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

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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

Introduction 
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.

Background 
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.

Complaint 
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.

Discussion 
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.

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

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

 

10 weirdest science stories of 2013 Peter Griffin Dec 18

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You may have seen our list of what we thought were the top 10 international and New Zealand science stories of 2013. Well, my colleagues at the Australian Science Media Centre also came up with a list of what they considered to be the weirdest science stories of the year. Yep, some research published in New Zealand makes the list – farts on a plane. All of the research listed below reminds us that the pursuit of new knowledge can take us down some windy paths, but that’s what makes science so interesting. 

Screen Shot 2013-12-18 at 11.50.44 AM

Aussie fake finger research

1. Researchers found we can smell ten smells – and one of them is popcorn!  We all know tastes can be classified into five distinct flavours, but research released in September suggested there are 10 basic categories of odour – and that one of them is popcorn. The other odours are fragrant, woody/resinous, fruity (non-citrus), chemical, minty/peppermint, sweet, lemon and two kinds of sickening odours: pungent and decayed.

2. Farts on a plane were found to be ‘better out than in’Talking of pungent and decayed, in February a team of Danish and British gastroenterologists discussed that while holding back a fart on an aeroplane may cause significant discomfort and physical symptoms, releasing flatus presents social complications, leaving potential aerial farters in a quandary. Suggesting that there’s truth in the tradition of ‘better out than in’, the researchers also provide advice on how to get away with it. They recommend walking up and down the aisle if you want to let rip as “the social problems of flatulence are reduced, since the odour is distributed over a larger area”. And the final take home message? “The future frequent flyer may develop the ability to “sneak a fart” by wearing charcoal-lined underwear thus experiencing a comfortable flight in harmony with fellow passengers.” We can only hope.

3. Sorry boys, scientists found size matters after all: In April, Australian researchers showed that, when it comes to attractiveness at least, penis size does matter. Using a series of life-sized, computer-generated images of male figures, they discovered that women rated the ‘cyber’ men as more attractive as penis size increased. But there is some comfort for less well-endowed blokes out there, assuming you’re also tall – increased height had an almost equivalent positive effect. The results suggest the female tendency to choose a man with a bigger manhood could have driven the evolution of larger penises in humans.  Video available: http://youtu.be/Be6dTdx1qxs

4. Studying applause revealed it’s infectiousScientists found that when it comes to applause, it’s not the quality of performance, but peer pressure that affects clapping. In June, researchers revealed that clapping spreads through a crowd like an infection, and that it’s the social pressure from people around us who start or stop clapping that has the biggest influence on how long we applaud. It seems no-one likes to be the first or the last caught clapping.

5. To the mothmobile! Insects hitched a ride on robots: Forget dogs driving cars, in February moths got their own mode of transport – robots. Japanese researchers developed a two-wheeled robot that’s driven by a male silk-moth. The moths steer the machine towards enticing female sex pheromones, allowing researchers to monitor their neural activity. Video available: http://youtu.be/n2k1T2X7_Aw

6. Detachable penises and an inevitable headache – sea slug sex astounded us allIt might have seemed ridiculous in the mildly popular 90s song, but in February scientists were surprised to discover a sea slug with a truly detachable penis. The sea slug, Chromodoris reticulata is able to dispose of its penis after sex and grow a new one within 24 hours – a feat it can repeat at least three times. And in similarly weird sea slug sex news, in November, Australian scientists found that a Great Barrier Reef species stabs its sexual partners through the head during mating. The researchers suggest this ‘head injection’ shoots prostate gland secretions into the recipient’s central nervous system, directly affecting their physiology. Video available: http://youtu.be/Obc7AgU9XN0

7.  Scientists figured out how to read our dreamsWe’ve all been bored rigid by other people recounting their dreams, but in April Japanese researchers read people’s dreams directly for the first time. The scientists first built up a database of dream images by scanning peoples brains using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) while they slept, then waking them and asking them to describe the images in their dreams. By matching the images to the brain maps, they were then able to predict which images people had dreamt about just by looking at the brain scans, getting it right about two thirds of the time. Video available: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/suppl/2013/04/03/science.1234330.DC1/1234330s2.mov

8. Szechuan peppers were found to pack a punchIf you think eating a Szechuan pepper feels a bit like a slap in the mouth, you’re right. In September, UK scientists showed that the signal sent to the brain in response to eating a spicy Szechuan peppercorn is the equivalent of 50 light taps on the skin every second, mimicking the sense of touch.

9. Illusory fake fingers fooled our brains:  In September, Australian researchers revealed a whole new class of illusion by tricking the brain into believing a fake finger was the real thing using only sensory inputs from muscles. The illusion shows that the body does not require sight or touch to sense which parts of your body belong to you, or to determine their positions in the world.

10. Research revealed that dogs can tell left from rightYou might think a wagging tail is a wagging tail, but you could be underestimating man’s best friends. Italian research released in November suggested dogs recognise and respond differently when their fellow canines wag to the right than when they wag to the left. The findings show that dogs, like humans, have asymmetrically organised brains, with the left and right sides playing different roles. Video available:http://youtu.be/YtnewsdmdbM

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

Sciblogger scoops $100,000 communication prize Peter Griffin Nov 12

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Another year, another Sciblogger scoops the prestigious Prime Minister’s Science Media Communicator’s Prize!

She’s the scientist with the crazy hair and the hard-to-spell name. But she is far more than that. Dr Siouxsie Wiles, who blogs here about microbiology, infectious diseases and all manner of other topics is this year’s winner, and one of a group of scientists, teachers and students picking up a total of $1 million in prize money. Congratulations Siouxsie! I can’t think of any New Zealand scientist who deserves this honour more.

Communicator 1

Dr Siouxsie Wiles

Over the last few years Siouxsie has been instrumental in the science communication movement in New Zealand. From her work handling media queries to her public talks to the pioneering science animations she produces, Siouxsie, a research fellow at the University of Auckland, has shown what is possible when you treat science communication as an integral part of your research career.

She really cares about how science is understood and perceived. She’s a battler against pseudoscience and is brave enough to speak up when controversial science-related issues are making headlines. If we had more scientists as engaged in science communication as Siouxsie Wiles, science and the public would be much better off for it.

Siouxsie follows fellow Sciblogger Professor Shaun Hendy in picking up this prize, which is worth $100,000 – $50,000 for the scientist and $50,000 towards a science media project.

Here’s the official release on Siouxsie’s achievement.

An Auckland scientist,who makes bacteria glow in the dark so that we can better understand how to fight infectious diseases,has won the 2013 Prime Minister’s Science Media Communication Prize.

Dr Siouxsie Wiles, a microbiologist at the University of Auckland, is researching the uses of bioluminescence, or the production of light by living organisms, and receives the award for her communication of a wide range of scientific issues.

Dr Wiles is a media commentator and blogger who regularly gives public talks about science and was one of the faces of last year’s public engagement campaign for the National Science Challenges.

She has made a number of popular animations that introduce the public to glowing creatures such as fireflies and the Hawaiian Bobtail squid and how their light can be used in science.

Dr Wiles leads the University of Auckland’s Bioluminescence Superbugs Group, focusing on how glowing bacteria can help scientists better prevent and fight microbial infections such as food poisoning, tuberculosis and hospital superbugs.

Winning the prize sees Dr Wiles receive $50,000, with another $50,000 allocated for further developing her science media communication skills.

Dr Wiles does much of her science communication in her spare time and sees it as a fundamental part of being a scientist.

“I love to enthuse about science but I also believe our profession has a responsibility to be approachable and explain things to the public in a jargon-free way.

“It’s also important because many New Zealand researchers get taxpayer funding to carry out their research. If we want to continue being funded, it’s vital that we tell the public what we are doing and why it is important.”

