A top honour from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is overdue acknowledgement of Professor James Renwick's long contribution to climate change awareness, writes science reporter Jamie Morton.


It must be demoralising, you'd think, to be a climate scientist in 2019.

These are people who have spent years tracking models which, collectively and increasingly, point to an unfolding global calamity - all while greenhouse gas emissions have continued to soar.

That the world's most powerful politician has yanked the second-worst polluting nation out of the UN-led Paris Agreement, and continues to mock the science of climate change, wouldn't have eased their grief.

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Nor would a recent poll showing few Kiwis believe that humanity would do enough to spare itself those worst consequences of global warming: drought, flood, famine and war.

And nor would the fact that it's now such an emergency that thousands of young Kiwis will leave their classrooms in protest later this week.

Against all that gloom, it's a wonder that Professor James Renwick is still pushing his message of hope and positivity.

"It can be depressing and frustrating, sure, that there is still this kind of attitude at the highest levels of government, when what we are seeing already should be enough," the Victoria University climate scientist told the Herald.

"But for me, it's been more of a motivator. It's now well known that just presenting the facts to people is far from enough, so, how do you get it inside their heads that, boy, this is the number one problem that we have to be dealing with?

"And it's one thing to get through to people at a Rotary Club in Lower Hutt, but reaching those people who make the decisions in society – the business leaders, the politicians – that's the real goal."

Today, Renwick is one of our most visible and accessible scientists.

Anyone who's seen him speak – or noticed his colourful and somewhat celebrated collection waistcoats - would know he's not the male, stale and pale stereotype of a university professor.

His cryptic Twitter handle, @cubaraglanguy, tells us he's a hybrid of two of the types of Kiwis described in Chris Brown and Jill Caldwell's sustainability-focused book 8 Tribes: The Hidden Classes of New Zealand.

That's the Raglan Tribe – "independent spirits who value the ability to live a life according to their own priorities" – and the Cuba St Tribe - "members of the urban avant garde who constantly seek out the cutting edge of cool".

More to the point, though, is his tireless advocacy for climate awareness and action.

In the past five years alone, he's taken part in more than 100 public presentations, organised major conferences and given hundreds of media interviews, which has made him a favourite target of naysaying cranks.

When he's been frustrated enough by misguided newspaper opinion pieces, he's moved to set the record straight with rebuttals as gracious as they are authoritative.

Anyone who's noticed James Renwick's colourful and somewhat celebrated collection waistcoats would know he's not the male, stale and pale stereotype of a university professor. Photo / Supplied
Anyone who's noticed James Renwick's colourful and somewhat celebrated collection waistcoats would know he's not the male, stale and pale stereotype of a university professor. Photo / Supplied

His being awarded the $100,000 Prime Minister's Science Communication Prize from Jacinda Ardern in Wellington this afternoon is acknowledgement long overdue.

Renwick, whose research focus is on climate variability, climate change and weather and climate prediction, also contributes to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which informs global agreements on climate change action.

He is currently a convening lead author for the next IPCC Assessment Report, due in 2021.

"I try to accept every invitation that comes my way," he said.

"I do feel a sense of duty to tell the world about the science behind climate change, how I see the consequences unfolding, and the need for action, which is urgent.

"The more opportunities people have to understand what is going on the better, as it is only when enough of us demand action that we are going to get it.

"It's not about finger pointing, it's about helping people understand what's at stake, how little time we have and how they can best leverage their concern to influence those who make decisions."

He wasn't always this vocal ambassador for climate science.

During his school and study years throughout the 1970s, he points out, global warming wasn't even on his radar.

It was when former NASA scientist James Hansen issued a warning to the United States Congress in the 1980s that Renwick, by then working as a MetService weather forecaster, began to grasp the threat.

He later shifted to Niwa, and then to Victoria University, where he discovered he had a knack for explaining science in a way the rest of us could understand.

The subject of climate change has become so ubiquitous that you now can't listen to a radio bulletin or scroll through a news site without learning about some stark new finding.

Yet the response from policymakers here and overseas has been arguably sluggish.

Why?

"That's an interesting social question isn't it? The science community has known about this big problem for this long, so how is it that nothing has happened? I'd say it's part of human nature.

"Putting aside all of the misinformation campaigns funded by oil companies and all of that jazz, I think we tend not to acknowledge really bad news unless we have to.

"I was actually talking about this with someone over the weekend, and I commented that we are sort of like this society of drunks who won't admit that we have a problem – we just keep imbibing and hope that things are going to work out okay."

Science tells us that we won't avoid significant climate change.

In New Zealand, where two thirds of people live in areas prone to flooding, projections show the country could expect by the close of this century a mean temperature between 0.7C and 3C warmer and a sea level between 50cm and 1m higher.

All of this hinges on how aggressively the world tackles the crisis.

The most recent figures show that, if warming continues at the current rate, the Paris Agreement's aspirational threshold of 1.5C will be crossed at some point between 2030 and 2052.

To keep within that mark, carbon dioxide emissions will need to be halved over the next decade, and other greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide will also need to be forced down.

If the 1.5C threshold could be held, the world could escape an extra 10cm of sea level rise, over and above what was already been locked in for this century.

