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