Dr Wiles, also known for her distinctive pink hair, says being one of eight scientists to appear on television in The Great New Zealand Science Project has raised her profile, especially with young New Zealanders.

“When I meet children there is often a squeal of recognition, particularly from young girls, and that is really important to me because they are a group we need to keep interested in science.

“Research shows that if you intervene at a young age you can change perceptions and help raise a generation that doesn’t see being a scientist as boring or unattainable.”

Dr Wiles has a first class Honours degree in medical microbiology from the University of Edinburgh and completed her PhD at the Oxford Centre for Ecology and Hydrology where she made glowing bacteria to monitor industrial pollution.

She went on to apply this knowledge to health research, initially studying strains of food poisoning in London and, later, ways of screening for compounds and vaccines to combat tuberculosis (TB).

For the last four years, she has been working at the University of Auckland where she has helped develop a new TB Lab.

Dr Wiles plans to devote some of the prize money to writing a children’s book on bioluminescence, a project she will carry out with her seven year old daughter.

She is also producing an animation about the anglerfish, made famous by the movie Finding Nemo, and will create a website called GlowHub to house her films and a series of short documentaries on the work of cutting-edge Kiwi scientists.

Other initiatives she plans include running workshops in which she and other leading science communicators will teach scientists how to craft their stories into two-minutescience animations and setting up a fund to work with artists on works inspired by bioluminescence and microbiology.

This builds on the ‘Living Light’ science-art installation she created with artist Rebecca Klee,harnessing the light-making properties of Vibrio fisheri, a kind of bioluminescent bacteria usually found in the sea, which featured in Auckland’s Art in the Dark Festival last week.

Dr Wiles says in addition to the honour of winning a Prime Minister’s Science Prize, she is excited about the doors it opens for her. “I love the process of discovery and intend to continue as a practicing scientist but this also makes it possible for me to pursue my dual passion of communicating the fun and excitement of science.”

In 2012, Dr Wiles was the recipient of the New Zealand Association of Scientists Science Communicators Award.

Wireless charging takes out top science prize Peter Griffin Nov 12

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The Prime Minister’s Science Prizes were announced this afternoon in Wellington and saw University of Auckland take out the bulk of the prizes which are collectively worth $1 million.

Professor John Boys and Professor Grant Covic

Professor John Boys and Professor Grant Covic

See the official release below outlining the achievements of Professors John Boys and Grant Covic who claimed the top prize, worth $500,000, for their inductive charging technology that could revolutionise how electric vehicles are charged both while stationary and on the move.

Other winners included:

The Prime Minister’s 2013 MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize of $200,000 goes to Dr Benjamin O’Brien, who has pioneered the development of small, light and soft, stretchy sensors that measure movement of the human body and transmit the information to a smart phone app. He is CEO at StretchSense Limited, where he is commercialising his cutting-edge research, and is also an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Auckland’s Bioengineering Institute.

The Prime Minister’s 2013 Science Teacher Prize has been won by Fenella Colyer, Head of Physics at South Auckland’s Manurewa High School. She is the driving force behind a 30 percent increase in the past two years in the number of Maori and Pasifika students studying physics, with their pass rate rising to 81 percent and exceeding the national average. Fenella demystifies science by tailoring teaching programmes to individual student abilities and interests, embedding literacy skills into each module. Fenella receives $50,000 and Manurewa High School receives $100,000.

The Prime Minister’s 2013 Future Scientist Prize has been won by Thomas Morgan of Marlborough Boys’ College, Blenheim. The Year 13 student completed a detailed project showing oyster mushrooms have the potential to be enriched with Vitamin D when exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light. His study could help address Vitamin D deficiency, which is linked to osteoporosis, a major cause of suffering and disability. Tom receives a scholarship of $50,000 to help pay for tertiary studies.

Dr Benjamin O’Brien

Dr Benjamin O’Brien

The Prime Minister’s 2013 Science Media Communication Prize has been presented to Dr Siouxsie Wiles, a microbiologist at the University of Auckland where she is a Senior Research Fellow and leads the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab. Dr Wiles is researching the uses of bioluminescence, or the production of light by living organisms, to help understand and combat infectious diseases. She has become a regular science media commentator and newspaper contributor, blogger and creator of YouTube videos. She wins $50,000, with a further $50,000 allocated for development of her science media communication skills.

Release on the supreme prize winners:

Two University of Auckland professors, who were continually told that their idea for transferring electricity without cables was both impossible and crazy, have won the 2013 Prime Minister’s Science Prize.

Professors John Boys and Grant Covic have pioneered wireless or inductive power transfer technology and coined IPT terminology globally. Their technology is used throughout the world, from factories that depend on automated systems or clean-room environments, to charging electric vehicles (EV).

For years, Covic and Boys, who today accepted the $500,000 prize, left meetings with potential funders empty handed. That changed in 1990, when Japanese company Daifuku, took a chance on the two engineers, investing significantly in their research, which is licensed through the university’s commercial arm, Auckland UniServices Ltd. For Daifuku, they created the world’s first fully controllable IPT system combining high efficiency and high power. On the back of the technology, Daifuku has become one of the world’s largest automated, clean room manufacturers and is a preferred supplier to electronic manufacturers such as Intel and Samsung.

Dr Siouxsie Wiles

Dr Siouxsie Wiles

At least 70 percent of the world’s LCD screens and other electronic equipment requiring computer chips are manufactured on systems using the prize-winning technology. Vehicle brands such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi, also rely on it. Theme park rides and roadway lighting in traffic tunnels throughout the world, including Wellington’s Terrace tunnel, are also powered and controlled by the Boys and Covic innovation.

In the late 1990s, the team’s focus turned to inductive power and charging systems for electric vehicles, automatic guided vehicles and robotics. In May 2010, a company, HaloIPT, was spun out to develop the technology further for electric vehicles and, in late 2011, it was sold to Qualcomm, a United States Fortune 500 company.

The resulting return to Auckland Uniservices is more than 50 times the original pre-seed investment and it is believed to be the most successful deal for any New Zealand university or crown research institute start-up company.

“Part of our success is working with very good companies and partnering with them long term, for at least a decade, sometimes 20 years,” says Covic.

“If you don’t get that one on one trust in a relationship, it won’t work,” says Boys. “Everything became feasible because of the great relationship we had with Daifuku.”

“You need to work with companies that have the funding to enable you to keep advancing new ideas to try to take it to the next phase. After UniServcies signed with Daifuku to develop a prototype, they were selling systems inside of 12 months – that’s staggeringly fast uptake of new technology,” says Boys.

In the past four years alone, their work has attracted more than $20 million in research funding. Income is also flowing from license fees, which are set to increase rapidly from 2015 as new inventions are commercialised.

The next frontier for the engineers is developing in-road wireless charging, eliminating the need for plug-in battery chargers and enabling cars to recharge as they travel along highways. They aim to lower the cost and battery weight, increase the power and make cars more efficient while using green energy, such as solar or wind.

“We’ve been told the idea of inductive power systems in roads is too way out to have any real chance of success,” says Boys. Both, however, believe that within five years the technology will be able to recharge electric vehicles from in-road systems over short stretches of selected highway and buses will be able to recharge as they drive over extended bus stops or lanes.

The team has garnered success by exploring the ‘what ifs’ rather than being driven by the ‘here and now’ but capturing the ‘here and now’ funding to explore what’s needed in five years.

“We spend part of our time listening to the commercial world and solving their needs for today, but the most significant technology shifts happen because they allow us to do blue sky research, providing what they need before they recognise they even need it,” says Covic.

A big motivator for the team is creating new industry for New Zealand and diversifying the country’s reliance on traditional agricultural production.

“EV development provides a fantastic opportunity for New Zealand companies to design new systems and equipment for these vehicles. It is already providing jobs for bright students. We are doing something that is globally important.”

