Climate of complacency: NZ Herald lazy and irresponsible

by Gareth on January 14, 2013

Saturday’s New Zealand Herald carried an astonishing editorial on climate change — remarkable enough to prompt me to tweet that it was “crass, complacent and so very wrong“, despite it being ostensibly in support of action on climate change. The piece begins by riffing on the wildfires in Australia, before observing:

With Australia having its two hottest days on record this week, and New Zealand enjoying a hot summer, it feels like climate change has arrived. But most scientists are wary about attributing any particular weather to global warming. To cite this summer as evidence would enable sceptics to recall last January’s washout.

“Most scientists” are being anything but wary about discussing the link between the Aussie heatwave and climate change. Australia’s Climate Commission released a special report on the heatwave at the end of last week. Here are the first three “key points” from the report:

  • The length, extent and severity of the current Australian heatwave is unprecedented in the measurement record.
  • Although Australia has always had heatwaves, hot days and bushfires, climate change is increasing the risk of more frequent and longer heatwaves and more extreme hot days, as well as exacerbating bushfire conditions.
  • Climate change has contributed to making the current extreme heat conditions and bushfires worse.

Straightforward enough, you might think. Climate change is making the heat and fires worse. But if the Herald editorial writer might be forgiven for missing a major report from the Australian body tasked with informing that nation about the realities of climate change, he or she cannot be forgiven for the astonishing complacency evident in the next few paragraphs.


In a review of climate study this week, we reported that New Zealand might fare quite well under the predicted 4C increase in average global temperatures. Here the expected rise is 3C.

That “review” doesn’t appear to be available online, but it appears on the basis of those numbers to have been a reasonable, if somewhat gloomy appraisal of where we might be heading. But then…

Victoria University’s Dr Jim Renwick, a lead author of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel’s next report, said the North Island’s climate would be closer to Queensland’s and the South Island would have the North Island’s conditions. It does not sound so bad.

Not so bad? Only if you ignore what a three degree temperature rise would mean for the ecosystems in which we live. Human systems might be able to cope reasonably well — if at considerable expense — but the New Zealand environment would be transformed beyond all recognition. And while NZ might fare better than much of the planet, the reality of four degrees warming elsewhere would be nightmarish. Australia’s heatwaves are already being pushed into record territory by a mere 0.9 degrees of warming. How much worse would they be in four degree world?

Without these important caveats, that paragraph amounts to ridiculous complacency.

The editorial then moves on smoothly to introduce geoengineering as a possible solution.

The next IPCC report will examine engineering responses to climate change, such as extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sending sun-reflecting particles into the stratosphere.

It is something to ponder as we bask in another hot, sunny weekend.

Apparently, the newspaper wants us to ignore the bad stuff, look only the bright side, and believe that we can fix the problem by applying technologies yet to be invented. No need to sweat the hard stuff. No apparent necessity to reduce emissions. Let’s all lie on the beach and ponder that wonderful world.

The editorial closes with one sentiment I can wholeheartedly endorse :

If this is a symptom of global warming we are all in it together.

No need for the if: we are undoubtedly all in “it” together, but if we are to have any hope of reaching the sunlit uplands of a world where climate change has been restricted to manageable proportions, we will need to take the problem seriously, and work hard to achieve a solution. Sadly there’s no sign of that wisdom to be found in this lazy, risible and irresponsible Herald editorial.

[Update 15/1: The Herald article including NZ climate projections can be seen here.]

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Mr February January 14, 2013 at 1:07 pm

Well-skewered, Gareth. That “iditorial” just combined innumeracy, complacency and techno-optimism into a poolside cocktail for the “She-’ll-be-right” swimming pool.

Macro January 14, 2013 at 1:18 pm
SimonP January 14, 2013 at 3:23 pm

I see the Herald gave Chris deFreitas a soapbox today to seemingly argue that is better to not make a prediction than make one that has a probability of failure: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10858877 . His linking of religious cranks and the Mayan calendar to scientific prediction is odd but the most bizarre statement was “prediction for risk assessment is as much an art as it is a science.”

Gareth January 14, 2013 at 3:31 pm

At least he’s annoying geologists this time, not climate scientists… ;-)

JasonK January 15, 2013 at 2:24 pm

Earthquakes simply can not be predicted so that is a very bad example to use. Ironically his claim about predictions is true but the examples given are not very helpful.

For some reason the difference between a forecast or probability estimate of some future activity and a prediction is being fudged by many.

Given the sheer size of the earth how many temperature points are being measured when chartes are being made. There will be many regional differences and often ongoing consequences ( for example in water currents) that might show up in other regions etc.

Predicting temperature changes is a bad idea because it does make it it easy for the main argument to be discredited when there is an incorrect prediction. On the other hand extrapolating local climate scenarios based on temperature changes is useful for farmers and most others for whom weather changes are important.

Saying that temperatures will rise by x in future is not really a prediction unless it is specific and that is the real problem with predictions.

