Will Steffen. CSIRO and climate change: Making policy based on myths

Feb 28, 2016

The recently announced cuts to CSIRO climate science have stunned the Australian research community and sent shockwaves through the international climate research system. Claims and counter-claims are flying around the media, the cybersphere, Senate estimates, and elsewhere.

To cut through the claims that are being made in support of the CSIRO’s leadership to gut the Organization’s climate research capacity, a good round of myth-busting is required.

Myth One: The science is settled and now we need to get on with the job of mitigation.

The “science is settled” comment has been completely misrepresented by Larry Marshall, the CEO of CSIRO. It refers to the false claims made by deniers about the fundamental reality of climate change and its causes. Yes, THAT science is settled and has been for decades.

We are dealing with arguably the most complex problem that humanity has ever faced. We are eroding the integrity of our own planetary life support system at an accelerating rate. However, the Earth is the most complex system that we have ever dealt with. There is much more that needs to be known about the responses of the Earth System to our expanding pressures so that we can make sensible decisions on how to cope with the mess we are creating.

Cutting essential climate science now is like flying into an intensifying storm and ripping the radar, navigation instruments and communication systems out the plane.

Myth Two: There are no cuts to CSIRO climate science; the money is just being put towards forecasting instead.

There are clear cuts to CSIRO climate science capacity, in fact over 100 jobs are planned to be cut from the agency’s climate science staff. CSIRO needs this staffing capacity to undertake vital research like climate model development, improving sea level rise projections and their underpinning processes, understanding the carbon cycle, tracking how oceanic and atmospheric circulation is changing, monitoring the changing nature of extreme weather events, researching ocean acidification and regularly updating greenhouse gas data.

Put simply, we can’t accurately or effectively mitigate or adapt to climate change without the most up-to-date climate science, which includes ongoing improvements in understanding how the climate is change through observations, process studies, analyses, model development, synthesis and integration, and tailoring knowledge to the needs of user groups.

To be clear, in a rapidly changing climate where the nature of risks is constantly changing, ongoing research is required to continually improve our knowledge base. It is essential to understand and monitor how the climate is changing in order to ensure we understand the evolving nature and extent of the challenge facing Australia.

This is why it makes no sense to say we can just ‘put money towards forecasting instead’. That would leave us totally in the dark, trying to respond to a problem without the constantly updating data and process understanding that we need to track and understand the problem.

Myth Three: The Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) will just take on the workload. Climate modelling and climate forecasting are already performed by BoM and these results are shared between the CSIRO and BoM.

BoM cannot take on the workload created by the CSIRO cuts, and should not be expected to do so. The CSIRO, BoM and the universities all contribute to climate science in different, complementary ways. They rely on each other to provide mutual support for the research effort.

BoM focuses strongly on long-term observations of the climate and water systems, and provides short-to-medium range forecasting. The modelling framework that is used by BoM is essentially the same weather/climate model structure that is also used by the CSIRO for multi-decadal and century-scale projections.

However, the modelling framework is continuously developed and improved primarily by CSIRO scientists, drawing on BoM observations and fundamental process studies carried out at the universities. It must be emphasised that CSIRO plays the leading role in model development and improvement.

Scientific capacity in all three primary sectors of the Australian climate science community – BoM, CSIRO and the universities – has not been able to keep up with the demand for new understanding due to resource constraints, despite the urgent need for a better understanding of climate change. So there is absolutely no “slack” in the system that can take on the enormous workload that has suddenly appeared from the CSIRO cuts, either in BoM or in the universities.

The CSIRO cuts represent vital capacity lost, not capacity that can be taken up elsewhere under existing resourcing.

It has taken decades of hard work by dedicated researchers to build up CSIRO’s international reputation for world-class science that contributes to the wellbeing of all Australians. This capacity can be destroyed overnight. Apparently, Larry Marshall, the CSIRO leadership and the Australian Government are intent on doing so.

Will Steffen is an Emeritus Professor at the ANU and a councillor with the Climate Council of Australia.

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