The prize money will enable blue sky research alongside partners so New Zealand remains at the cutting edge of IPT.

“It’s a journey of discovery – one stone might have a fairy princess under it and the rest might have frogs but you don’t know until you’ve turned them all over so you need to look in every possible direction,” says Boys.

The 2013 Prime Minister’s Science Prizes were presented to winners on Tuesday 12 November at the Royal Society of New Zealand, Wellington.

$59 million in Marsden grants – who got what? Peter Griffin Oct 29

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The annual Marsden funding round has been announced with $59 million allocated to 109 projects across the New Zealand science system.

The full list of winning projects is here. Congratulations to all the winners. Competition for the funding is intense – 1157 applications were received this year, equating to a funding success rate of 9.4 per cent.

That appears to be up slightly on previous years, probably owing to the fact that this year is a “record” funding year.

Science and Innovation minister Steven Joyce explained:

“The larger amount available this year to fund these proposals is due to the Government’s regular increases to the fund since it came into office five years ago. In Budget 2013, a further $20 million was allocated over four years to the Fund, and that has made a real difference. The Marsden Fund is now 37 per cent larger than it was in 2008/09.”

Victoria University was quick out of the gates to crow about its achievement – a record 21 funded projects worth $11.2 million.

Victoria’s Professor Charles Daugherty, Assistant Vice-Chancellor (Research), said:

“The successful projects demonstrate the diversity and breadth of research being carried out at Victoria, as evidenced by Victoria’s Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF) ranking, in April of this year, as first among New Zealand universities based on the research performance of its academic staff.”

Crown research institute, Plant & Food Research scored two grants:

“The emergence of plants onto land was one of Earth’s major evolutionary events, but at that time the environment had a number of challenges, including high levels of damaging UV radiation,” says Dr Kevin Davies. “Our research will look at liverworts, the closest living relative of the first land plants, and study how these plants adapt the production of pigment molecules to counteract the effects of UV. This will, in turn, provide some understanding of how plants may adapt and respond to shifts in environmental conditions as a result of predicted global climate change.”

The University of Otago secured 22 projects totalling $13 million.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise) Professor Richard Blaikie said that with the increase in the size of the fund announced in the Budget, he had hoped Otago might receive a greater amount of funding this year.

“The highly competitive nature of the funding means that the awarding of two or three extra grants for projects close to the border-line can make the difference between a good year and a great year for funding from this source.”

“However, it is good to see that the fund, with its focus on research excellence, continues to support work across humanities, business and social sciences, as it does across physical sciences, biomedical sciences and health research, when the successful projects are viewed in totality.”

 

The funded project leaderboard

University of Auckland 35

University of Otago 22

Victoria University 21

University of Canterbury 11

Massey University 7

GNS Science 4

Waikato University 3

Plant & Food 2

Agresearch 1

Callaghan Innovation 1

Landcare Research 1

NIWA 1

The five largest funding allocations

Screen Shot 2013-10-29 at 1.35.45 PM

 

 

Science, social media and sexual harassment Peter Griffin Oct 17

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Like myself, many who work in and around science will have been shocked and dismayed at the controversy that has engulfed Scientific American and its blogs editor Bora Zivkovic in the last week.

If you aren’t up to date, this cringeworthy incident started here with the deplorable treatment of science writer Dr. Danielle N. Lee by an editor at the website Biology-Online.org and quickly unravelled to engulf the managing editor of Scientific American and more significantly, Zivkovic, a scientist and leading science blogger and proponent of social media’s role in communicating science.

The Biology Online debacle, in which an online editor referred to Dr Lee as an “urban whore” has been dealt with – the editor was fired and the management unreservedly apologised to Dr. Lee.

Scientific American‘s role in the affair – its editors pulled Dr. Lee’s blog outlining the bizarre Biology Online exchange from their site, has also been resolved, albeit messily with Scientific American having learnt some painful lessons in the process.

What hasn’t been resolved is an issue that the DNLee incident brought to light – a year-old allegation of sexual harassment levelled at Zivkovic by writer and playwright Monica Byrne. Dismayed by the DNLee affair, Byrne this week outed Zivkovic as the man making the creepy and inappropriate advances during a business meeting she had with him last year. Zivkovic has confirmed the incident took place and apologised, offering by way of explanation:

It was a difficult time for me personally and I made a mistake – I should not have shared my personal issues with her. It is not behavior that I have engaged in before or since.

However, the issue has ballooned online as two related narratives emerge – comments left on Byrne’s blog and elsewhere suggest Zivkovic has a track record of this type of inappropriate behaviour and the science community has been accused of closing ranks to protect Zivkovic, who is known for  supporting emerging science writers and bloggers all over the world.

I know Bora – as he is universally known, only peripherally – I had a long Skype call with him a couple of years ago in which he generously gave me valuable advice about a science book project I was working on. But some of our Scibloggers know him personally and count him as a friend. He is the co-founder of Science Online, a leading annual conference that attracts a who’s-who of scientists and science communicators.

Today Science Online announced his resignation from the board of directors.

This is a major fall for a prominent member of the science community.

It may well get worse for Bora – his position at Scientific American is looking increasingly tenuous as the tone of online commentary grows increasingly hostile towards him.

Some friends and colleagues have publicly expressed their support for Bora while at the same time deploring his actions, a position others see as incongruous.

This chain of events seems to have opened a festering sore and emboldened people to discuss the sexual harassment and misogyny some see as being widespread in science.

Recently, the US scientist Dr Pamela Gay visited New Zealand for the New Zealand Skeptics’ conference and during a panel discussion I chaired, expressed her dismay at the sexual harassment of women in the US skeptics community.

Social media and the web in both these cases have become a safe channel to air grievances, recount experiences and, yes, point the finger.

Women who have been sexually harassed are reluctant to out the offender to their superiors for fear of repercussions. That’s understandable. I wonder whether this is an even bigger issue in a small scientific community like New Zealand, where options for career progression are more limited than in the US.

But nevertheless, what I find quite alarming is the unsubstantiated rumours and allegations now being levelled at Zivkovic widely across the web:

Byrne’s post – and Zivkovic’s admission, seem to have given people license to dish the dirt in the comments sections of blogs and in tweets and Google+ updates.

Another science blogger has since outlined a “not quite harassment” incident involving Zivkovic that made her uncomfortable. Was it truly inappropriate behaviour? Read and judge for yourself – that’s what the writer seems to be encouraging us to do.

A man whose reputation has largely been built online (Zivkovic has around 25,000 Twitter followers) now has a reputation, warranted or not, as a serial sexual harasser.

Some will say he deserves everything he gets, he’s already owned up to inappropriate behaviour in relation to Monica Byrne.

But the right thing for those making allegations from the safety of cyberspace is to now formalise it – go to his superiors, make a formal complaint.

This whole chain of recent events forms the inciting incident, but it needs to end with a decent examination of the other allegations if its to be anything other than trial by social media with the scientific community eating one of its own.

IPCC climate report: How did the scientists react? Peter Griffin Sep 27

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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released the first segment of the long awaited Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) summing up the current state of climate science and the global outlook regarding climate change.

Screen Shot 2013-09-27 at 7.46.50 PMGovernment representatives and scientists have approved the Summary for Policymakers of the first part of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, subjecting it to line-by-line scrutiny.

Here is reaction from scientists in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, gathered by the Science Media Centres around the world:

Professor Dave Frame, Director NZ Climate Change Research Institute, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“The latest assessment forms the most comprehensive evaluation of climate change yet undertaken. The new report consolidates and expands upon scientific understanding from previous reports.

