NZ sceptics v. NIWA – summary of caseRichard Treadgold | July 22, 2012
EDITORIAL NOTE: As an organ of the NZ Climate Science Coalition (NZCSC, or the Coalition), the NZ Climate Science Education Trust (NZCSET) was created especially to carry the Coalition’s legal suit against the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research Limited (NIWA). The creation of a subsidiary is common in such cases and carries the approval of the judge. References here to the Coalition include the Trust. As a member of the Coalition, I sometimes say “we”, meaning the Coalition. The following is based on notes and conversations with our legal team and should be fairly accurate. Any mistakes are mine.
The hearing of the case between the Trust and NIWA ended on Thursday, with no surprises emerging from the defence presentation.
The Coalition had three causes of action against:
(a) The original Seven Station Series (7SS) published in 1999.
(b) The Review of NIWA’s “Seven-Station” Temperature Series (which is now the official version of the national temperature record).
(c) The Eleven-Station Series that was unadjusted.
Note that the Eleven-Station Series was issued in 2009 solely to counter the Coalition’s paper, “Are we feeling warmer yet,” published on November 25, 2009. The hastily-prepared 11SS appeared just eight days later in rebuttal, but is still on the NIWA website as part of ‘the New Zealand Temperature Record.’
The thrust of our case was that NIWA has a duty under the CRI Act to “pursue excellence” and therefore must follow internationally-accepted best practice, when that’s clear from the scientific literature. They must at least give it their best shot. There was no argument that the Rhoades & Salinger (1993) paper was the recognised statistical method for making adjustments by way of neighbouring station comparisons. However, NIWA contended that the Hessell (1980) paper was out of date in saying that stations affected by shelter/UHI (especially Albert Park and Kelburn) should be excluded.
Major public consequences
In the case of the original 7SS, we contended that the adjustments were based on Salinger’s 1981 thesis, even though those methods were superseded by the Rhoades approach in 1993. We showed that using the internationally-accepted methods (i.e., RS93) reduced the 20th century warming by about two-thirds, down to about 0.26°C/century instead of NIWA’s 0.91°C/century. We also established that this difference had “major public consequences” because the (adjusted) temperature record was used to tune and validate the models which made all the temperature projections for the next hundred years. And those predictions drive all the climate change policies by both central and local governments.
Instead of defending their own work, NIWA mounted a major attack on the Coalition’s “Audit” of the Review. They hammered away on one aspect – claiming that Rhoades recommended their method of ±10-year ‘comparison periods’ as opposed to the ±2-year periods we had used. This seemed very strange as Rhoades gives only one worked example and that is ±2 years. The paper mentions only two periods in the text, being ±1 year and ±2 years. They said the Coalition was correct “in a formulaic way” but had been “too rigid”. This dispute finally ended in a draw, as both sides accepted that the judge couldn’t adjudicate a purely scientific debate.
NIWA claimed that Salinger, then at the MetService, had done a major homogenisation exercise in 1992, applying the method described in the draft Rhoades paper. David Wratt asserted that the 7SS had always been based on the 1992 revisions, not on the original thesis figures. Their big problem was that the 1992 revisions had gone missing and nobody has seen them anywhere since 1992. An email from Salinger to Renwick refers to “notes and drafts in boxes in recall storage” but NIWA says they don’t know what he is referring to. The only way anybody knows the work was even done is because there is a description of it in a 1992 Met Service report by Salinger.
Coalition case looking good
Under pressure from ACT, NIWA tabled in Parliament in February 2010 a schedule of adjustments and a Hokitika station report describing the methodology. These are quite obviously based on the 1981 thesis and don’t even mention the Met Service revisions. When the Coalition requested details under the Official Information Act, the answers harped on about the thesis, and the Met Service 1992 work never received a mention. There was further documentary evidence regarding the thesis, but none whatever for the theory that the 1992 revisions were the source. For one thing, the 1992 series (1920-90) only covered about half the 7SS series, so where did all those early adjustments come from? The NIWA evidence was simply the assertion by Dr Wratt that the 7SS was based on the 1992 updates.
With all this evidence, the Coalition case is looking very good on the plain facts. The threat comes from the need to prove that NIWA has a duty to apply good science. They deny this, and effectively say that Parliament has given them a free hand to do what they like. They argue that the obligation to pursue excellence is merely “aspirational”, being un-measurable and unenforceable. They would normally take notice of the scientific literature if it came to their attention, but they have no need to follow it and are entitled to practise what they think best. They don’t need to apply internationally-accepted techniques or recognised scientific opinion and the best methods mightn’t be affordable.
They even say that there is no such thing as a “New Zealand Temperature Record” and the extent that warming is occurring is simply a matter for their judgement. Remarkably, they believe that they’re not accountable to the Court or anybody else for the accuracy of their science.
If the Court is prepared to hold NIWA accountable, the Coalition case looks very strong. Personally, I am delighted with the way the evidence fell and the expert way Terry Sissons presented it.
But that might all founder if the court grants NIWA’s claim to subjectivity.
As a Crown entity, are they subject to the will of the crown? I must confess that I might be happier if they were truly independent. If they were wrong, or scientists disagreed with them, then correction or redress would be obtained solely through peer-reviewed literature.
But how tied is their present funding to their present obedience to their present political masters? If strongly, it corrupts and debases their “independence” to mere subservience and makes a mockery of their representations to the Court. For it could be that their right to self-determination is no more than a claim to public funding by virtue of their obedience.
If only funding were independent, then might scientific independence truly have a measure.