By Peter Griffin 12/07/2017

Former University of Auckland academic Dr Chris de Freitas, has passed away after a two year illness from cancer.

Chris de Freitas

I had no idea Chris was even sick, so was shocked to hear of his death at the age of 68.

He was a climate scientist, had a PhD in climatology and trained in Canada and Australia before settling in New Zealand. He apparently had over 200 publications in the areas of “applied climatology, bioclimatology, meteorology, environmental change, microclimatology and general review commentaries, including two recent books, New Environmentalism: Managing New Zealand’s Environmental Diversity, and Natural Hazards in Australasia”.

He also rose to positions of responsibility at the University of Auckland serving at one point as Deputy Dean of Science, Head of Science and Technology at the Tamaki campus and four years as Pro Vice Chancellor.

He won several science communication awards from the New Zealand Association of Scientists and I know from personal experience that he was deft at following the news agenda and looking for opportunities to comment when issues were on the media’s radar. He appeared regularly in newspaper op-ed pages as a result.

Sceptical views

Chris was a perfectly nice guy to deal with but I regularly found myself butting heads with him in my capacity as founder of the Science Media Centre. That’s because towards the end of his career he became one of the country’s most prominent climate sceptics, playing into the hands of a news media that for a long time would look to “balance” commentary from climate scientists or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with rebuttals from Chris or other members of the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition, a climate sceptic think tank that Chris was an advisor to.

The Herald was the preferred public platform for Chris and his numerous columns questioning the seriousness of climate change and humans’ role in it, angered a lot of New Zealand scientists – I’d link to some of those opinion pieces, but the new Herald website has broken most of the links. In this 2003 interview by the Herald’s Simon Collins, de Freitas describes himself as a “global warming agnostic, not a sceptic”.

He’d apparently started out in the 1980s writing in the Listener about the threat posed by global warming. But along the way he came to believe that the problem had been over-hyped. For a period, a number of scientists were in his camp, but as evidence mounted in favour of anthropocentric climate change they had a choice to make – change their views based on the new evidence or stick to the position that it was overblown, or even a scam.

The Soon and Baliunas controversy

Chris de Freitas chose the latter route and as a result became increasingly offside with his climate science colleagues here and abroad. In 2003, months before he was interviewed by Collins, he became embroiled in the Soon and Baliunas controversy, where as an editor of the journal Climate Research, he was widely criticized for accepting a paper that was later found to have serious methodological flaws. The paper claimed that climate change in the 20th century wasn’t significant compared to other shifts in the previous 1,000 years.

After that, Chris seemed to become even more entrenched in his views.

In 2009 he was giving expert evidence in the Environment Court against Meridian Energy’s proposed Project Hayes wind farm in Otago. He told the Court:

“If carbon dioxide is a feature causing climate change it is smaller than the natural variables. Moderate warming is hugely beneficial especially for a place like New Zealand that is agriculturally based.”

The wind farm project’s resource consent was overturned by the Court and Meridian eventually gave up on it.

In 2011 Chris was again drawing criticism for featuring climate sceptic sources in his first year geography courses. By then, the media had learned about “false balance” and were going to him less often for comment and running his columns less frequently. But he remained a staunch climate sceptic for the rest of his life and was regularly trotting out the usual sceptic arguments.

The next year, a court case led by prominent sceptics, used his work to mount a challenge against New Zealand’s official temperature record. The case failed, but New Zealand tax payers were left to foot the bill to the tune of $90,000.

Along the way he published interesting and useful papers away from climate science, such as work looking at the environmental impacts of tourism.

The last word

His last Herald opinion piece, published just over a year ago, argued that negative feedback processes at play in the Earth’s environment meant the increased carbon output as a result of human activity wouldn’t result in much global warming.

“From the research to date, it appears the influence of increasing carbon dioxide on global warming is almost indiscernible. Warming could occur, but no evidence suggests it will amount to much.”

At the end then, he was at odds with the vast majority of climate scientists, disputing the significance of human contributions to climate change, the validity of the climate models, the role of positive feedback processes, just about everything climate scientists have built their understanding of the future impacts of climate change upon.

