Dave Lowe was a year ahead of me at New Plymouth Boys High School. Having just finished his book, The Alarmist, a memoir of his life as a climate change activist, I feel as though I know him, partly because we both suffered from bullying at the school and were both given scarce encouragement from teachers.
One teacher told me I wasn’t suited to journalism. I’ve since worked in the trade for more than 50 years. But how did our teachers also fail to recognise the potential in a pupil who went on to win a share of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize as a lead author on a report into climate change?
Lowe writes, “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. And then this heartbreaking line: “But no-one picked on me.”
I’m given to wonder if the bullying we both suffered had long-term benefits. 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 giving in to mathematical and scientific challenges that 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 over the years. 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 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.
The two of us had something else in common: as teenagers, we were both influenced by the newly minted surfboard riding trend that swept Taranaki in the 1960s. Lowe got into it as a board-rider, me as a reporter (and body-surfer). As he writers in The Alarmist, it was his first experience of the widespread pollution coming from town sewerage systems, industry and farms.
But for him, a key environmental issue turned out to be despoliation he couldn’t actually see. 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 pollution 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 what was showing up in just about every one of Taranaki Maunga’s 530 named streams – water turned 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 would spend most of his life studying the Earth’s build-up of hothouse gases and being a key part of the global scientific movement to alert the rest of us.
His early home life was spent in what most New Plymouth people called the “transit houses”, World War II dormitory sheds at New Plymouth aerodrome. His family wasn’t asset-rich. But it was a happy childhood 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 it.
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. As a returnee he wasn’t exactly welcomed by the teachers, but at least there was no bullying and he dived into his schoolwork with a passion for study that never left him.
As for his best friend Conrad Jackson, we worked together as cadet reporters at the Taranaki Herald 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. Lowe was (is) tough in that way triathletes and marathon runners 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.
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 the fourth.
The Alarmist: 50 Years of measuring climate change by Dave Lowe (Victoria University Press, $40) was named best first book of non-fiction at this year’s Ockham New Zealand national book awards.