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CSIRO climate cuts will trash a decade of hard work with the Bureau of Meteorology and universities

CSIRO’s decision a decade ago to merge its marine and atmospheric research set the stage for a national climate research plan. CSIRO/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

CSIRO climate cuts will trash a decade of hard work with the Bureau of Meteorology and universities

A dozen years ago, climate science in Australia was academically excellent, but was being done in small groups, none able by itself to answer the large, complex scientific questions that were beginning to confront Australia, such as understanding the adverse trends emerging in temperature and rainfall.

We weren’t alone – all countries were grappling with their own issues, as the scale of the climate challenge was made starkly clear by a succession of reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

So, early in the new century, a handful of people leading the key separate parts of Australia’s system began working together to create a truly strategic, truly national climate science capability.

CSIRO led from the front. Its executives knew that CSIRO alone could not meet the nation’s climate science needs, so they worked with government departments to support the development of a larger national architecture.

Gradually, the project took shape. In 2005, CSIRO merged its atmospheric and marine research divisions, creating a unified division focusing on a single national climate modelling system, rather than two separate ones. Sensible move.

The following year, CSIRO championed integration of all state and national marine observing systems into one federal system, the Integrated Marine Observing System.

CSIRO also turned its attention overseas, joining with the Bureau of Meteorology to adopt the UK Met Office’s state-of-art Unified Atmospheric Model as our national weather forecasting model, for an immediate improvement in forecasting skill.

Since this model could be run in climate mode as well as weather mode, we now had both agencies’ scientists supporting a single, world-leading atmospheric climate model that was also the national weather forecasting model. It was a superbly efficient outcome. The pieces of a truly national climate science program were falling into place.

Universities on board

Meanwhile, in 2007 CSIRO and the Bureau launched a joint venture now called the Collaboration for Australian Weather and Climate Research. The idea was to create a single large government-funded climate science program that, for the first time, would be easy for top university climate scientists to engage with.

CSIRO already had a fruitful collaboration with Antarctic climate researchers at the University of Tasmania, but what was needed was for all universities doing significant climate science to become engaged in the national endeavour.

This was harder than it sounds; government research agencies are typically driven by specific missions related to the agency’s charter, whereas university research often focuses on investigating science questions framed by individual specialisations and academic prowess.

As chief of CSIRO’s Marine and Atmospheric Research Division at the time, I was seconded into the federal Department of Climate Change to draft a blueprint for a national climate research agenda that would include universities along with government scientists. It gave rise to the National Framework for Climate Change Science, which was adopted by the Rudd government in 2009 and still remains current.

With the framework in place, CSIRO, the Bureau and universities signed up to use Australia’s new National Computational Infrastructure for climate research. In 2011, the Australian Research Council funded the creation of the Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, which drew together the best university-based climate research. With everything now in place in 2012 the federal government turned the 2009 climate science framework into an implementation plan to deliver on the research goals.

More than a decade in the making, Australia finally had a truly national, unified collaboration set up to deliver as fruitfully as possible on our nation’s climate science needs.

All of that hard work, planning and organisation is now at risk.

Climate cuts

The implementation plan contains a series of tables listing the priority policy questions to be answered, and who is best placed to deliver the scientific research needed to answer them. CSIRO appears in every one. If you mentally remove the word CSIRO from the document, it’s clear that if CSIRO leaves the climate science stage (and while the precise number of job cuts remains uncertain it is set to be significant) it will leave Australia’s federally endorsed climate science agenda gutted, and totally unachievable.

This brings us to the misconception promulgated by CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall as a rationale for the CSIRO cuts: that human-induced climate change is now confirmed, so there is now less need for climate science and more need for research into adaptation and mitigation measures.

The implementation plan makes it clear that mitigation and adaptation would also suffer badly from CSIRO’s climate cuts, as they would no longer be built on the national climate science framework set up precisely to enable and support those activities.

CSIRO was the main agency behind Australia’s world-leading climate science framework – a setup that serves this nation’s climate science policy needs superbly, and one of the areas in which Australia punches above its weight internationally.

Why would CSIRO retreat from one of its own (and Australia’s) most effective scientific endeavours? Why stop now, after working tirelessly for more than a decade to create a unified national platform that provides essential advice to local, state and federal governments, as well as industry, commerce and the environmental sector? I don’t know. It makes no sense.

CSIRO’s decision to pull away from climate change science is against the national interest. It should not proceed.

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