Chris will never know one way or other how things played out. But like Bob Carter, another prominent Australia-based climate sceptic who appeared regularly in the New Zealand media and died last year aged 73, history will judge them either as fearless contrarians who saw the truth others couldn’t or deluded deniers who let idealogy overpower the evidence.

0 Responses to “A climate sceptic to the end – Chris de Freitas dies”

  • I’m sad to hear that as well, Peter. I met Chris when he was on the interview panel for my first job at Auckland University, and I always found him a pleasant individual in 1:1 interactions. I don’t think history is going to judge the climate sceptics very kindly.
    This quote from Max Planck comes to mind: : “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

    • Yes Carol, your quote from Max Planck could well have been made also by Josef Goebbels – a lie repeated often enough becomes accepted as the truth, especially given the bias and ignorance of so much of what passes these days as “news” media, and I speak as an old style journalist, wedded to the famous dictum of the Guardian’s legendary C P Scott: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” Scott would have said of the current debate on “climate change”: “C0mputer projections are free, but recorded observations are sacred.”

    • A man who had the good sense to be born at the right time, for his career to span a time when the scientific backwater of climatology got thrust centre stage. What more could we ask for?

      His contentious opinions will get to be proven or disproven by those younger, many students he trained, worked with, or nurtured the academic environment for, over many years .
      If they disprove him, with academic rigour, I imagine he would be well pleased by it.
      Either way his ex-students will be helping the world deal with what comes and shaping our future.
      Nice knowing you Chris, thanks for all the effort.

    • Shall we examine the nature of a label and of the effect of labels on perception and judgement? According to Benjamin Whorf’s linguistic relativity hypothesis, the words we use to describe things and the labels we assign to people are not merely placeholders, they actually determine what we see, believe and imagine. What do readers make of this scientist people have labelled a ‘climate sceptic’. The label is, as we all well know, an insulting stereotype, designed to prejudice public opinion about this man’s research reputation and ideas.

      Associate Professor Chris de Freitas called himself a climate scientist. This is the accurate description of the man.

      But what about the ‘sceptic’ label, closely associated with the ‘denier’ word? The fact is that people with a variety of vested interests labelled him a sceptic. De Freitas never used this term to describe himself because he knew what other people implied when they used the term. He knew that it was always used in a pejorative manner. However, as he sometimes reminded friends and colleagues, “these people do not know that scepticism is the foundation of good science and of well grounded, authoritative scientific debate. Scepticism is essential for good interpretation and application of scientific data.” “Furthermore, we are not what people say we are. We are not even what we ourselves might say we are. We are what we actually demonstrate ourselves to be.” And de Freitas demonstrated himself to be a strong, versatile and productive scientist, relatively impervious to such nonsense. He carried on with his work in the areas of microclimatology, cave climatology, bioclimatology, meteorology and environmental change, most of which was not at all concerned with questions of climate change.

      De Freitas knew that the broad field of climate science, over the long term, requires good sceptical arguments, from all sides, in order that ideas can be properly challenged, strengthened, modified and applied for the betterment of mankind. This is the classic scientific method. He would also have known that the scientific method is the best tool ever devised to discriminate between true and false patterns, to distinguish between reality and fantasy, and to detect baloney.

      Those who continue to use the term sceptic to describe him are ignorant of the fact that this is actually a fine and complimentary label to apply to the thinking of every worthy scientist. Even today, good scientists are still schooled to be sceptical. They are taught to apply criticality in all matters of thought – to use their critical, sceptical skills to design their research methodology well and to recognise poor methodology, shoddy data and inappropriate interpretation. This is what will continue to make science strong in the long run.

      Long live scepticism in science.

  • Chris will be missed. He was my supervisor in the past and I would never call him a climate sceptic. Instead he was for me a voice that tried to make ‘poor science’ better. He was more concerned about the application of global estimates to a northern hemispheric biased reporting system. So with 70% of data recorded on land in the northern hemisphere but a global value painted in the media even if it did not apply to the southern hemisphere. He was concerned about poorly constructed global climate change models that were inadequate at accounting for climate feedback loops. i.e. increased temperature creating more water vapour in the atmosphere increasing albedo and increasing greenhouse gasses as well. Cities designed to eliminate standing water and vegetation, creating heat sinks but treated the same as a rural landscapes in some models. The issues of models not allowing for natural offsets so treating ‘mother nature’ as a helpless victim in the process of climate change as opposed to an active participant. And it was about making your argument solid. As we have seen it is easy for true sceptics to poke holes in your science unless you make it solid science and increasingly the science has caught up. He always told us never to read the summaries. Read the science. His voice made science better. For him it was about teaching people to read beyond a headline and to ask questions. I will miss him and his courage to be labelled when his true goal was to make science better and make his students critical thinkers in the age of 140 characters.

