To learn that an entrepreneurial approach is now being applied to the CSIRO, and that its emphasis — its workforce, its scientists — will be moved (or replaced) from climate and environmental data gathering and analysis to concentrate on mitigation and adaptation drawing from “big data” is nothing short of tragic.

The study of anthropogenic climate change — climate change caused by humanity polluting the atmosphere with carbon and other greenhouse gases — is the study of a process of “change”. It does not conveniently stop at any point in time so we can come up with solutions that we can commercialise for profit.

Our scientific understanding of climate change is improving all the time, thanks to committed scientists all around the world. But if we are to come up with the best ways to try to manage this change in our natural and urban environments, we need to make sure we are doing so in response to the very latest understanding of what is happening — how this climate change is manifesting and how it will behave and impact on our global ecosystems as we move into the future. Because, let’s face it, lives are ultimately at risk if we get this wrong. Lives and — when it comes to those who directly and indirectly dependent on our all-too volatile natural resources base — livelihoods.

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The CSIRO is a world leader in the study of climate change and its findings have been critical in global understanding and the development of possible responses to it.

The CSIRO’s research is vital to Australia because we are one of the nations on the planet with the highest exposure to the effects of climate change. We are already a desertified country and our population is heavily concentrated along the coasts, which are at risk of inundation due to sea level rise and storm surges, as well as the effects of intensifying climate behaviour.

In the email to CSIRO staff, notifying them of the organisation’s looming structural changes, chief executive Dr Larry Marshall stated:

“We have spent probably a decade trying to answer the question, is the climate changing … After Paris that question has been answered. The next question now is what do we do about it. The people that were so brilliant at measuring and modelling [climate change], they might not be the right people to figure out how to adapt to it.”

He goes on to describe the importance of moving into the digital age.

Up to 350 positions may be at stake.

The problem is that the question has not been “answered”. Far from it. If we are to come up with solutions, particularly solutions for the conditions specific to our country, we must continue to develop our understanding of what is happening, how it is happening and to scientifically project what will happen in the future under emerging scenarios. If this is part of a strategy to devote more research to the mitigation of climate change, it does not make sense to discontinue tracking the change, and understanding and projecting its effects.

And as far as Paris goes, Australia has hardly shown itself to be at the front of the pack when it comes to putting words into action. We have a long way to go before we can be considered to be pulling our weight internationally. With our lack of action to date, we are far more likely to be technology takers than technology makers, simply because we will be starting from so far behind — not to mention that are our hulking, aging and inefficient coal-fired power stations are innovation blockers …

If the reports are true, it is utterly reckless to cut hundreds of positions tracking climate change impacts and developing climate solutions. On face value, it would appear to be another blow against sensible, strategic, informed action on climate change in this country. I have spoken to farmers, analysts, policymakers and scientists, all of whom are gobsmacked by this decision — all of whom, on an almost daily basis, draw from the on-ground data and analysis of CSIRO.

It is impossible to manage climate change and come up with options for mitigation and adaptation if you can’t measure it.

We are one of the nations in the world with the highest exposure to the effects of climate change. We are at a critical time where we should be devoting maximum capacity to understanding it – precisely so we can be agile and informed in our ability to respond to it — and to take this response to the world.  CSIRO’s decision, and the federal government funding cuts that have directly or indirectly contributed, need to be urgently revisited.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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