Renwick, optimistic as he is, thinks this fanciful.

"I do feel a sense of duty to tell the world about the science behind climate change, how I see the consequences unfolding, and the need for action, which is urgent." Photo / Supplied

"It may still be possible, but we are talking about a really heroic, World War 2-scale mobilisation from governments all over the world, starting right now, and it's not obvious that this is happening," he said.

"But with more and more extreme events, and more civil disobedience – the school strike this week is an example of that – I am hopeful that we'll be able to stop at 2C."

Even if we couldn't – and many experts think we certainly won't – Renwick's unshakeable position is that it's never too late to act.

"Even if we're on track for 3C, well 3C is still better than 4C."

He's encouraged by what he's been seeing.

"It's a combination of all the things that are going on—the IPCC reports, what groups like Generation Zero and Greenpeace are doing, and more extreme weather events that people can see happening," he said.

"The most common question I get is 'what can I do?'. The answer I give is that if everybody does the small things, like reduce the amount they drive and their consumption of meat, it will add up.

"But I also say it shouldn't be just down to individuals. People need to tell their political representatives that they want change.

"If enough people speak up, the message will get through."

Science heroes honoured

The overall Prime Minister's Science Prize, worth $500,000, has been awarded to Kiwi-developed software that has helped identify suspects in tens of thousands of criminal cases around the world.

A team of scientists at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) developed STRmix to interpret DNA material from a crime scene that comes from multiple individuals.

Before it started being used in case work in New Zealand in 2012, ESR senior scientist Dr Jo-Anne Bright said, there was a lot of evidential material wasted because many mixed DNA profiles were too complicated to analyse.

"At a lot of crime scenes, particularly sexual assaults, you have samples from the victim and also from the offender, along with mixtures on clothing that might contain DNA from various people," she said.

"Before STRmix existed, we didn't interpret a lot of these mixtures. Following its introduction in New Zealand, we saw a 30 to 50 percent improvement in our DNA profiling success rate, with the rates getting better the more complicated the profile was.

"Turnaround times are also a lot quicker. Before STRmix, we spent a lot of time interpreting a profile with a pen, paper and a calculator.

"Now we can just load it up on the software and go onto other things while it does the interpreting."

It's now the number one software for the interpretation of DNA profiles internationally and is routinely used in case work by more than 40 laboratories around the world.

Two of the scientists behind crime-solving software STRmix, Dr Jo-Anne Bright and Bjorn Sutherland, of the Institute of Environmental Science and Research. Photo / Supplied
Two of the scientists behind crime-solving software STRmix, Dr Jo-Anne Bright and Bjorn Sutherland, of the Institute of Environmental Science and Research. Photo / Supplied

Many of those are in Australia and North America but the product is also being used in Asia, the Middle East and the United Kingdom.

The Prime Minister's MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize was awarded to University of Auckland researcher Dr Peng Du, who is leading the world with his development of devices that help in the fast, reliable diagnosis and treatment of gut problems.

He uses a combination of experimental recording and mathematical modelling to understand what happens to the food we eat, and the interactions between waves of bioelectrical activity generated by the gut and its movements to ensure essential nutrients can be absorbed.

The 33-year-old's first world-leading research involved mapping the bioelectrical activity of the gastrointestinal tract to detect the differences between healthy and abnormal gut functions.

He developed flexible, disposable polymer strips embedded with electrodes and circuits to map the bioelectrical activity, transmitting the readings for reliable analysis during surgery.

Peng and his research team of biomedical engineers and clinicians have since achieved another break-through in which the same gut activity can be monitored with an array of electrodes being placed on the body surface without the need for invasive surgery.

The Prime Minister's Science Teacher Prize went to Carol Brieseman, of Hampton Hill School in Tawa.

With 30 years' teaching experience, Brieseman has developed an education programme based on robotic Argo floats, which measure the temperature, salinity and velocity of the ocean, and has also been involved in a project looking at how online citizen science projects can help engage students.

Her science experiments at staff social events create fun amongst her colleagues and give them simple ideas for their classrooms, making the learning accessible to all students.

"I love tapping into kids' curiosity," she said.

"There is an untainted awe about the world that kids display and I love being able to nurture this. It's so important for them to be able to make scientifically-informed decisions at this age, and right through life."

Eighteen-year-old Finnegan Messerli, of Wellington's Onslow College, received the Prime Minister's Future Science Prize for his research into a problem that might ultimately help scientists better understand the risks of avalanches and slips.

Finn's project began when, as captain of the New Zealand team participating in the International Young Physicists Tournament in Beijing, he was asked to explain why grains, such as sand or salt, form a cone-like pile when they are poured onto a surface.

He wanted to use an established technique called the Discrete Element Method but struck problems in measuring the properties of the grain in order to allow computer modelling.

"Essentially, I came up with an easy method of testing those properties and one that doesn't require expensive equipment," he said.

"I tried to design the method I would have liked to have at my fingertips when I was working on the problem."

With further development, the system of tests Finn has created could be used to predict flows in a wide range of granular materials, with potential for applications in the food processing, mining, pharmaceutical and geotechnical industries.