  • Thus wrote a disciple of the Canterbury fungus farmer. Sadly snow will lie thick on the Scottish lowlands in summer before these people realise that they have been led by their nose rings by the likes of Piltdown Mann.

  • This article makes me ashamed to be a member of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

    Once upon a time, the Royal Society was all about open debate on science. In fact, its motto was “by no mans word”.

    When he was interviewed in Australia a few years ago, the then chairman of the IPCC said, very clearly, that open debate was needed on the subject of global warming. But, it seems, the RSNZ does not agree. It is betraying its very roots.

    As it should know, history is full of sceptics that turned out to be right. And history is full of scientific theories that were firmly held for many many years and, in the end, overturned. That is the way that science works.

    By refusing to enter into open debate, the Royal Society is making global warming a religion, not branch of science.

    If Peter Griffin stood for open debate and honest science, he would not be denigrating someone who looked at the evidence, disbelieved the flawed computer models that failed to make accurate predictions, and concluded that the dangerous man-made global warming hypothesis has very weak scientific foundation. He should be ashamed of himself.

  • It is a pity that Peter Griffin felt it necessary to write a very unfriendly and untrue “eulogy” for Professor Chris de Freitas. He brings out the usual unfounded arguments against so-called “climate sceptics” (more accurately called “climate realists”) . For instance, Griffin writes that he “became increasingly offside with his climate science colleagues here and abroad”. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was much admires by thousands of well-qualified scientists who reject the IPCC dogma. The opinion that 97% of climate scientists agree with the IPCC position is one of the biggest myths. There was no need for him to “change his view based on new evidence”. What new evidence? The only evidence I have seen comes from more climate computer models from bigger and bigger computers. There is no real scientific evidence that CO2 emissions are causing dangerous global warming. Griffin write that Chris was “regularly trotting out the usual sceptic arguments”. Of course he did, as the critique remained the same, as no new evidence has become available since the first IPCC report.
    I am a geologist and paleoclimatologist. I have been involved in the climate debate for more than 15 years. Last year I published a collections of my debates, essays, articles etc. in a book titled “The Fable of a Stable Climate”. I would suggest to Peter Griffin to read my book. Information on how to buy the printed version or the Kindle e-book can be found here: I can especially recommend to him to read the epilogue, titled “Black Swans”, which is a analytical-philosophical essay on the climate change dogma.
    The whole global warming saga is a very sad one. Based on sound science is is clear that the belief that human CO2 emissions can cause catastrophic global warming is the biggest scientific scam in human history.

  • Your obituary pays some compliments in acknowledging Chris’s career as a climate scientist but then it abandons generosity to engage in what can only be called character assassination.

    You claim that “evidence mounted” in favour of man-made climate change but offer a straw man as an alternative to believing the hype. When you say that sceptics “stick to the position that it was overblown or a scam” you blatantly ignore the many very reasonable doubts that arise on consideration of various aspects of the IPCC case for man-made warming.

    Those doubts include the lack of significant warming for the last 20 years or so, the absence of positive climate feedback in earth’s entire history, and the absence of a mechanism whereby our airborne emissions might significantly heat the oceans. There are others, but any of these three, undispelled, casts severe doubt on the case for dangerous warming.

    Whatever you mean by the so-called “new evidence” of anthropogenic climate change, it has done nothing to eliminate these doubts and others.

    When you say Chris became increasingly “offside” with his fellow scientists you clearly blame him simply for disagreeing, which is a Neanderthal response. You make disagreement sound offensive, yet the only offensive element was their fascist response to disagreement, as though free speech was a thing of the past.

