Hot under the collar

Like all of us, scientists are far from perfect.

They can be impatient, aloof, arrogant, difficult. They are also highly intelligent, enthusiastic, inspirational and brave.

One thing scientists generally are not are quitters. In fact the opposite is far more likely to be true. They carry on believing in the merits of their research long after others have lost interest or funding has stopped.

Which is why the release of a paper this week from a group of New Zealand and Australian scientists saying they should put the brakes on a field of critical work is all the more surprising.

The particular topic is climate change, hardly some esoteric vanity project, with the call for a moratorium coming out, ironically, about the same time as Niwa released its annual national weather summary for 2021, showing the year was New Zealand’s warmest on record.

Niwa calculated the country’s average temperature at 13.56degC, 0.95degC higher than the 1981-2010 annual average, setting a record just five years after the previous hottest year.

Using readings from its reliable seven-station (Auckland, Masterton, Wellington, Nelson, Hokitika, Lincoln and Dunedin) temperature record which began in 1909, Niwa said only three months — January, February and September — had near-average temperatures, of plus or minus 0.5degC from average. Average monthly temperatures for the other nine months were all more than 0.5degC above the long-term mean.

Our annual maximum temperature continues to climb closer to 40degC, with Ashburton having the hottest day of the year on January 26, at 39.4degC.

Dunedin, which was the driest and coolest of the six main centres, also featured in the honours list for being the only place in the country to, sort of, come close to setting a cold-weather record, with -8.8degC on May 27 at Dunedin Airport.

However, even this is not really a record, merely equalling a previous minimum and showing just how desperate things are becoming these days to find record-breaking cold temperatures.

Meanwhile, in the pages of the journal Climate and Development, three academics were outlining what they described as the "tragedy" of climate-change science. They are basically arguing for others to "walk the talk" when it comes to taking steps to mitigate it.

Professors Bruce Glavovic, Timothy Smith and Iain White, of Massey University, the University of the Sunshine Coast and the University of Waikato respectively, believe the "science-society contract" is "irrevocably" broken, mainly due to government sluggishness and inaction around the world.

They say this is an unwritten contract in which public investment in science leads to improved understanding of the world and its problems, and helps achieve better outcomes for all. However, while scientists have done their bit, "the failure to arrest global warming is an indictment on successive governments and political leaders".

In their view there are three options — deliver more climate-change science in the hope of some action; intensify social science research and advocacy, focusing on why action has not occurred; and stop doing climate-change science, which is "settled to the point of global consensus".

This preferred third option is gobsmackingly radical. The authors say scientists have fulfilled their responsibility of providing "robust knowledge" and need to move from simply documenting more warming to renegotiating the broken contract.

Comments

After working as an Environmental Scientist for over 40 years I have observed that most significant issues are ignored by government and local government until they reach crisis. The task of providing clean water and air and protecting our environment requires forward planning and investment. The failure to do this is conspicuous in Dunedin and Otago. Politicians have a three-year horizon where their main objective is to be re-elected. They are more likely to spend ratepayers money on silly high viz nonsense than buried pipes and infrastructure. Unless there’s a spectacular change in how we are governed, nothing will change.

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