Rob Taylor January 15, 2013 at 2:45 pm
bill January 15, 2013 at 4:41 pm

Not to mention deaths in the US military…

andyS January 15, 2013 at 3:21 pm

Jason – I think that there are more similarities between earthquake and climate forecasting than you claim. Both use Bayesian statistical techniques to form a probability distribution function of a particular event or value being achieved

For example, the following abstract describes some earthquake prediction models.
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2010JB007917/abstract

We can’t predict a quake will happen on Day X (unless you are Ken Ring) but we can assign a probability of that happening.

Dappledwater January 14, 2013 at 7:58 pm

Very punny Mr Feb.

John Russell January 14, 2013 at 11:09 pm

It’s clear that most people just starting to understand the reality of climate change tend to think of what the weather is like at the moment and just imagine it being several degrees warmer. I know that, because for many years during the 1980s and early ’90s, that’s what I thought. In fact for a while I tended to think, “bring it on”. It’s once you start to understand more about how the weather is affected by global warming that you slowly realise that, actually, 3 or 4 degrees of warming means completely different, more extreme, weather patterns including drought, flooding, storms and even really cold spells.

So, actually, the NZ Herald editorial is just a perfect example of the old saying, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. I’d give them a call, Gareth, and offer your services. They need help rather than opprobrium.

Gareth January 14, 2013 at 11:26 pm

Thanks John. I agree that the Herald should be applauded when it gets things right, but glossing over its mistakes because its heart is in the right place won’t help them improve.

John Russell January 15, 2013 at 1:12 am

Carrot and stick, Gareth. I’m not suggesting glossing over their mistakes, but, unless they’re in denial, I’m sure they’d be grateful of an offer of guidance. If they don’t/won’t accept, then go for the jugular. Would add another element to your blog post, too.

To effect change it’s best to offer the ignorant a way to improve their understanding as well as a telling off. Bit like dealing with pigs/sheep really: push their head in the right direction and give ‘em a prod on the arse.

Mr February January 15, 2013 at 5:06 pm

After reflecting on it a bit more, the Herald editorial is an example of a ‘back-fire effect’; of how the climate change message is cognitively received quite differently from how it’s transmitted by scientists.

The Herald say they spoke to James Renwick of Victory University (ex NIWA) who no doubt said “one weather event is not global warming, but all weather events **including the extremes** are now influenced by global warming”. Renwick also did a “Joe Romm” by communicating via analogy; “4 degrees warming would be ~ North Island being like Queensland”

We have to realise that for the masses in the middle, it’s a completely natural response to try to pigeon-hole the 4 degree message into a cognitively safe box. And that the Herald editorial staff are not immune to it. They may even aim for it. And they succeeded. “like Queensland. Not too bad then”.

I think the Queensland analogy back-fired.

Most Hot Topic readers probably associate Queensland with extreme floods (Brisbane, La Nina) and arid deserts pocked by mines. The ‘average Herald reader’ probably hears ‘Queensland’ and thinks ‘land of better paid jobs’ and ‘The GC’ tv series.

There is a good post about this sort of psychological resistance here (http://www.aeonmagazine.com/being-human/rosemary-randall-climate-change-psychoanalysis/%22) by Rosemary Randall, a British psychologist. Hat-tip for that to Claire Browning of Pundit.co.nz (http://www.pundit.co.nz/content/nemesis-narcissus).

From what a couple of journalist friends have told me, the lowest-common-denominator approach really does drive most mainstream news editors. I can just imagine an actual Editor or senior reporter instructing a junior reporter “Hey, write a quick 600-word editorial quoting that scientist from 3 days ago who said 4 degrees was like Queenland, include the Aussie fires, the Canterbury ones, but not too scary”

andyS January 15, 2013 at 5:26 pm

If the North Island ends up like Queensland, will it be full of rednecks too? Sounds pretty alarming to me.

Mr February January 15, 2013 at 5:47 pm

Hey I have found the original Herald article on-line quoting James Renwick. It was ‘Tackling global warming head on’, by Jamie Morton, 10 January 2012.
(http://www.nzherald.co.nz/technology/news/article.cfm?c_id=5&objectid=10858177)
Renwick gives a pretty accurate picture. He told the Herald that 4 degrees “held large and frightening ramifications.” and would mean “10C of warming for the Arctic” and “3C of warming over New Zealand would put the climate of the country in many ways outside of anything it’s experienced for a very long time.” And he notes that keeping to 2 degrees requires massive reductions in GHG emissions and “nobody’s doing anything about it.”
For me that’s 9 out of 10 on the ‘Kevin Anderson’ scale of brutal numbers and tenuous hope.
The article is not too bad. Two quibbles. I don’t like first sentence of the main body “If there was any doubt that climate change is the biggest crisis facing mankind..”
Second quibble. Why have two paragraphs about geo-engineering in AR5?
However, when read with the Editorial, this confirms the ‘backfire’ or dissonant cognition. Only the ‘like Queensland’ analogy from Renwick makes it through to the Editorial and then it’s presented as a comforting thought.

Gareth January 15, 2013 at 6:50 pm

Thanks Simon. I’ll update the post with the link.

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