    You repeat a talking point of the Salinger-led campaign against Chris de Freitas as though it still stands, but it’s well refuted. How could Chris be criticised for accepting a paper that wasn’t found until later to be flawed? Every journal in existence has done that at some point. Countless papers have shown that climate changes in the 20th century were insignificant. The witch-hunt against him was unjustified.

    You reckon that simply holding to what the evidence was telling him means Chris became “even more entrenched” in his views. That is nonsensical. He wasn’t more or less anything, he was just maintaining his position — and why not, since the evidence didn’t change?

    It’s ironic that you quote Chris’ 2009 comment that CO2-induced warming is smaller than natural variability, since it was around that date that people were starting to notice, notwithstanding continued high emissions, that there had been almost no warming for ten years or more. Natural variation must have been overwhelming the man-made sort — a position now widely verified by scores of papers and accepted by the IPCC .

    You can scarcely criticise Chris for being amongst the first to notice it.

    The rest of the obituary descends into a swamp of unwarranted denigration, quoting even the crank Renowden and piling on the usual warmist talking points without regard to evidence.

    Your final ungrammatical sentence calls Bob Carter and Chris together “deluded deniers who let idealogy overpower the evidence.” That poisonous passage illuminates your agenda as much as your objectivity.

    Btw, you use “anthropocentric” incorrectly to refer to man-made warming: it means “regarding humankind as the central or most important element of existence.” The term others use for our climate influence is “anthropogenic”, which means “originating in human activity.”

    You’re very welcome.

  • Sorry for the delay in approving comments – I’ve been travelling. But rather than this descending into yet another boring argument about climate change, those of you who worked closely with Chris feel free to share some anecdotes of your friendship with him. I disagreed with him but managed to have a respectful dialogue with him throughout.

    • Thank you for publishing our comments; we had quite given up.

      rather than … descending into yet another boring argument about climate change,
      I … managed to have a respectful dialogue with him

      Perhaps you were respectful with Chris, but you’re not managing too well with us. Your air of scorn is stupefying. What’s the reason for it? Are our sceptical questions so disturbing you cannot address them? The evidence for dangerous man-made warming is constantly claimed to be overwhelming, so by now you must have memorised it — tell us what it is. You claim that climate science is boring but you are changing society as a result of it, without answering our questions. If you’re genuine about encouraging anecdotes and a conversation, not an argument, stop sneering and answer them.

  • I disagreed with him but managed to have a respectful dialogue with him throughout.

    That is not what I took from your piece. That is not what I have read on some of your earlier comments on Chris de Freitas.
    Here is what I have written on the Climateconversation site:

    I was repulsed, but perhaps not surprised to read Griffin’s self-serving piece. I wouldn’t call it an obituary – it is a slimy attack on a scientist and his work.
    Whatever does Griffin mean by writing ” He apparently had over 200 publications…”? Is this to cast doubt in the reader’s mind that perhaps these publications don’t exist or are much fewer in number?

    What is Griffin’s role at the Science Media Centre? Is it to serve as some gate-keeper on NZ Science?
    In his piece on Chris de Freitas, Griffin tells us that he “regularly found myself butting heads with him in my capacity as founder of the Science Media Centre. ”

    I think the Royal Society of NZ needs to take a damn close look at just who and what the Science Media Centre represents.

  • Gidday Peter,
    Although I’ve not met or talked with Chris de Freitas, i would have regarded him as an honest scientist having a lukewarmist stance , similar to say, Dr Roy Spencer.
    Your article here smacks of “good…another climate denier bites the dust”.
    You end with..”history will judge them (him) either as fearless contrarians who saw the truth others couldn’t or deluded deniers who let ideology overpower the evidence”
    He(they) will indeed be on the right side of history as a fearless contrarian, with actually no particular ideology, and always seeking the truth.
    It’s time for you to now see the truth, Peter…starting from here.
    Here is some more closer to home…
    If you put yourself in the position of “Confused Jane” in these 3 links, you’ve pretty well covered everything there is to know….
    So I’m sorry to let you know that you’re on the wrong side of history, Peter …because in 50 or so years from now, “greenhouse gases” will have the same status as plilogiston.
    Best wishes
    Sky Dragon Slayers Chief Public Relations Officer.