“Improved observational networks and advances in climate modelling have helped scientists continue to improve understandings of the uncertainties on the rate of warming. In terms of the global mean climate response, the report finds that:

1) It is extremely likely that human activities caused more than half of the observed increase in global mean surface temperature since 1950;

2) It is virtually certain that natural variability alone cannot account for the observed global warming since 1950;

3) Global mean temperatures will continue to rise over the 21st century if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated;

4) The principal driver of long term warming is the total cumulative emission of CO2 over time;

5) To limit warming caused by CO2 emissions alone to be likely less than 2°C, total CO2 emissions from all anthropogenic sources would need to be limited to a cumulative budget of about one trillion tonnes of carbon, emitted as CO2, over the entire industrial era, about half of which have been emitted by 2011.

“In other words, we’re increasingly confident that human influence, primarily via the use of fossil CO2, is changing the climate. We expect this to continue in line with long-held scientific expectations – as it has over the past few decades – and we think that achieving a 2°C target requires limiting CO2 emissions to around half a trillion tonnes.”

Dr David Wratt, Director – New Zealand Climate Change Centre at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), comments:

“This report provides policymakers and the public with a very thorough assessment of the current state of knowledge. It describes the changes which have been observed around the globe, examines their causes, and outlines expected climate changes under four future greenhouse ‘concentration pathway’ scenarios, which between them span a broad range of possible future greenhouse gas emissions.

“These scenarios provide policy-relevant information for governments.

“Under the highest emission scenario, there is at least a 50% chance that the global surface temperature increase by the end of this century will exceed 4°C above pre-industrial times. But under the lowest scenario, global surface temperature increase is unlikely (less than 33% chance) to exceed 2°C.

“This lowest-emissions scenario includes substantial reductions in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions as the century progresses and possibly sustained removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by the end of the 21st Century. We’ll now be doing further work at NIWA on the way New Zealand climate is likely to change under these various scenarios”.

Dr James Renwick, Associate Professor, School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences, comments:

“Longer observational records, improved models and better understanding tell us that climate change will be on-going this century and beyond and will bring significant changes to New Zealand and to the Pacific. By the end of the century, extreme heavy rainfalls are likely to become more intense and more frequent in many places while at the same time the risk of drought is set to increase substantially, notably in the east and north of New Zealand. An increased frequency of high temperature extremes, and fewer cold extremes, is virtually certain almost everywhere.

“In the tropics, monsoon rainfall amounts are likely to increase, and while the El Niño-Southern Oscillation cycle will continue to be a major feature of year-to-variability, the associated rainfall variability is likely to increase. Tropical cyclone number are unlikely to increase, but the average strength (intensity of winds and rainfall) of tropical cyclones is likely to increase. The South Pacific Convergence Zone, a major feature of rainfall variability in the tropical Southwest Pacific, may become more variable in its movement and rainfall intensity, which would be associated with increased risk of both floods and droughts for many of our Pacific neighbours.”

Professor Tim Naish, Director of Victoria’s Antarctic Research Centre comments:

“The report shows carbon dioxide are now at levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years and it is very likely that the Arctic sea ice cover will continue to shrink and thin as the region is expected to warm more rapidly than other areas of the world.

“In addition, the volume of the polar ice sheets and glaciers globally will continue to decrease contributing to a global mean sea-level rise between 26-82 cm by the end of the century, depending on the greenhouse gas concentration pathway we end up following.

“A significant effort has been made by the scientific community since the last assessment report to better understand the contribution from the melting of the polar ice sheets to future sea-level rise, and while uncertainties still remain, dynamic ice sheet loss is incorporated in the range of sea-level estimates for 2100 in this latest report.

‘However, the report cautions, that collapse of marine-based sectors of the Antarctic Ice Sheet, if initiated, could cause sea-level to rise substantially above these “likely” ranges during the 21st Century

‘The report also tackles the issue of climate change commitment as a consequence of the stock of anthropogenic carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere, and suggests many aspects of climate change, including polar ice sheet melt and sea-level rise will continue for centuries, even if carbon dioxide emissions were stopped.”

Comments from the Australian Science Media Centre:

Professor Andy Pitman is Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science at The University of New South Wales. Andy is a review editor and was previously a lead author on AR4, comments: 

“This is a bad news, and a good news story. The bad news is that the 2013 IPCC report finally puts to rest the role humans play in causing global warming. The good news is that it highlights we can still avoid 2 degrees of warming if we deeply and rapidly cut emissions of greenhouse gases. The future scale of climate change is therefore still within human control provided the global community does deeply and rapidly cut greenhouse gas emissions.”

Dr Steve Rintoul is a CSIRO Fellow at the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC Oceans Program and a Coordinating Lead Author of Chapter 3 of the report, Observations: Oceans, comments:

“The IPCC assessments are an extraordinary exercise. I don’t know of any other area of science where scientists attempt to assess what we know, and how well we know it, in such a comprehensive way.

After 4 years, multiple drafts, assessment of more than 10,000 published studies, and preparing written responses to more than 50,0000 reviewer comments, it is a little hard to believe the assessment is now complete.

“The IPCC 5th Assessment Report shows that we have even greater confidence that climate is changing, humans are largely responsible for the warming observed over the last 50 years, and that substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will be needed to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Our hope is that this scientific knowledge helps guide effective decisions about how to respond to the challenge of climate change.

“Our chapter on the Oceans shows that warming of the oceans accounts for more than 90% of the energy stored by the climate system over the last 50 years. Sea levels have risen by 0.19 m since 1901, with more rapid rise in recent decades. Changes in ocean salinity show that precipitation and evaporation over the oceans has changed. The oceans have slowed climate change by absorbing about 30% of the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities, but this has come at the cost of ocean acidification. “

Professor Suzanne Cory is President of the Australian Academy of Science, comments:

“The world can be more certain than ever that human-induced climate change is a real and serious threat to our planet. Overwhelmingly, the scientific evidence suggests the world should take action to limit the dangers posed by climate change for societies and ecosystems, and to adapt to the changes that are already inevitable. This intensive review of the past five years’ scientific evidence was undertaken by hundreds of eminent scientists worldwide and confirms our growing understanding of climate science.”

Professor Kevin A Parton of the Institute for Land, Water and Society at Charles Sturt University, comments:

“Australia’s Climate Policy in a Carbon-Neutral World

The release of the IPCC Report provides an opportune time to consider five important questions related to greenhouse gases.

1. How much of the various greenhouse gases are we pumping into the atmosphere?

2. What impact do these gases have on climate change?

3. As a consequence of questions 1 and 2, how urgent is the climate change problem?

4. When should Australia be making the shift from oil, coal and gas to renewables like solar and wind power?

5. What types of policy are needed to facilitate the shift?

The IPCC Report gives greater precision to the first two questions, and hence enables us to understand better the urgency of the climate change problem. The answer is that it is continuing to be urgent, and certainly much more urgent than the current Australian target of a 5% reduction in emissions by 2020. “The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years.” These increases are largely human caused and “most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 are stopped.”

“Noting that it ‘is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century’, the IPCC Report maintains emphasis on a global target of restricting temperature increases to below 2oC. Australia’s climate policy will need to be tightened considerably.

“The answer to Question 4 is that Australia should probably be moving towards renewable energy sources more quickly than we have been. This will not only reduce our greenhouse gas impact, but also place us at a competitive advantage in the new technologies relative to our trading partners.

“In answer to Question 5, almost certainly a mix of policies is the best way to encourage the required shift in technology. A carbon price, through an emissions trading scheme (ETS), has been shown to be economically efficient. Moreover it is becoming the international standard. Direct action and providing loan finance through the Clean Energy Finance Corporation can encourage fledgling renewable energy firms. Moreover, towards the end of the decade, if the greenhouse gas problem continues to build-up, direct regulation and a smaller emissions cap in the ETS may be required to restrict emissions.”

Dr Richard Aldous is Chief Executive of the Cooperative Research Centre for Greenhouse Gas Technologies (CO2CRC) comments:

“Confidence in the science surrounding climate change is now unequivocal.

