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March for science? After decades of climate attacks, it’s high time

Will you be marching on Saturday? Michele Paccione/

This Saturday, the March for Science will be held in cities around the world – coincidentally enough, ten years to the day since John Howard urged Australians to pray for rain.

While such marches are not the answer to everything, their very existence tells us that science is under attack, not merely from defunding of research bodies, but also via attacks on the inconvenient truths of climate science.

While scientists weep over the Great Barrier Reef, some politicians respond by laughing and joking.

Two years ago, Joss Whedon (he of Firefly and Buffy fame) captured the frustration when he fired off a tweet that went viral:

Policy makers who deny basic scientific truth should also be denied penicillin, horseless carriages, [and] air time on the magic box of shadows.

Many marchers will doubtless agree, not least because various forms of denial have been going on for decades, in Australia and elsewhere.

In the early 1970s there was much international concern about the prolonged drought and crop failures in the Sahel region of Africa. US national security adviser Henry Kissinger spoke of the issue and the CIA produced assessments of the geopolitical implications.

Against this backdrop, the legendary Australian public servant Nugget Coombs persuaded the Whitlam government to request a report on the possible impacts of climate change for Australia.

The report, delivered to the new Fraser government in March 1976, declared that there was “no convincing evidence of an imminent climatic change on a global scale, or in Australia” but that nonetheless “climatic variability must be incorporated into economic and land-use planning”.

On the evidence available at the time, it was a reasonable conclusion. But while the US National Academy of Sciences was investigating thoroughly, Australia’s climate investigations were muted. A 1978 conference organised by CSIRO and ATSE investigated climate impacts, but had little impact itself.

Someone, however, was paying attention to international research – in 1981 the Office of National Assessment produced a report called Fossil Fuels and the Greenhouse Effect, which forecast temperature rises of 4-6°C by 2100 if action was not taken. Malcolm Fraser’s response is not recorded.

In the 1980s CSIRO scientists like Barrie Pittock and Graeme Pearman, together with the then science minister Barry Jones, worked hard to get the issue of climate change onto the political agenda. In 1987 Jones’s “Commission for the Future” launched an educative “Greenhouse Project”, and the following year the issue exploded onto the international stage. It was not to last.

From indifference to attack

When Paul Keating took charge in 1991, Australia found itself with a prime minister who was far less interested in green issues. His government did not attack the science directly but did seek to emphasise the costs of climate action, and only grudgingly accepted the “Berlin Mandate” which called on developed countries to set emissions targets.

Next came John Howard, who was actively hostile to the need for action. Under domestic pressure in the runup to the Kyoto negotiations in December 1997, Howard announced a renewable energy target and the creation of an “Australian Greenhouse Office.” But its head, Gwen Andrews, resigned in 2002, saying she had never once been asked to brief Howard.

Howard listened to other voices - in 1999 the Howard government appointed Rio Tinto’s head of research Robin Batterham as its chief scientific adviser. Batterham stepped down after a 2004 Senate inquiry found a “clear conflict of interest” between his two jobs.

CSIRO scientists, meanwhile, were feeling the heat. Graeme Pearman, head of the atmospheric research division, described how he was reprimanded for daring to join the WWF-affiliated Australian Climate Group.

He told the Age that he had been admonished by his Canberra superiors for “making public expressions of what I believed were scientific views, on the basis that they were deemed to be political views”.

The meddling continued. Barney Foran, a 30-year CSIRO veteran, said his managers told him they had fielded a call from the Prime Minister’s Department suggesting he should say nothing critical about ethanol as an alternative fuel.

While there was a change in mood under Kevin Rudd, CSIRO economist Clive Spash nevertheless found himself attacked in parliament for his doubts about emissions trading.

Things did not improve under Julia Gillard, who presided over further budget cuts and the unexplained departure of Chief Scientist Penny Sackett. Commentators lamented that Australia – unlike the UK and US – does not have a truly independent research council.

The record of the Abbott government is too vivid to need – or bear – repeating. It seems that the relentless disparagement and defunding of science has gained a momentum that the current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, perhaps captive to his backbenchers, cannot halt.

Global patterns

The problem is that while we claim to love science, what we often mean is the kind of science that leads to new production techniques and capacities. But as the US environmental sociologist Alvin Schnaiberg has pointed out, there is another kind of science – one that speaks of the impacts of those production techniques.

The dilemma - captured in the very name of the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation - is not one that we have solved, or look like solving any decade soon.

Although the Australian government’s response to climate advice is woeful, it is not inexplicable or unusual. US climate scientists such as James Hansen, the late Stephen Schneider and Michael Mann have been under sustained attack for more than 20 years (see Mann’s “The Serengeti Strategy” for a brief summary).

Some American scientists have decided to leave and conduct their research elsewhere. Neither have Canadian scientists been immune to attack.

Scientists understandably worry about losing credibility if they enter the public arena.

The Nobel prizewinning chemist Sherwin Rowland poignantly asked:

What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?

Carl Sagan concurred:

Anything else you’re interested in is not going to happen if you can’t breathe the air and drink the water. Don’t sit this one out. Do something.

So yes, we need to march for science, and more besides. This is an “all hands on deck, every single day” situation, which calls on us to act locally and creating pressure for some real action at last from our political leaders.

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