts as a result of climate change.

From the SMC: Briefing – drought, soils, rivers, climate outlook

2. Viagra for pregnant women?: Researchers from Gravida and the University of Auckland embarked on the world’s first clinical trial of a new therapy that adapts a well-known drug – sildenafil, the generic form of Viagra, for use in pregnant women whose babies have been diagnosed with intrauterine growth restriction. Growth restriction in utero is a potentially serious pregnancy complication with no current treatment options. The New Zealand trial is the culmination of 15 years work and part of a coordinated international effort to translate promising preliminary results into tangible benefits for pregnant women.

From the SMC: Briefing – Viagra trial in pregnant women may save underweight babies

3. Capital rattled by earthquakes: A magnitude 6.5 earthquake beneath Cook Strait in July and subsequent aftershocks reminded New Zealanders of just how active a seismic region we all live in. The earthquakes caused damage to buildings in central Wellington and in Seddon, close to the epicentre. The quakes also posed a puzzle for scientists who are still getting to grips with what exactly happened on what faults beneath Cook Strait. Unlike the Canterbury earthquakes however, the Cook Strait series were not unexpected. As GNS Science seismologist Ken Gledhill commented: “It is something that happens every few decades if you actually look at the historical record. These things happen periodically. What we know about this series of earthquakes and particularly the one last night, was that they were in the overlying Earth’s crust”.

From the SMC: Update on probability of future earthquakes

4. Fluoridation in the spotlight: Hamilton City Council’s decision in July to suspend fluoridation of the town water supply sparked widespread debate about the use of the compound to combat tooth decay. The move went against Ministry of Health and World Health Organization guidelines and was widely condemned by dental experts who reviewed claims around the risk of fluoridation and found them to be unsubstantiated. An injection of scientific reality into the discussion came via the University of Otago’s Dr. Jonathan Broadbent who fronted numerous media interviews to explain the body of peer-reviewed literature that overwhelmingly supports fluoridation at recommended levels. A subsequent public referendum held in October saw 70 per cent of Hamiltonian voters opt for a resumption of fluoridation. The Council has reserved its decision on whether to do so until it hears the outcome of a High Court case in New Plymouth, where the right of the local authority to fluoridate the water supply is being challenged.

From the SMC: Hamilton opts for water fluoridation – expert responds

5. Fonterra’s food scare: New Zealanders became acquainted with the microbe clostridium botulinum when dairy giant Fonterra revealed its milk powder may have been tainted with the potentially deadly bacterium. Fonterra quickly moved to recall shipments of infant formula, sparking a trade crisis for the Government and diplomatic tensions with the likes of China, Russia and Sri Lanka. Further testing of milk powder samples revealed that it wasn’t clostridium botulinum that had been detected, but the similar but inoccuous clostridium sporogenes, which can lead to food spoiling but is essentially harmless. The episode, which has cost Fonterra tens of millions of dollars, sparked several inquiries, the first of which has called for an overhaul of Fonterra’s crisis management practices and better procedures for using external scientific testing.

From the SMC: Fonterra’s false alarm – Clostridium sporogenes explained

6. Sugar babies research: A study of babies born at Waikato Women’s Hospital in Hamilton between 2008 and 2010 found that a cheap and easy-to-administer dextrose gel should be used to treat low blood sugars in newborns, a condition that affects 5-15% of newborns and, in severe cases, can lead to brain damage. The study, carried out by researchers from the University of Auckland and Waikato Hospital, was published in leading medical journal The Lancet. Babies who developed hypoglycemia were randomly assigned to one of two groups, receiving either 40% dextrose gel or a placebo gel for up to six doses over 48 hours – in addition to standard care. The babies who received dextrose gel were half as likely to exhibit further substantial drops in blood sugar levels and less likely to be admitted to intensive care for hypoglycaemia. The study received widespread international attention.

From the SMC: Study finds sweet solution for neonatal condition

7. Understanding the kiwifruit blight: The genome of Psa-V, the causal agent of bacterial canker of kiwifruit, was sequenced by a team of scientists at the University of Otago, with the resutls published in PLoS ONE. The study confirmed a Chinese origin for the bacteria and revealed genetic clues about why this variant of the plant diseasedevastated New Zealand kiwifruit crops. They also found distinct genetic ‘islands’ encoding traits that may make the disease more aggressive. These appear to have been transferred from bacterial strains attacking unrelated plants on at least three separate occasions, and may have triggered the virulent outbreaks seen.

From the SMC: Psa origins mapped – experts respond

8. Distant neutrinos detected: The international IceCube research team, which includes several New Zealanders working with scientific instruments buried two kilometres down beneath the South Pole, detected for the first time, neutrinos from outside of our solar system. The research published in the journal Science detailed the observation of 28 very high-energy particle events that constitute the first solid evidence for astrophysical neutrinos from cosmic sources. Billions of neutrinos pass through every square centimeter of the Earth every second, but the vast majority originate either in the sun or in the Earth’s atmosphere. Far rarer are neutrinos from the outer reaches of our galaxy or beyond, which have long been theorised to provide insights into the powerful cosmic objects where high-energy cosmic rays may originate: supernovas, black holes, pulsars, active galactic nuclei and other extreme extragalactic phenomena.

From the SMC: IceCube catches interstellar prey

9. No patch on e-cigarettes: The first ever trial to compare e-cigarettes with nicotine patches found that both methods result in comparable success in quitting, with roughly similar proportions of smokers who used either method remaining abstinent from smoking for six months after a 13 week course of patches or e-cigarettes. The study, undertaken by researchers from the University of Auckland, was published in The Lancet and presented at the European Respiratory Society (ERS) Annual Congress in Barcelona, Spain. The researchers noted that trial participants who took part in the study seemed much more enthusiastic about e-cigarettes than patches.

From the SMC: E-cigarettes comparable to patches

10. Genetic diversity and the Wairau Bar: University of Otago researchers sequenced the mitochondrial DNA from several human samples extracted from the Wairau Bar burial site in the Northern South Island, revealing there was a greater level of genetic diversity than expected in the early settlers of New Zealand. The results, published inProceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, cast doubt upon the theory that New Zealand was settled via small accidental or unplanned voyages. Such a settlement pattern would have eliminated much genetic diversity, the researchers said. New Zealand is believed to be the last major landmass to be permanently settled by humans.

From the SMC: DNA reveals diversity among first New Zealanders

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