It is clear that we must take a strategic long-term approach to tackling this long-term problem. Without concerted global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, of the order of ten per cent every year, the world will face severe climate consequences, including potential temperature rises in Australia as high as six degrees.

Implementing carbon capture and storage (CCS) is now more urgent than ever.

CCS is proven technology that can be installed right now to cut emissions from major sources such as power stations by up to 90 per cent, preventing millions of tonnes per year from entering the atmosphere.

For electricity generation, no low carbon alternative will be cheap but CCS is competitive with solar, nuclear and wind, while having the advantage of using current energy infrastructure. Further, costs are dropping every year as the technology develops.

To build the CCS systems of tomorrow we need to start today. Governments around the world, including Australia, the US, China and the UK, are investing in CCS R&D and demonstration projects but it is vital this momentum is accelerated, not left to drift.

The Fifth Assessment Report makes it clear that climate change will not go away, and that without concerted, strategic efforts to address emissions there will be major consequences to the environment and humanity, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable.

Technologies to tackle emissions are at hand – the will to implement them is what is needed now.”

Dr Seth Westra is a hydroclimatologist in the School of Civil, Environmental and Mining Engineering at the University of Adelaide. Seth is an IPCC expert reviewer, comments:

“The IPCC assessment reports are like a snapshot of our scientific understanding of planet earth. With the release of each new report, it is like we are viewing the planet with a new and better camera: the resolution is higher, the images sharper, and we can resolve increasing amounts of detail. But the basic picture hasn’t changed: the planet is still warming, that warming is still mostly caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases, and it will cause tremendous adverse impacts to humans and the natural environment.”

“As a hydrologist, we need to know whether extreme rainfall is intensifying, so that we can be prepared for any increases in the risk of natural disasters such as floods. Since the previous IPCC report, the evidence that extreme rainfall has intensified in many regions around the world has strengthened and this is reflected by stronger wording in the current document. If these trends continue – and the climate models indicate they will – then we really need to have a hard think about how to adapt to the increasing risk of natural hazards that might be expected over the coming decades.”

“The revised projections of sea level rise are particularly interesting. Australians are very vulnerable to increases in sea level, with all of Australia’s major cities except Canberra being coastal cities. In fact, a 2009 Australian parliamentary enquiry noted that approximately 711,000 addresses are less than 6 m above sea level. Of course not all of those houses will be affected by a metre of sea level rise such as is at the upper range of the IPCC’s projections, but many of them will be. And how we deal with that as a society will pose some very complex questions.”

Professor John Cole is Executive Director of the Institute for Resilient Regions at the University of Southern Queensland comments:

“”Anyone who thought climate change was going to diminish as a threat to Australia’s future should be quickly disabused of that idea by today’s IPCC report. For much of regional Australia, the challenges of a hotter drier climate are likely to escalate reinforcing the need for sustainable water, soils and land use policies. For low lying coastal Australia, urban planning must take account of the IPCC expectation of faster sea rises this century. Co-ordinated international action to reduce emissions might still be a dream, but its imperative is made no less compelling by today’s IPCC report.”

Dr Helen McGregor is AINSE Senior Research Fellow in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Wollongong comments:

“This report shows that we have never been more certain that greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are causing the climate to warm. As it stands, eight years during the past decade are in the top 10 of the warmest on record since 1880: 2012 (9th), 2011 (10th), 2010 (1st), 2009 (8th), 2007 (3rd), 2006 (7th), 2005 (2nd), 2003 (6th). This is remarkable given that we really haven’t had any strong El Niño events in this time. El Niños are usually associated with very warm years globally – expect warming to ramp-up when the next El Niño is upon us.

“I am concerned about the unabated increase in upper ocean heat content reported by the IPCC. This is of particular relevance for eastern Australia where heat stored in the upper ocean has contributed to the major extreme rainfall and Queensland flood events during the summers of 2011 and 2012.

“With a large population living close to the coast in Australia it is a real worry that sea level estimates have been revised upwards in the current IPCC Report – and their estimate is on the conservative side. This means we need a major rethink of how we manage, use, and develop our coastal communities and cities.”

Dr Helen Cleugh is Deputy Chief CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research comments:

“The IPCC report is perhaps the most heavily scrutinised document in the history of science, requiring several years of work. The dedicated scientists that volunteer their time to be part of this process include some of the best climate scientists in the world. There are some 40 Australian authors involved in the development of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, including nine CSIRO scientists in their capacity as Coordinating Lead Authors and Lead Authors. The scientific evidence that is described in the assessment continues to demonstrate that the climate is changing, the earth is warming, and human actions are the cause of much of this warming.”

Dr Caroline Sullivan is Associate Professsor of Environmental Economics and Policy, at Southern Cross University, NSW. Caroline has not contributed directly to the IPCC report but it is possible some of her work may have been cited therein. She is an ecological and environmental economist who has worked internationally on climate change projects since 2001:

“The release of the IPCC 5th Assessment Report Working Group 1 today has confirmed without any doubt that we are living in a warming world. Nevertheless, poor understanding of clouds, and the impact of dust in the atmosphere, has led to uncertainty about changes in global mean temperatures. Both of these have a cooling effect, so terrestrial temperatures may not have not have risen as much as previously expected (although the oceans have).

“This 5th Assessment report also differs from previous ones, is that expectations about changes in global rainfall are reduced. While this means there may be little change in the quantity of rainfall expected globally, it is highly likely that the geographical distribution of this will change. This will be a result of the increased number of extreme weather events which can be expected in the foreseeable future. This will have a significant effect on humans.

“All of this scientific knowledge is commendable in its thoroughness, but what does it really mean to us as citizens, dependent on the Earth System? One clear message that comes through is that as a society, we need to continue to prepare for change. Our whole approach to food production, transportation systems and energy generation must be reassessed. Across the world, we need to build stronger, more resilient communities. We need to address equity in the distributional impact of the climate shifts we can expect in the future.

“What this report really tells us is that while we may not know everything about what is happening in the Earth’s climate, we do need to act now to secure the integrity of our life support system. It is now more than ever important for us to determine common core values about human survival, and build them into all aspects of human endeavour.”

Comments from UK Science Media Centre

Prof Corinne Le Quéré, Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and Lead Author on Chapter 6 (Carbon and Other Biogeochemical Cycles), said:

“This is not just another report, this is the scientific consensus reached by hundreds of scientists after careful consideration of all the available evidence. The human influence on climate change is clear and dominant. The atmosphere and oceans are warming, the snow cover is shrinking, the Arctic sea ice is melting, sea level is rising, the oceans are acidifying, and some extreme events have increased. CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels need to substantial decrease to limit climate change.”

Dr Tim Osborn, Reader in Climate Change at UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences and Lead Author on Chapter 5 (Information from Paleoclimate Archives) said:

“Through this exhaustive – and, at times, exhausting – process we have produced the independent and comprehensive assessment of climate science that governments and the public need to understand climate change. We are now more certain than ever that many aspects of the climate have been influenced by human activity. Looking back at past climatic changes – which has been my main contribution to this report – adds rich detail to our understanding of the climate system. For example, we now know that carbon dioxide levels, which have increased by 40% and are the largest driver of the warming we have observed over the past century, substantially exceed the levels of the last eight hundred thousand years.”

Dr Tim Johns, Met Office Hadley Centre and Lead Author on Chapter 12 (Long-term Climate Change: Projections, Commitments and Irreversibility) said: 

“As the IPCC Working Group I contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) – Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis – is released, my overriding impression is of the massive worldwide scientific effort, expertise and rigour woven into the production of this assessment, underpinned by a rapidly developing science base.