  • @Mack I may well be on the wrong side of history – we’ll just have to wait and see. I can assure you I’m not thinking as you suggest “good, another climate denier bites the dust”. I’m just left pondering a man and his career, the decisions he made and what they all amounted to.

    But you raise an interesting point about climate sceptics as you put it, “biting the dust”. The average age of members in the Climate Science Coalition must be 70+. The majority of sceptical commentary from younger people generally comes from right-leaning political players – not younger scientists. Which begs the question – will the existing sceptic narratives fade out with the existing cohort of ageing sceptics?

    • Hi Peter. The reason younger scientists don’t appear to be sceptical is because it’s detrimental to their careers – look what Mann & his friends tried to do to an honest scientist like Chris de Freitas, image what they’d do to someone who hadn’t established their career yet.

      As scientists approach retirement the harm to their careers diminish, so they are free to express their doubts. A young scientist will have their career snatched away from them for asking the wrong questions. More scientists will raise their doubts when the environment is not so hostile, as in the USA at the moment with the red/blue team proposal.

      Regarding Chris de Freitas, I emailed him once to offer him support over the unethical attacks on him in the climategate emails & he very kindly directed me to the science in the IPCC working group I sections of their reports. He never led me to any conclusion in any way, just told me to examine the science and draw my own conclusions. This led me to the inevitable & inescapable conclusion that agw is nowhere that projected and is not really a problem. I thank Chris for the profound effect this had on my understanding, & hold nothing but contempt for those who try to denigrate such an honest & ethical scientist whose primary purpose was the pursuit of truth.

    • Peter: We may well be on the right side of history, just don’t expect that it will be acknowledged by everyone.

      I remain optimistic that humanity will do enough in time to prevent the worst. But like the Y2K bug there will be those who say, “See we had nothing to worry about. Nothing happened”, instead of, “We made the right decisions in time and we got lucky”.

  • “The next year, a court case led by prominent sceptics, used his work to mount a challenge against New Zealand’s official temperature record. The case failed, but New Zealand tax payers were left to foot the bill to the tune of $90,000.”

    This court case was a total waste of time for a lot of people . There was never a shred of evidence to suggest that anything inappropriate had been done in the construction of the record. Furthermore, the legitimately adjusted NIWA 7 station series data was entirely consistent with, and backed up by, the NIWA 11 station series data, where no adjustments had ever been made as these 11 stations had never been moved. People can hypothesise all they like about what may happen in the future, but that’s all pie in the sky. This historically documented court case was a disgraceful blot on Chris de Freitas’ record and demonstrated completely unprofessional behaviour on his part.

    • I find it unfortunate that one has to complain about a piffling $90k that the taxpayer had to find when we remember a decent man who has just passed away.

      Even if you disagree with his position, this seems very disrespectful to me, sorry

  • Any man, and perhaps particularly a scientist, will be remembered for his accomplishments: the work he did, the advice he gave, the choices he made and the company he kept. I wish Chris’s family and friends the very best in their time of loss. I am sure they will find many positive attributes to reflect on. For the rest of us, history will be the judge of the man. It won’t be long before the decision is delivered.

  • A man who had the good sense to be born at the right time, for his career to span a time when the scientific backwater of climatology got thrust centre stage. What more could we ask for?

    His contentious opinions will get to be proven or disproven by those younger, many students he trained, worked with, or nurtured the academic environment for, over many years .
    If they disprove him, with academic rigour, I imagine he would be well pleased by it.
    Either way his ex-students will be helping the world deal with what comes and shaping our future.
    Nice knowing you Chris, thanks for all the effort.

  • My comment was not about the cost, but about the gross intellectual dishonesty of playing silly buggers with words in a legal environment where the scientific evidence was so clear. This is tobacco industry-type tactics – playing with words to try to create the impression of a difference where there is none.

    • The evidence in the 7SS isn’t “clear”. Anyone vaguely familiar with the case knows this.

      de Freitas et al subsequently published a paper in the peer reviewed literature using the same methodology as Salinger and found substantially less NZ 20th C warming.

