Salinger doesn't feel critics' heat

Dr Jim Salinger has been in the thick of it.

Over the past few months, the veteran climate scientist – one of the most recognised men in New Zealand science – has staved off repeated criticism of his climate change work by sceptics, including Rodney Hide and the ACT Party.

His work, and that of other climate scientists, is repeatedly questioned in the debate about whether the planet is heating up, and if humanity's carbon-burning activities are responsible. Critics have even had a crack at his decades-old Victoria University PhD, which contributed statistics to Niwa's Seven Stations temperature series – research which showed an increase in temperatures around New Zealand.

"No, I'm not worried, because my research is based on facts, and I reach conclusions," the 62-year-old says confidently.

"When my PhD thesis was done in 1981, I wanted to work out what was happening with New Zealand climate, particularly temperatures. In those times, we weren't considering `the greenhouse effect', and I thought `this is an interesting topic, see if New Zealand's climate has changed'," Salinger says.

"I proceeded to analyse the records, and discovered there was quite a bit of warming between 1945 and 1955 in New Zealand... the climate was warming slowly. And those facts still stand."

Salinger notes Niwa is likely to be re-checking his PhD work using modern techniques, and he's confident "they'll come up with the same conclusions".

He says that if temperature records showed a "cooling off over the last 10 years, I'd be saying so".

He emits a slight chuckle when sceptics such as Hide and the Climate Science Coalition are mentioned: "Science is about facts, not beliefs. I like to look at the facts and see what they say – if people want to attack me as a person, that has nothing to do with my science. It doesn't worry me."

He believes the critics are driven by agendas: "You can actually trace links with quite a few of them back to the oil industry."

"This whole group are trying to accuse me, and my overseas scientific colleagues, of fraud," he continues.

"Well, there is going to have to be a hell of a lot of people involved in this `fraud' ... They're trying to say the International Panel On Climate Change is a fraudulent activity, and in fact it's a very thorough process."

Even during last year's Climategate email scandal, Salinger, a lead author on the IPCC's report's New Zealand section, was not concerned.

The seizing of University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit emails was, he argues, "an illegal activity", and critics went on to "pick out quotes out of context", selectively releasing one or two comments.

"I think it was a deliberate attempt to discredit the science and the scientists," he says. "Just think – the oil industry has huge amount of money, and a lot of these groups trace to the (political) right-wing in the US."

He quickly reels off figures: "We've now got 390 parts per million of carbon dioxide (in the atmosphere) – we used to have, before the industrial revolution, 270 parts per million – we've got double the methane ... Now, they're very effective greenhouse gases, and the theory was developed well more than 100 years ago – if you double your greenhouse gases, temperatures go up. All the evidence points to the fact land temperatures have warmed up. The globe is covered by two-thirds ocean, and now the measurements of those show a warming.

"These aren't figments of the imagination. Unless someone can find something else mysterious that might change the climate, I think it's all pretty solid. A few emails does not change scientific facts, I'm afraid."

Admitting science is "slightly elitist", Salinger quickly moves to the issue of "peer-reviewed" work.

"You actually have to submit a paper, it undergoes review – a test – they say `yes, you've done it the right way'. Sometimes papers get rejected or they say `please revise', you do, and they say `yeah, that's fine'. There are standards."

Salinger is adamant his views and research are in line with those of mainstream science. "What someone feels on a blog site has nothing to do with it."

Tonight, at a Waikato branch of Forest and Bird meeting, he'll discuss research on climate change since the 2007 IPCC report. "Basically, things are not getting any better. We're on a `business as usual' scenario. Unless we have dramatic decreases in greenhouse gas admissions, the climate is going to warm a lot more than two degrees.

"I'll be bringing people up to date with the science since 2007."

Salinger became interested in weather and climate as a young teenager, setting up rain gauges, a thermometer and simple instruments at his home.

"I started noting it down, measuring rainfall, looking up at the sky ... Dunedin has a lot of variability, you can get very hot days and very cold days. It's very changeable, and unlike the sharemarket it's all exciting – you don't get depressed."

He did a science degree in physical geography and zoology at Otago University, then four years' work in medical research. He had a New Zealand-specific climate science piece published in the journal Nature, and was a junior lecturer at Victoria University between 1976 and 1979.

His New Zealand climate PhD was published in 1981. He "never imagined that 30 years later" it would be grabbing headlines.

After two years' work with the East Anglia University Climatic Research Unit, Salinger joined the climate research section of the New Zealand Meteorological Service in 1982, and his "public face" began to emerge. The climate researchers wereabsorbed into Niwa, and he worked for the crown research unit through until last year when his dismissal, due to a "management issue", also made the news.

Last year he was one the most high-profile people to join Greenpeace during its "Sign On" campaign, and he works in climate science as a weather commentator on Sky TV's The Country Channel. He has been president of the World Meteorological Organisation's commission for agricultural meteorology since 2006.

"The thing I am concerned about is will the planet be fit for survival by humans as a species," he summarises, noting the likely need for a 50 per cent increase in food production to feed a projected 9 billion people by the end of the century. "And we have to think seriously about that. This is a global issue."

Jim Salinger speaks tonight, at 7.30pm, at the Waikato Forest and Bird AGM, at the Hamilton Gardens.

Waikato Times