The report presents a robust picture of a progressively warming world, reducing Arctic sea ice extent, melting ice sheets and glaciers, rising sea level, ocean acidification, and large-scale hydrological cycle changes under the influence of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases. Despite some inevitable scientific limitations to understanding of the physical climate system, the central conclusions in the Summary for Policymakers are more sharply drawn in many respects than in the IPCC’s 25-year history.

“Climate models play a central role in the assessment of attributed historical climate change and projected climate change through the 21st century and beyond. An unprecedented worldwide modelling effort known as CMIP5 – described as “the moon-shot of climate modelling” by eminent US climate scientist Gerald Meehl – was undertaken to feed the most comprehensive model-based evidence ever about past and future changes and their uncertainties into AR5.

Common experiments using different models were run by teams in several countries in Europe, as well as the USA, Canada, Russia, China, Japan, Australia and South Korea. Climate models have undoubtedly improved since the last report (AR4), and the new generation of “Earth System Models” increasingly incorporate biogeochemical cycles that reflect important additional climate change feedbacks, providing the means to quantify the policy-relevant issue of how much carbon-dioxide emission is compatible with a given climate stabilisation pathway.

“Taking results from the latest generation of models for a range of Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs; future emissions scenarios), AR5 concludes that cumulative anthropogenic carbon-dioxide emissions would need to be limited to around 1000 petagrams (10 to the power 18 grams) of carbon to be likely to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees Centigrade, relative to the early industrial era (1861-1880). However, half or more of this anthropogenic carbon budget has already been ‘spent’, and accounting for climate forcing agents other than carbon-dioxide tends to reduce the future carbon budget available to be likely to achieve a given warming target.

“The science has spoken and the potential for dangerous climate change in this century is increasingly clear.”

Prof Bob Watson, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and the University of East Anglia, said:

“The latest IPCC report strengthens its earlier conclusions that most of the observed warming since 1950 has been caused by human activities, and future changes are inevitable. Also, many of the other changes observed in the climate system, such as the rate of loss of Arctic sea Ice, melting of mountain glaciers and the Greenland Ice sheet are unprecedented. Without immediate reductions in global emissions of greenhouse gases, the world will not be able to achieve the political target of limiting the increase in global mean surface temperatures to 2 degrees C, but rather we are likely to see an increase of 3-5 degrees C. Time to act is running out if we are to take the threat of human-induced climate change seriously.”

Prof Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester, said:

“What has changed significantly since the last report is that we have pumped an additional 200 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. Annual emissions are now 60% higher than at the time of the first report in 1990 and atmospheric CO2 levels are the highest they have been for over 2 million years.

“So what are we doing in the UK to help reverse this reckless growth in emissions? Record levels of investment in North Sea oil, tax breaks for shale gas, investment in oil from tar sands and companies preparing to drill beneath the Arctic. Against this backdrop, the UK Treasury is pushing for over 30 new gas power stations, whilst the government supports further airport expansion and has dropped its 2030 decarbonisation target – all this alongside beleaguered plans for a few wind farms and weak energy efficiency measures.

“Governments, businesses and high-emitting individuals around the world now face a stark choice: to reduce emissions in line with the clear message of the IPCC report, or continue with their carbon-profligate behaviour at the expense of both climate-vulnerable communities and future generations.”

Dr Alice Bows-Larkin, Reader in Energy and Climate Change, Tyndall Centre at Manchester University, said:

“Six years on from the last IPCC report, and little has changed. Every year we burn more fossil fuels producing more CO2, the laws of physics still hold that the rising concentration of CO2 warms the atmosphere, and as this warming continues, the risk of disruptive physical and social impacts increases. The big unknown is if, or when, we will manage to break our addiction to fossil fuels, and where that will leave us in terms of future climate impacts. Personally, if investing in my future and that of my family, I would look beyond fossil fuels being mindful of the risk of stranded assets left in a future that whichever path we choose, will certainly be very different from today.”

Prof Jim Hall, Chair in Climate and Environmental Risks, Director of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, said:

“The scientific case for implicating human activity in climate change was made long before this Fifth Assessment of the IPCC. This new report painstakingly documents the scientific evidence that has emerged in recent years. I respect the scientists who wrote it and admire them for the work they have done for the IPCC. Some of the evidence has moved on, and future projections have apparently changed compared to the Fourth Assessment Report, but nobody with experience of complex computer models and uncertain observations would be surprised by that. The underlying trend of rising average temperatures and sea levels is clear; I have to question the motivation of anyone who disputes these facts.”

Prof Richard Dawson, Chair of Earth System Engineering, School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences, Newcastle University and the Tyndall Centre, said:

“More than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, many of them located in low-lying coastal or delta areas. Urban areas concentrate people, infrastructure and economic activity, making them disproportionately vulnerable to weather extremes like heat waves or flooding. Furthermore, they are major consumers of resource and producers of pollutants both within and outside their boundaries. The latest IPCC findings highlight that in the face of continued global change it remains an international priority to adapt urban areas and infrastructure to be more resilient to a wider range of environmental conditions, and to reduce their contribution towards emissions through more efficient use of resources and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. ”

Prof Andy Jordan, Chair in Environmental Sciences, Tyndall Centre and the University of East Anglia, said:

“The latest IPCC report confirming the science of climate change comes at a pivotal moment, when EU policy makers are battling to resuscitate the emissions trading system, reform internal policies on biofuel and enthuse other countries to agree a successor to the international Kyoto protocol by 2015.”

Dr Charlie Wilson, Lecturer in Energy and Climate Change, Tyndall Centre and the University of East Anglia said:

“Mitigating climate change requires both widescale diffusion and accelerated innovation of low carbon energy supply technologies and efficient energy end-use technologies. Dramatic improvements in the efficiency with which energy is used are critical in the near term to allow more flexibility in decarbonising the energy supply.”

Prof Keith Shine, Professor of Physical Meteorology at the University of Reading and Review Editor of Chapter 8 (Anthropogenic and Natural Radiative Forcing) said:

“Even in the IPCC’s first assessment report, back in 1990, it was clearly understood that natural climate variability could slow global warming in some decades and speed it up in others. We simply don’t expect each year, or even each decade, to necessarily be warmer than the previous year or decade, but we do expect the longer term tendency to be for continued warming.

“So, there is no surprise that hiatus periods occur, even when the longer-term trend in temperatures is upwards. The observed temperature change over the past 60 years is consistent with expectations from our best understanding. Even accounting for the ‘hiatus’, the decade of 2000-2009 was clearly warmer than any recent decade, and the years 2005 and 2010 were two of the warmest years in the 150 year temperature record.”

Dr Chris Huntingford, Climate Modeller at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), said:

“Continuing uncertainty fuels the argument of those sceptical of global warming. Given that massive decarbonisation could have major economic implications, this argument can seem compelling. But to ‘wait and see’ could trigger hugely dangerous impacts if temperatures increase to the higher end of predicted ranges. This remains true even as recent studies suggest that the upper bounds may be lower than previously predicted.

Thermal lags could create false optimism, as a CO2 concentration unrecognized as dangerous may be reached a few decades before the full temperature implications are realized. Then, even if mitigation measures somehow reduced net CO2 emissions to near zero, the planet would take centuries to reset itself. Forewarned is forearmed when preparing for climate change. Concerted effort is essential to improve the certainty of climate forecasts.”

Dr Colin Summerhayes, Scott Polar Research Institute and reviewer of Chapter 5 (Palaeoclimates) said:

“We are warming when we should be cold. The new report from the IPCC confirms in significantly more detail than before what we understand about climate change from the geological record. This is an aspect of climate studies that the public rarely hears anything about. The new report shows yet again that the global warming we are seeing today cuts right across what we would expect from our knowledge of climate change over the past 11,000 years.

