The need for science based environmental policy

Science is loved and hated, respected and ridiculed in equal measure. For those such as myself who are interested in the natural world around us it is a means to discover the form and function of the natural systems that make our planet tick. It is a means to discover the limitations of humanity and the activities of humans, how it impacts on us and how we impact on it and how those impacts change the form and function of the natural environment.

To a significant extent it is true that both overseas and in New Zealand, science and scientists do not have many friends. Or those friends generally tend to be “friends of convenience”, who are “friends” for the duration that they are useful to the agenda of the Government of the day and then drop out of sight or are dumped when that is no longer the case. Researchers working in climate change and fresh water ecology come to mind in terms of supplying the research, whilst natural resource planners come to mind conceiving the plans that are based on the research.

Without a doubt then, one of the most testing areas for science is when it comes to being the basis for sound environmental policy. Whether it is dealing with the effects of increased carbon in the marine ecosystem, particulate matter in air pollution or recording river flow discharge, the data collected and analyzed is the basis on which theories are founded. The scientific community is then engaged when the research is published in journals to see how solid it is.

Despite their assertions to the contrary, I did not find the previous National Government to be sympathetic to science or the technological and theoretical advances our common knowledge can gain. In 2010, the only time science got a boost, there was  a story about the then Prime Ministers standing aside so that  Given that the National led Government was one advocating a “brighter future” in which New Zealand and New Zealanders would grow wealthier, this is some what surprising.

But hard data is the common building block of good policy. It has been tested by experts, who might have made slight adjustments, but which are on the whole sound. For example, Environment Canterbury as part of their river flow network operate a number of telemetered rainfall and river flow gauges. The data recorded every several hours – and more frequenly during heavy rainfall and/or flood events – is used to track what is falling in river catchments. Do flood watches or warnings need to be issued; is the river likely to get out of its banks? All of these questions and others can be answered if the flow regime of the river and the key characteristics of the river catchment in question is known. To the public, planners appear to be constantly revising the return periods for floods and some suggest that it is impossible to have confidence in the science when the scientists are seemingly unable to come up with consistent figures – without either realizing or understanding that the flood regime knowledge of the day is only as good as the data on which it is based.

Likewise, scientists are struggling to understand the Alpine Fault, New Zealand’s biggest and probably most dangerous fault. It is broken into four sections with two making up the cental part of the system. At 650 kilometres long and an average return peirod of 300 years.Knowing this and how the next quake is likely to affect infrastructure and so forth, enable planning rules to be set down, for Building Code criteria to be set down and collaborated. In other words to save lives and minimize disruption. One way of finding out more about its history has been to drill into the fault structure and extract samples of rock to determine the heat and pressure it is being subject to. Unfortunately this has brought about the ire of some members of the public – perhaps just trolling for attention or cause mischief, or perhaps genuinely (!) misinformed – who believe that the scientists are being reckless cowboys endangering themselves and New Zealanders.


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