Editorial: Judge's ruling in climate case refreshing

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Scathing judgment backing Niwa represents damning of sceptics' crusade.

James Hansen, an ex-NASA scientist known as the 'father of climate change'. Photo / Sarah Ivey
James Hansen, an ex-NASA scientist known as the 'father of climate change'. Photo / Sarah Ivey

A year ago, James Hansen, one of the world's top climate scientists, conceded that climate sceptics were winning the argument with the public over global warming. This, he said, was occurring even as climate science itself was showing ever more clearly that the Earth was in increasing danger from rising temperatures.

Part of the reason for this outcome is the professional communications approach employed by the climate sceptics. Scientists have not been able to compete with this. One of the main thrusts of this strategy has been to allege that scientists have behaved without integrity or honesty. It is in this context that a recent High Court judgment has considerable importance.

The case saw a branch of the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition, a group of sceptics, seeking to have temperatures collected by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research declared invalid.

It could hardly have failed more comprehensively.

Justice Geoffrey Venning ruled that the coalition had not succeeded in any of its challenges against Niwa, and said it must pay the crown research institute's costs.

The coalition alleged that the method used to collect national temperature records, which show a national warming trend of almost one degree Celsius in the past century, almost 50 per cent above the global average, had been unscientific. That had created an unrealistic and unreliable indication of climate warming, it said.

If the coalition had managed to discredit Niwa's methods, it would also have discredited the evidence for climate change, and the part played by human activities.

But Justice Venning said Niwa had applied "internationally recognised and credible scientific methodology" and, as such, did not breach any obligation it may have had to pursue excellence.

The coalition was also effectively branded as amateurish. The evidence of one coalition member was dismissed in large part by Justice Venning because "he has no applicable qualifications. His interest in the area does not sufficiently qualify him as an expert". This represented a refreshing approach from Justice Venning. Too often, the claims of unqualified people have been able to cast doubt on the view of the majority of active climate scientists who are certain human industry is contributing to global warming.

As has happened before, climate sceptics have reacted by seeking to shift the goalposts.

In an Opinion article in this newspaper, Auckland University associate professor Chris de Freitas played down the importance of any court ruling, saying it was no substitute for the insufficient number of attempts globally "to reassess quantitatively the nature and reliability of homogeneity adjustments to complete national sets".

That oddly overlooked the fact that the coalition had chosen the High Court as a battleground, thereby attaching its own importance to it. It also ignored the scathing nature of the judgment.

So severe was this that it rendered the case outlandish and raised questions about how it could have occupied so much of the court's time. Justice Venning's judgment was a strong riposte to the climate sceptics' ongoing claims of a conspiracy by scientists.

Many inquiries by British and American government agencies and independent panels have previously upheld the integrity and honesty of the scientists. This ruling reinforced that and represented a damning of the climate sceptics' case.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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