“Earth’s climate is driven ultimately by energy from the sun, and the amount of solar radiation we get (our insolation) changes with (i) the eccentricity of the Earth’s orbit, (ii) the changing position of the Earth relative to the sun around the orbit (Earth is now closest to the sun in December, so we have ‘mild’ winters, and in 11000 years time will be closest to the sun in July, which will give us colder winters), and (iii) the tilt of the Earth’s axis (more tilt gives more seasonality). These three factors combine to drive the Earth in and out of glacial periods.

They made our insolation highest 11000 years ago, which melted the great northern hemisphere ice sheets. Since then, insolation has declined steadily to the present, making our climate progressively cooler, such that we ended up in a Little Ice Age between about AD 1450 and 1850. Calculations of our relationship to the sun tell us that insolation should stay low for another 1000 years, so we should be experiencing a continuation of the Little Ice Age and having Frost Fairs on the Thames.

But we aren’t. Since about 1900, everywhere you look, past climate data suddenly shoot upwards quite quickly, indicating warming against the trend. Two things are likely to explain this. One is that sunspot activity increased slightly from about 1820 up to about 1950. That would have caused minor warming. The other is that CO2 increased from about 1760 to the present. That would also have caused minor warming. The combined sunspot activity and CO2 increase explain the warming of the first part of the 20th century. But the sunspots and other measures of solar output have not increased since about 1950, while CO2 has gone on increasing.

Not surprisingly, since CO2 is a greenhouse gas, our global temperature has gone on increasing way beyond 1950. We are recreating a situation that occurred on a large scale back 55 million years ago at the boundary between the Palaeocene and Eocene geological periods when there was a massive injection of CO2 into the atmosphere, and temperatures rose about 6 degrees C, though that happened about 100 times slower than what is happening now. Never mind computer models, the record of our geological past tells us a lot about what is now going on and what to expect in future.

Prof David MacKay FRS, Chief Scientific Advisor to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, said:

“I’m not a climate scientist, but I often read the climate science literature and attend meetings where climate scientists discuss their work.

“The climate science community are doing excellent, open science: climate scientists are healthily critical of their own work, and well aware of the questions that have yet to be resolved.

“The climate system is astonishingly complex, and I admire the steady progress that climate scientists are making to improve our understanding of this remarkable, dynamic world in which humanity is sustained. The IPCC’s fifth assessment report has been produced by the generous work of hundreds of scientific experts drawn from universities and research institutes around the world. There is no equivalent of the IPCC in any other area of science.

“This latest report is the most authoritative and comprehensive report to date of our understanding of climate change. The scientific consensus is that the world has warmed and will warm more, owing to human activities. There is robust evidence that human greenhouse gas emissions are already changing our world; global temperatures have risen every decade for the last three decades, oceans are acidifying, rainfall patterns are changing, sea levels are rising, arctic sea ice is declining, and some extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and intense.

“It is predicted, from simple physics, that the more humanity increases the quantities of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the warmer the Earth will become. The far-reaching consequences of this warming are becoming understood, although some uncertainties remain. The most significant uncertainty, however, is how much carbon humanity will choose to put into the atmosphere in the future. It is the total sum of all our carbon emissions that will determine the impacts. We need to take action now, to maximise our chances of being faced with impacts that we, and our children, can deal with.

“One important message of this new report is that, while there remains some uncertainty about the precise sensitivity of the climate to greenhouse gas emissions, the impact on climate is largely determined by the cumulative total of humanity’s carbon emissions. This means that waiting a decade or two before taking climate change action will certainly lead to greater harm than acting now.”

Dr Emily Shuckburgh, British Antarctic Survey, said:

“The science as outlined in the new report is clear: our collective actions have generated a climate problem that threatens our future and our children’s future. Increasing levels of greenhouse gases are disrupting our climate. And because it is the cumulative amounts of greenhouse gases that determine the severity of the impact, any delay in reducing emissions will lead to greater risks and a need to deploy more difficult and expensive means to adapt to the impacts.

“One of the key developments since the last report has been an increased understanding of changes in the polar regions and their global effects. Arctic sea ice has declined significantly and new research is starting to shed light how this affects our weather in the UK. The Antarctic Peninsula has seen significant warming and the breakup of a number of its ice shelves. The Southern Ocean around Antarctica has warmed throughout its depth.

“And it has now been possible to estimate the contribution of melting of the polar ice sheets to sea level rise. But important open questions remain. For example, the Southern Ocean currently soaks up approximately about 10% of our carbon dioxide emissions, thus limiting their accumulation in the atmosphere. However, we are presently uncertain whether this ‘carbon sink’ might start to fail in future as a consequence of climate change.”

Prof Joanna Haigh, Professor of Atmospheric Physics at Imperial College London, said:

“The new IPCC report confirms, with even greater confidence than in previous reports, that global warming continues and that this is largely a result of greenhouse gases produced by human activity. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere now exceeds anything it has experienced in the past 3 million years and its continuing upward trend is almost certain to result in further global warming. Changes in solar activity alone cannot explain the global surface temperature variations of the past 150 years and, even if the Sun were to enter a new ‘grand minimum’ state within the next century, would be very unlikely to provide more than a small, temporary, partial compensation for likely anthropogenic warming.”

Prof Peter Wadhams, Professor of Ocean Physics at the University of Cambridge and Review Editor for Chapter 1 (Introduction) said:

“There are serious deficiencies in the modelling. The assessment makes extensive use of the UK Met Office model which does not take account at all of the feedback due to emissions from thawing permafrost. Nor is the possibility of a major methane emission from melting offshore permafrost on Arctic shelves mentioned, even though this has been projected as capable of adding 0.6 C to global warming.

“These are examples of an instinctively cautious approach which in other circumstances might be praiseworthy but in the circumstances of a global climate emergency is not. The world does deserve to have the full range of risks and possibilities explored with, if possible, some probability factors attached to them, instead of consistent under-estimate of effects or simply ignoring a phenomenon where the magnitude is difficult to compute (as in the case of sea level rise from glacial runoff in AR4, which did endless harm).”

Prof Jonathan Bamber, Director of the Bristol Glaciology Centre at the University of Bristol and Review Editor of Chapter 4 (Observations: Cryosphere) said:

“The evidence of persistent and continued changes to all frozen parts of the planet is clearer than ever. Glaciers around the world have been declining over at least the last 5 decades, mass loss from the great ice sheets covering Antarctica and Greenland has been increasing over the last two decades and the reduction in late-summer sea ice in the Arctic appears to be unprecedented over the last 1500 years. Permafrost temperatures have been increasing and seasonal snow cover is arriving later and melting sooner. The evidence that humans are at least partly to blame for climate change is stronger than ever.”

Prof Mike Hulme, Professor of Climate and Culture at King’s College London, said:

“This latest assessment of climate science from the IPCC threatens to distract from resolving the core issue of climate change – the political challenge of finding policy interventions that are effective and plausible. The difficulties in implementing policies that reduce the dangers of a changing climate don’t result from a deficiency of scientific knowledge.

“Raising the confidence that humans are a major influence on climate from ‘very likely’ to ‘extremely likely’ doesn’t change the politics of climate change. The difficulties arise because of different interests, values and attitudes to risk. These can only be worked through using political strategies that are less constrained by the need to reach global agreements.

“We need a more pragmatic politics of climate change, not more weighty science about climate change.”

Prof Ted Shepherd, Grantham Professor of Climate Science, University of Reading and Review Editor of Chapter 11 (Near-term Climate Change: Projections and Predictability) said:

“This report is the most comprehensive assessment of climate change ever performed, involving hundreds of scientists and exhaustive peer review. It reaffirms what we have known for some time — that human activities are changing climate, and that strong action on carbon dioxide emissions will need to be taken to avoid dangerous interference with the climate system. However we now have a much better understanding of how the different pieces fit together, which is to say a more self-consistent understanding at a quantitative level.

