The science of outrage
By Jim Tucker
Bar a year’s accident of birth, I would have rubbed shoulders at high school with a future Nobel Prize winner.
Dave Lowe was a year ahead of me at New Plymouth Boys High School, so I missed being his mate. But having just finished his book, The Alarmist, I feel I know him, and not just because we both suffered bullying at the school and didn’t get much teacher encouragement.
In a particular way that turned out to be important, the two of us were influenced by the newly minted surfboard riding trend that swept Taranaki in the 1960s, him as a board-rider, me as an observer (and body-surfer).
It was Lowe’s first experience of ocean pollution coming from town sewerage systems, industry and farms. The key one for him turned out to be despoliation he couldn’t see, but whose presence would turn out to be the most crucial part of a toxic mix.
He would spend most of his life studying the Earth’s build-up of carbon dioxide and methane, to such extraordinary effect he would become one of the world’s most important climate scientists.
I had an easier run. The environmental problem I ended up investigating was visible. After a couple of Lowe’s surfing mates told me about what they were seeing off the coast, I was able to photograph a big problem showing up in just about every one of the province’s 530 named streams – water pollution coloured white, red, green, brown and other colours that weren’t supposed to be there.
My experiences over the following years and a series of articles led to awards (and legal threats). But mine were nothing like Lowe’s. He was awarded a share of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his work as a lead author of the fourth report from globe’s most influential climate body, the Paris-based Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Al Gore – US President Bill Clinton’s VP from 1993-2001 – also got a mention, for “their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.”
You have to wonder how our teachers failed to recognise the potential in a pupil who went on to study and help resolve the sort of mathematical, physics and chemical challenges that climate scientists have been working on since the late 1960s. But then one of those same teachers told me I wasn’t suited to journalism.
Lowe’s account of his so-called preparation for life is heart-breaking: “After three years of misery and failure at high school I’d had enough. I was 15, the legal age for leaving school, and left for an entry-level job at the New Plymouth telephone exchange.”
His roles were making cups of tea for senior technicians and cleaning grease off mechanical telephone equipment. It was filthy, boring work using dangerous solvents that left his hands raw and chafed, with grease packed under his fingernails. “But no one picked on me.”
The journey he began with such little promise did have other positive influences, such as his early home life in what most New Plymouth people called the “transit houses”, World War II dormitory sheds at New Plymouth aerodrome.
He writes that it was a happy childhood, though, with lots of outdoor pursuits. His father got him interested in technology through ham radio, his mother in languages. He would later become so fluent in German he achieved his PhD in German.
His teenage life was greatly influenced by a man he describes as an inspiring primary school teacher, Ray Jackson, the father of his best friend, Con Jackson. He advised Lowe on the value of reading.
“I’d read a lot of books when I was younger, but virtually gave up during the terrible years at high school. At the telephone exchange we read comics and magazines rather than books.”
Lowe was so turned on to books, he read through the entire science section at New Plymouth Public Library and decided to go back to high school for another year to get University Entrance. He then went to Victoria University in Wellington, graduating in 1969 with a science degree and determined to become a research scientist.
His pathway into environmental science opened up for real in 1970 when he endured the remoteness of Makara on Wellington’s western coast to take his first air samples for a project already under way in Hawaii. The investigation was led by US scientist Dave Keeling, a man who would influence Lowe throughout the next several decades.
It was an early study of suspected increases in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. In pre-industrial times (variously described as before 1900) it was a (probably) naturally occurring 280 parts per million. In that first year, Lowe found a CO2 level of 321; and it had an annual growth rate of 1ppm. Now it’s around 420 and rising more than twice as fast.
Keeling was typical of several outstanding mentors and colleagues who helped Lowe through his career. The one who put him in touch with Keeling – after the American inquired if any New Zealand scientists would start monitoring CO2 for his project – was Athol Rafter, director of New Zealand’s Institute of Nuclear Sciences (INS), a division of the New Zealand Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), where Lowe was first employed out of university.
At that stage, what is now the important field of CO2 and methane monitoring was so insignificant it was turned over to a first year graduate. As Lowe recalls, the budgets then were miniscule and things only began to take off here around the turn of the century when some New Zealand science leaders and politicians realised how vital was Lowe’s and his colleagues’ roles in furthering global environmentalism.
Incidentally, the Ray Jackson connection touches me, as well. Ray’s son, Conrad, was a fellow cadet reporter at the Taranaki Herald when I started there in 1965. We went our separate ways, but recently met up again when he alerted me to Lowe’s book.
Jackson edited early drafts. I can see his journalistic influence; what could have ended up an impenetrable dissertation moves along with accessible flow, and carries personal anecdotal revelations in a way that avoids sentimentality.
It’s still a deeply emotive narrative. Lowe is exceptional in his devotion to science but acknowledges his obsessiveness, so overwhelming at times you can understand why his first marriage failed.
Here’s a man who spent half his life sleeping alone in freezing cold tin sheds whose existence seemed constantly threatened by gale-force versions of the element he was studying.
In a way, it’s an archetypal Kiwi yarn of outdoor resilience and determination of the kind that got Sir Ed Hillary up Everest first and overland to the South Pole. Lowe was (is) tough in that way triathletes and marathon runner are, except his physical endurance needed to be complemented by one of the finest mathematical minds ever to emerge.
His account is hampered by modesty. I suspect others had to lean on him to tell the full story of his contributions to a science that barely existed when he first got involved. The Nobel Prize shows what can happen.
He was party to the peace one, but several times when you’re reading the book’s unadorned accounts of his breakthroughs for mathematical, technical or scientific obstacles, you’re asking yourself why this man didn’t get an individual prize for something directly aligned to his work. Physics, maths, chemistry – any one would do.
His reserve may also be why nobody connected to him has gone on Wikipedia to update the item that says New Zealand has only ever had three Nobel Prize winners. Lowe is a fourth.
I’m given to wonder if the bullying we both suffered had an odd long-term benefit. In my case it made me stand-offish, easily offended by arrogance and determined to stick up for those who are bullied. The journalism of outrage, I call it.
With Lowe, you get the feeling his treatment by the same school rugby thugs resulted in a devotion to never standing down from mathematical and scientific challenges that had defeated other scientists.
He continues to deal with bullies in the form of climate change deniers, but feels optimistic about the progress climate scientists have made since Makara 1970. Along with others in the field, he knows there is still a long way to go but will be heartened by recent announcements on governmental climate change strategies.
Nowadays, Lowe and his lifetime colleagues can feel some early confidence that politicians are finally taking notice of warnings that for decades have been emerging from their work – the science of outrage, I’d call it.
A version of this column appeared on NZ news website Newsroom on June 20, 2022: https://www.newsroom.co.nz/bullying-and-the-science-of-outrage