      • You may have forgotten, Andy, that de Freitas et al’s paper on the NZ temp record *did not* use the same methodology as Salinger and NIWA. They excluded consideration of max and min temps, and did not compare the same periods before and after changes as Salinger. I covered this in detail at the time: see here –

        The evidence in the court case was quite clear, which is why the judge found against the plaintiffs. That they refused to pay costs was and remains a gross abuse of process and a considerable waste of taxpayer funds.

        • Well now, yes, the court case brought against NIWA by the NZ Climate Science Coalition.
          Very interesting that we never heard a peep about this contraversial case from our mainstream media..or any media at all. Not a peep. Move along, please….nothing to see here.
          The govt. just appointed one of its faithful, believing, legal henchmen…Venning… to oversee the carriage of “justice”. The case being brought, was against the corrupt, old, hammer and sickle head, Jim Salinger, of “climate gate” notoriety (ex Univ of E. Anglia) who had been getting away with fiddling and “adjusting” the NZ temp record (warming bias) for years during the 1980’s.
          The result being that NIWA covered Salinger’s ass, Venning covered NIWA’s ass, the media covered Vennings ass, and the govt. covered and paid for all their asses.
          Extreme controversy called for extreme ass-covering.
          NZ being a little more state controlled than most people think.
          But that would resonate well with a chardonay socialist like youself, eh Gareth.
          Back in the ’50s, NZers would have had a harsher description for you, Gareth…. ,just another shit stirring, pommie commie, not really welcome in this country.

          • Mack, even though Gareth and I have our disagreements, your comments are a little off colour. For the sake of Chris de Freitas lets keep it a bit respectful please

  • Just jumping into the discussion if I may 🙂 I will indeed remember my father, the fearless contrarian rather than the latter…deluded. Hardly appropriate to call the post an obituary, Peter. Anyway, I appreciate the kind words of the many of you above who have managed to remain somewhat respectful. Who on earth are we going to bash on now that dads’ gone!? I genuinely look forward to following the debate in the future. Keep up the good science! Alex.

    • “Hardly appropriate to call the post an obituary, Peter.”
      Apparently it’s called an off colour obituary, Alex.

  • @Mack I don’t think I ever called it an obituary. It wasn’t really intended as such. @Alex As Oscar Wilde once said “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”. I think the discussion here and elsewhere of your dad’s work shows that he made his mark and he did things on his own terms. Regardless of whether I or anyone else think he was right or wrong, Chris deserves respect for that. My sympathies to you and your family.

  • Mack wrote “The govt. just appointed one of its faithful, believing, legal henchmen…Venning… to oversee the carriage of “justice”

    The government has no say in which Judge hears a case. If your ridiculous assertion was correct, then why does the government lose so many court cases?

    We have a real problem here with people, who lack the courage to post with their real names, spreading bare-faced lies. Which does not help reasoned debate at all. But maybe that is the idea.

  • Hardly surprising that the infamous Peter Griffin would write something like this. This is how Griffin and the SMC operate denigrate anyone that opposes their ‘consensus’. Pathetic

  • When global warming first sprung into the news years ago, I laughed out loud at the computer model predictions of takeoff temperatures. Where were the climatic feedback mechanisms which would slow or negate the’ apocalypse’? No mention. University climate “research” teams were jumping on the bandwagon so enthusiastically with major university funding ( Wow! They’ve shown themselves to be real leaders in this field! Great university! ) The “hockey stick curve” from a tiny sample of manipulated data. Whaaat? No denial of the CO2 level rise, but comparisons with the Carboniferous Age and similar??? The Continents were in , er, different places on the globe. Antarctica had not migrated to it’s present location with the consequent change in oceanic circulation patterns.
    Then, a ray of light. Chris’s Herald columns. Did this guy make sense? Was he ignoring other evidence, or, worse, rubbishing it. No. Calm expositions. My one regret is that he did not, or perhaps I missed the columns, bring up that feedback mechanisms would likely cause slightly more climate swings. The Global Warming doomsayers have now, of course, changed tack to Climate Change, since warming data is down the gurgler. A surging world population, so far more people are affected by climate events, instant worldwide TV coverage (imagine the Krakatoa eruption occuring today) all magnify the effects.
    Chris, I enjoyed your columns, and was horrified when I realised the jackels were doing their best to bring down a lion.