Politicians, climate change and evidence abuse

I’ve recently been re-reading The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters, the book by former Times science editor Mark Henderson, which examines the often flagrant disregard for scientific evidence shown by politicians around the world.

New Zealand politicians of all persuasions are as guilty of evidence abuse as their overseas counterparts. Examples of this abound, most famously, the Prime Minister’s causal dismissal, during a BBC Hardtalk interview, of the claims of Massey University freshwater ecologist Dr Mike Joy about the health of our rivers and streams.

Ralph Sims
Ralph Sims

When asked by host Stephen Sackur how he responded to the serious claims Mike Joy made, the Prime Minister responded, rather tellingly:

“He’s one academic, and like lawyers, I can provide you with another one that will give you a counterview”.

This week another Massey researcher, Professor Ralph Sims was in the gun, as Tuesday’s Parliament question time was occupied by discussion of climate change and the recent IPCC climate mitigation report of which Professor Sims was one of the New Zealand lead authors.

Responding to questions from the Green Party’s climate change spokesman, Kennedy Graham, who quoted from commentary on the mitigation report from Professor Sims, climate change minister Tim Groser had this to say:

“I would respectfully suggest to the gentleman that he stick to his area of expertise. Because… when we look… at the wild statements that the gentleman made, they are palpably wrong on multiple levels.

“Going around pretending that every country in the world is doing 10, 20, 30 per cent reductions, is complete and utter nonsense… so I think ‘stick to the knitting’ would not be a bad piece of advice.”

“I think the community should listen very carefully to the Professor when he is talking about his specific area of scientific expertise, on which I would have nothing to comment.

“But when he steers across into broader questions of comparability I suggest that actually they would be better listening to the person who represents the Government and has access to a wide range of official advice.”

Palpably wrong on multiple levels? What exactly did Professor Sims say? At the Science Media Centre, we gathered commentary from Professor Sims as well as numerous other scientists from here and around the world on Sunday’s release of the IPCC’s Working Group III report on climate mitigation. Professor Sims was a lead author on the report. This is the statement he gave us and repeated in his Massey University release:

Prof Ralph Sims, Sustainable Energy, School of Engineering and Advanced Technology, Massey University, lead author of IPCC AR5 WG3 report, comments:

“The argument that New Zealand produces only 0.14% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (1) no longer holds. On average, each New Zealander is responsible for emitting around eight tonnes of carbon dioxide a year (2) and, with all the other greenhouse gases, now produces twice those of the average Chinese person and around eight times those of someone living in india (3). This means we are now the fourth highest emitter (4) per person in the world, behind Australia, the United States, and Canada.

“New Zealand has set a modest target to reduce our total greenhouse gas emissions by five per cent below the 1990 gross emission level in just six years time (5), yet no one knows how we will achieve this. In our Sixth Communication document to the United Nations in December 2013, the Ministry of Environment projected our net greenhouse gas emissions (the total emitted minus the carbon dioxide absorbed by forests planted after 1990) will reach more than 75 million tonnes in 2020 (6) if we continue with business as usual. To reach the five per cent reduction target below our 1990 emissions, we will need to somehow reduce these to 55 million tonnes (7).

“The various means of achieving this are clearly outlined in the IPCC Mitigation report released today. They relate to buildings, transport, industry, energy supplies, food production and processing, and forests, all of which can lead to the better “green economy” recently outlined in a New Zealand Royal Society report. Many of these solutions also provide major  additional benefits such as less air pollution, better health, reduced traffic congestion, more employment and they actually save money.

“In the foreword of New Zealand’s recent Communications document to the United Nations, Minister Groser stated, ‘The emissions reduction opportunities available to other nations through conversion to renewables, mass public transport and energy efficiency in industry have already been done or have far less scope in New Zealand’. The IPCC Mitigation report clearly shows this is far from correct.”

Okay, so lets do a bit of a fact check on Professor Sims. I’ve bolded the factual claims he made in the statement above and numbered them. How do the facts stack up?

(1) The Ministry for the Environment has New Zealand accounting for “approximately 0.15 per cent of total world emissions”. CORRECT

(2) According to the Ministry for the Environment, in 2010 “New Zealand’s emissions per capita are 7.6 tonnes per person for carbon dioxide”. CORRECT

(3) According to Carbon Footprint of Nations this is certainly true for the latest available carbon emissions figures (2010) – I can’t find a direct comparison of the three countries for total GHG emissions overall in the same year CORRECT

(4) According to the Ministry for the Environment and the OECD, “in 2011, New Zealand’s emissions per person were the fifth highest among 40 Annex 1 countries, at 16.6 tonnes CO2-e per person”. A variation of one ranking which may be due to more up to date data being released. CORRECT

(5) New Zealand’s official emissions reduction target according to climate change minister Tim Groser in an official release. CORRECT

(6) These projections are from the Ministry for the Environment’s Sixth National Communication to the UN CORRECT

(7) Confirmed by MfE, 1990 emissions were 59.6 Mt CO2-e so a five per cent reduction on that level would be around 55 million tonnes. CORRECT

Who is talking nonsense exactly?

As you would expect from a professor, Ralph Sims is quoting official figures, not plucking them out of the air.

I can’t find any reference to Professor Sims claiming that, as Groser put it “every country in the world is doing 10, 20, 30 per cent reductions”. He didn’t mention anything of the sort in the SMC commentary or his Massey release. Maybe Groser heard him say something to that effect in the media, but if he did, I can’t find reference to it. Some countries have more ambitious emissions reduction targets than New Zealand, some are more conservative. That is not overly controversial.

The piece that likely raised Groser’s hackles is the claim that there are more “emissions reduction opportunities” than Groser is prepared to acknowledge, compared to other countries. Sure, that is grounds for an intelligent and robust debate – the whole argument hinges on what we could and should do to mitigate emissions relative to other countries. But Professor Sims co-authored the report looking at mitigation options. He knows what he is talking about. Actually, this is his area of expertise – check out his credentials. The fact that a senior scientist who has contributed to a major international scinetific report receives such dismissive contempt from a senior minister, is pretty sad.

For Groser to write off Professor Sims and his “wild statements” appears to be just another example of tired old evidence abuse and expert bashing because the evidence put forward is inconvenient to the Government’s position.

I was planning on sending my dog-eared copy of The Geek Manifesto to Mike Hosking (after his climate sceptic rant about climate change on Seven Sharp a couple of weeks ago). After the way science has been misused in the last week, I’m spoiled for choice as to who else I should consider sending it to…


  1. Michael Edmonds

    A great analysis of who was actually being honest, Peter. I wish more journalists would dissect the statements of politicians this way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s