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Government doesn’t need climate bodies: it needs commitment

Lack of information and advice on climate change isn’t the problem. Steve Easterbrook

In closing the Climate Commission, and introducing legislation to abolish the Climate Change Authority, the government has said it can instead rely on information from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO. Is that claim reasonable?

The Climate Commission

The Climate Commission was established to provide information about climate change to the public. The most obvious impact of its closure will be on local governments and businesses.

The Commission has been providing such bodies with the information they need to determine how best to adapt to the future climate. Most local governments do not have the resources they need to identify how climate change should affect decisions, such as deciding whether sea walls are an appropriate reaction to rising sea levels and changes in storminess. In the absence of the Commission such bodies will need to employ consultants, at considerable expense, to provide such advice.

The National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF), established in 2008, funded valuable research important for Australian climate change adaptation, and collated this research into a format accessible by local governments and others.

NCCARF could have expanded its role to provide more direct advice to business and local government when the Climate Commission was closed. NCCARF’s funding was severely cut earlier this year, so its ability to fill this role is limited, but there is the promise of further funding from the new government.

Closing the Commission will not directly affect the quality of scientific advice available to the Australian government, since it was not established to provide such advice.

The current Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt, understands climate change science very well, and is unlikely to be led astray by the snake oil merchants and guns for hire intent on misrepresenting the science. And there are many sources of credible scientific advice available to the minister, such as the regular assessments from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

When specific climate change science issues arise, he will be able to turn to the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO for advice. Of course, providing such advice will divert the resources of these two organisations from their main tasks (collecting and analysing data, and forecasting and warning, in the case of the Bureau, and scientific research in the case of CSIRO). But providing advice to ministers has always been among the roles of these organisations.

Climate change policy action will not be affected by any dearth of scientific information available to the minister.

The Climate Change Authority

On the other hand, the Climate Change Authority was established to provide the Australian government with advice on specific aspects of climate policy. Its current task is to advise on appropriate caps to carbon dioxide emissions, in the context of international action to slow the growth of emissions.

The data required to determine whether Australia is “pulling its weight” are readily available (for example, information about the rapid growth in the percentage of global emissions covered by emissions trading schemes). One might think, however, that having a local agency to collate and assess this information for the Australian government might be more prudent than relying on other organisations, with their various biases. And it is hard to see how the Bureau of Meteorology or CSIRO could fill this role and provide advice on this aspect of climate change – it seems way outside their comfort zone.

But, as with the Climate Commission, any failures in climate policy will not be sheeted home to any dearth of credible information or advice due to the expected closure of the Climate Change Authority.

There is so much information about dealing with climate change that closing one agency will not lead to a collapse of policy action.

Lack of information and advice isn’t the problem

Anyone familiar with the history of climate change policy in Australia knows that lack of information about the science or the economics is not the reason for any policy failures.

The Australian Parliamentary Library recently completed a “Timeline of Australian climate change policy”. The timeline is 20 pages long, and notes that the first Australian greenhouse gas emissions reduction proposal was submitted to Cabinet by Senator Graham Richardson in 1989.

Australia has had a National Greenhouse Response Strategy (1992), a Greenhouse 21C plan (1995), a National Greenhouse Advisory Panel, a discussion paper entitled “Future directions for Australia’s National Greenhouse Strategy (1997), at least four discussion papers on emissions trading (1999), Senate Committee investigations, the "Global greenhouse challenge: the way ahead for Australia” (2002), a Prime Ministerial Task Group on Emissions Trading (2006), two Garnaut Reviews (2008, 2011), Treasury modelling of the economics of mitigation (2008), a white paper “Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme” (2008), the Carbon Farming Initiative (2011), and now a Direct Action Plan. And don’t forget the massive IPCC assessments (up to five and counting).

There is no shortage of credible information about climate change science or the economics of how to deal with climate change.

The “plan” in 1989, a quarter of a century ago (when the world was a quarter degree cooler than today), was for a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by Australia by 2005 – that didn’t work out too well did it? And the subsequent 25 years of reports, enquiries, committees, and assessments (and global warming) hasn’t led to much action.

So don’t hold your breath for effective reductions in greenhouse gas emissions any time soon, and keep planning for a warmer world. But don’t say you weren’t warned.

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