“There has also been an enormous effect made to attempt to quantify the “known unknowns”, rather than just relying on the “known knowns” represented by the climate models, by comparing the climate models with both modern observations and reconstructions of past climate. This is what has led to some refinements of earlier estimates, but we now have more confidence in those estimates — especially on the upper and lower bounds of climate sensitivity (i.e. the worst case and best case scenarios), which is what the policy makers need to know.

“We need to distinguish cycles in the climate system, which can occur for natural reasons, from the long-term changes. Climate change has to do with the energy budget of the climate system, and this is best measured from the “slower” parts of the system. Surface temperature is the manifestation of climate change, but just like the difference between a person’s current account and their net wealth, it can vary much more rapidly that the total heat content of the climate system, which is mainly contained in the ocean. Thus we know that climate is continuing to change because measurements tell us that the climate system is continue to emit less energy than it receives from the Sun (the heat trapping or greenhouse effect), the ocean is continuing to warm, and sea level is continuing to rise.

“Both observations and models tell us that the sort of pause in the increase in surface temperature that we have seen over the last 15 years is neither unusual nor unexpected. It would be far more puzzling if surface temperature was continuing to rise and these other metrics were not changing!

Climate change is an especially dangerous threat because it is like a large ship: you can turn off the engines but it will continue to move forward for a long time. This is called the “commitment” problem. It means that if we wait until climate change is unmanageable before we act, it will be far, far too late because the changes will keep happening for centuries. So in that respect it is a very different environmental problem than, e.g., pollution.

“A new aspect of this report is a whole chapter devoted to assessing climate change in the near-term, i.e. over the next few decades. This is a far more challenging problem because of the influence of natural variability, so one cannot expect statements of high confidence. Instead, we need to think in terms of the risks we face from outcomes that are perhaps only “likely” (e.g. two out of three). This is a rapidly growing area of research because of its policy relevance in terms of impacts.

“The “greenhouse effect” is not just a theory, it is a fact. Life exists on earth because of the greenhouse effect, which warms the planet to habitable levels. Nobody disputes this. Climate change is an enhanced greenhouse effect due to higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide produced by human activities. The scientific debate concerns how much of the emitted carbon dioxide will remain in the atmosphere, how much additional warming will result from the additional carbon dioxide, and how quickly this additional warming will occur.”

Prof Mark Maslin, University College London, said:

“A hundred year from now future generation will look back at the huge amount of evidence in the IPCC reports and wonder why people failed to act. School children will learn in their history classes that the world’s environment was devastated due to the political myth that huge profits can only be created by extracting and consuming fossil fuels.

“The IPCC have synthesised six years of detailed climate science and has found results entirely consistent with all the previous IPCC reports dating back to 1990. The message from over 23 years of detailed science is that climate change has already occurred and if we do nothing to curb global carbon emissions it will accelerate in the future.

“The clear scientific message of the IPCC 5th report is that the current level of carbon emissions will lead to dangerous climate change with major implications for the global economy and human health. With no international climate agreement currently likely before 2020, zero carbon emissions for Developed countries may not be enough to avert disaster. We may now have to phase out fossil fuels completely and start planning to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.”

Prof Andrew Shepherd, Professor of Earth Observation at the University of Leeds, said:

“It’s clear, from the past 20 years of satellite measurements, that there have been dramatic losses of ice from both Antarctica and Greenland. Back in the 1990′s, the polar ice sheets were responsible for just a tenth of all sea level rise, but today they are contributing three times as much. The problem for climate science is building models that can capture the changes in Earth’s ice that we can see from space today.

“Until we can do that with confidence, we really can’t be sure how much sea level rise to expect over the next century. If, for example, we were to discard climate models and make predictions based on satellite measurements alone, we would expect the ice sheets to contribute another 30 cm of sea level rise by the year 2100. This figure represents the upper limit of the IPCC’s latest predictions in AR5, and underlines the importance of building the very best climate models.”

Prof Sir Brian Hoskins, Director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London, said:

On IPCC and robustness of the science:

“This Summary for Policy Makers provides further strong confirmation that human activity is having a significant and growing impact on the climate.

“It is based on a comprehensive review and rigorous assessment of the state of climate science by some 850 scientists, who reviewed over 9000- scientific articles, and includes voices from all sides of the issue. This report significantly strengthens the consistent message from the four previous assessment reports; we are conducting a dangerous experiment with our planet.”

“The evidence of changes in many different aspects of the climate system, from the ice sheets to the deep ocean, shows that climate change is happening. To reduce the serious risks posed by increasing changes in the climate, we need to redouble our efforts globally to limit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.”

On continuing warming:

“Global mean surface temperature increased by about 0.89°C since the start of the 20th century. Despite the recent slowdown in the rate of temperature rise, each of the last three decades has been warmer than all previous decades in the instrumental record. The decade that began in 2000 has been the warmest.

“Many observations of the climate system over the past 15 years paint a picture of increasing climate change. The ocean absorbs over 90 percent of the additional energy flowing into the climate system due to greenhouse gas emissions. In the past decade or so the upper ocean, like the atmosphere, has not warmed much. However with recent observations it is becoming evident that the deep ocean is taking much of the excess heat during this period. Sea level is continuing to rise at around 3mm per year partly because the warmer water in the oceans expands. The rest of the rise is due to the mountain glaciers that are continuing to melt rapidly and the ice loss from the major Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets that has accelerated dramatically.

“We are making long-term alterations to the climate system which will have major impacts for generations to come unless we accelerate efforts to reduce emissions.”

On equilibrium climate sensitivity:

“The IPCC’s new estimate of Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity is consistent with estimates first made in 1979. It is very difficult to estimate climate sensitivity precisely, because of the uncertainty over key aspects of the climate system’s response to human emissions of greenhouse gases.

“The reduction in the lower bound of the estimated likely range to 1.5 degrees of warming for a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide should not distract us from the concern that we may well be on track to exceed three degrees warming by the end of the century on current emissions trends.

“If climate sensitivity is at the lower end of the range, it may make it a bit easier to limit warming to two degrees through large-scale emissions reductions. The case for action on climate change does not rest on hoping for the best, but on the potential scale of the climate risks and reducing these risks.

“The risks depend on the trajectory of global emissions over the next few decades and the whole range of estimates of the climate sensitivity. If we continue at current rates of emissions and if the upper limit of the IPCC’s estimate of equilibrium climate sensitivity is right – which is unchanged at a 4.5 degree warming for a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels – then we really are entering extremely dangerous territory. So the message to governments is clear: we need to accelerate efforts to reduce emissions, whatever the real value of the climate sensitivity is. “

Prof Piers Forster, Professor of Climate Change at the University of Leeds and Lead Author on AR5 Chapter 7 (Clouds and Aerosols) said:

On the whole report:

“We have been causing 40% more warming than we estimated in our 2007 report. Greenhouse gases have continued to rise giving stronger warming and the cooling effect of particles formed by pollution is weaker. Further, this report has really firmed up understanding of rainfall and sea-level change. Over much of the world extreme rainfall will be heavier and occur more often and unless we begin to dramatically change our ways, we could have up to 1m and growing sea-level rise by 2100.”

On the slowdown:

“I think Chapter 9 authors and the TS do a great job of placing the slowdown in the context of centennial-scale past and committed manmade climate warming. We have caused past climate warming and the world will continue to warm. We recognise that the slowdown is an important event to understand, especially as it is not obviously reproduced in climate models.The slowdown since 1998 itself is likely due to a combination of natural (solar and volcanic effects) and extra heat from greenhouse warming being sucked into the deep ocean. Climate models can capture such slowdown events but there is the possibility that some models are over responsive . Any over-response would only be a small effect though and the slowdown does not significantly affect our 2100 projections. However, we do take it into account for our near term projections. Provi

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