Keeping it real: David Wratt

NIWA's climate chief, David Wratt, on science, steadfastness and spark plugs. Dave Hansford finds out more...

David Wratt doesn't 'believe' in climate change. In fact, 'believe' is one word he would happily see banned from the climate change lexicon.

"It's not about belief," says NIWA's Chief Climate Scientist, "it's about looking at the scientific evidence, then weighing up what it's telling you. It's a rational thing, not a belief thing, and the evidence is now stacking up that human activities influence the climate".

Wratt has wrought a career out of sticking with the facts, and doesn't hide a distaste for splashy headlines and exclamation marks. "I think most scientists are averse to the idea of turning their work into a front-page sensation – things can get taken way out of context."

He would probably disapprove, too, of terms like 'quiet achiever', but the man who insists he didn't become a scientist in order to make the world a better place nonetheless has a Nobel Peace Prize – shared with everyone who worked on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report – on his office wall, and a Queen's Service Order after his name.

Read our media release 'David Wratt awarded QSO for services to science'

Wratt is always quick to deflect, or at least diffuse, any credit for either onto his colleagues, but the modesty is refreshingly genuine. When I ask him what superpower he'd like to have, he doesn't hesitate: "A sharp and agile brain. At least, sharper and more agile than it is at present."

He might have that mind on the clouds, but his head is turned fixedly toward the day-to-day: he's less interested in the big questions than what he calls "the smaller questions underneath.

"I don't think there's just one, big unknown," he tells me. "What really attracts me is the synthesis. I think that's why I'm so interested in working with the IPCC – that concept of how it all fits together."

Wratt grew up on a farm in Motueka, but "figured out early on that I didn't especially want to milk cows all my life. I was always good at science and maths, so I went to the University of Canterbury to take a degree in physics."

He instinctively gravitated towards the natural sciences: "geophysics, earthquake science, volcanoes, that sort of stuff, because they're grounded in our day-to-day existence, as opposed to quantum mechanics, which is pretty abstract."

He studied upper atmospheric physics, and continued that work with a post-doctorate at the University of Illinois in the United States before returning to New Zealand in 1976 to take a job with the New Zealand Meteorological Service. He was supposed to train as a weatherman, but got diverted into more atmospheric science, modelling the potential emissions from planned Think Big generation plants.

In 1992, he was transferred to the nascent NIWA, where he's since published papers and book chapters on air pollution meteorology, applied climatology, mountain influences on weather and climate, regional climate projections, and climate change impacts and adaptation.

Wratt is a vice-chair of IPCC Working Group 1, which assesses the physical science of climate change. He was a coordinating lead author for the Australia and New Zealand chapter of the IPCC's Third Assessment, and a Bureau member for the Fourth.

Find out more about the IPCC Working Group 1

He's a Companion of the Royal Society of New Zealand, and a past chair of the Society's New Zealand Climate Expert Panel. He is also the Director of the New Zealand Climate Change Centre, a collaboration between Crown Research Institutes and three universities.

Find out more about the New Zealand Climate Change Centre

We put a few more questions that, just for once, weren't about climate change...

What unfailingly continues to amaze you?

"The resilience of human beings. In my younger days, I did quite a bit of travelling in developing countries, and what I saw there was that, despite many difficulties and troubles, people just keep pushing on with their lives."

What do you do for fun?

"Riding a bike, even if it's just riding to work. When the kids were younger, we'd go for bike rides out from Tawa, to Makara and Takapu Road. When we went on our Christmas holidays this year, we took four bikes on the back of the car.

"When I've got time, I read. I don't want to pretend that it's all serious – it's often fairly light detective stuff. I was reading some of those Scandinavian crime novels, but they got a bit dark and gloomy for me."

What's your most frivolous purchase?

"I'm not sure I've told my wife yet, but I took out an online subscription to the New York Times. I really enjoy the opinion pieces and the blogs. I think it's partly related to having lived in the States a couple of times, and being fascinated with the place."

What was the worst decision you ever made?

"Not buying shares in Apple. I was a very early adopter of Apple computers, and I'd probably be quite rich by now."

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

"Usually my wife saying: 'The alarm went off half an hour ago.' I have to get up quite early – six o'clock – because I use either public transport or a bike to get to work, and I live across the other side of town."

Could you gap a set of spark plugs?

"Yes. In my student days, I owned a succession of pretty useless old cars. Ever since I've owned Japanese cars, I haven't had to. That might be an age thing."

Did Gary Larson pretty much have scientists nailed?

"My memory of Larson's cartoon scientists were scatterbrained, myopic people in white coats flicking rubber bands about the lab, with complicated equations on blackboards. In my opinion, that's not scientists at all, so no, he didn't. "

To me, scientists are people that can discover and understand complex things, but who can also explain them in clear and simple terms."

Is there one big question out there that you'd dearly love to see answered in your time?

"In my younger days, I might have said that I'd like to see a unified theory of everything, and to understand it. But nowadays, my interest tends to be focussed on climate systems and their impacts on people. There's no single burning question, the answer to which is going to solve everything at a stroke. It's a process of gradual understanding." 

NIWA's chief climate scientist David Wratt: "One thing I find difficult is people who have decided what it is they believe, and are now looking round for evidence to support it." Credit: Dave Allen