Almost 3000 scientists from more than 60 countries have condemned Australia’s key government science agency over plans that would “decimate” its climate change research capabilities.
The open letter, delivered to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his ministers on Thursday evening, warns the cuts would leave the Southern Hemisphere “with no sustainable, world-class climate modelling capability.”
Since news of the cuts at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) emerged last week, leading scientists and institutions from across the world have attacked the plans.
CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall told staff in an email that the agency wanted to shift the focus of its Oceans and Atmosphere division away from climate change monitoring and modelling because the science of climate change was now “proved.”
His claimed justification for the cuts have been roundly criticised by current and former staff CSIRO staff members.
On Thursday, Marshall joined senior CSIRO bosses in a scheduled appearance before an Australian Senate Committee, where he was grilled over the plans. Climate scientists attending a major conference in Melbourne broke off from proceedings to crowd around a televsion to watch Marshall give evidence.
During the hearing, CSIRO clarified that as well as a shift in focus the oceans division would see a net loss of 65 jobs, although the plans and the cuts had not been finalized.
Australian Dr Paul Durack, a leading climate scientist who works at the US government-funded Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and who helped co-ordinate the open letter, said:
The letter, also sent to other key Australian ministers, politicians and members of the CSIRO board, says:
The response by the global climate community has been a very prompt and very consistent condemnation of the proposed CSIRO/Australian actions to slash the climate research capability. It has been an overwhelming, but on reflection unsurprising international response.
The climate community deeply cares about the future, and knows better than most what we need to do as a global community to get there in good shape.
The proposed cuts undermine Australia's primary climate capability that is required more now than ever to best frame the climate change problem. You can't plan for and adapt to what you don't know and understand, and turning the lights out is really not a step in a forward-thinking direction.
At Thursday’s Senate hearing, Marshall said he had been “very surprised” by the international reaction to the plans. Marshall, who spent 25 years working on tech start-up companies and as a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, also apologised for an earlier comment he made comparing climate science to religion.
The decision to decimate a vibrant and world-leading research program shows a lack of insight, and a misunderstanding of the importance of the depth and significance of Australian contributions to global and regional climate research.
The capacity of Australia to assess future risks and plan for climate change adaptation crucially depends on maintaining and augmenting this research capacity.
“I think there's a lot of emotion in this debate,” Marshall told the ABC. “In fact, it almost sounds more like religion than science to me.”
The open letter also questions whether the moves break promises made at the Paris climate change talks, where Australia joined more than 190 other countries in agreeing that global warming should be kept “well below 2C”.
As part of that agreement, nations promised to continue to strengthen scientific knowledge on climate change “in a manner that informs climate services and supports decision-making.” The letter says the planned CSIRO cuts would “severely curtail” Australia's ability to meet its Paris promises.
The World Meteorological Association (WMO) said earlier this week the CSIRO cuts had sent “shockwaves” through the global climate science community.
David Carlson, Director of the WMO’s World Climate Research Programme, wrote:
The CSIRO agency, which employs more than 5000 people, has been the target of funding cuts in recent years from the conservative-led government. Marshall took up the role as CSIRO’s new boss in January 2015 and has said he wants the agency to focus more on innovation.
These cuts will sever vital linkages with Australian colleagues and to essential Southern Hemisphere data sources, linkages that connect Australia to the UK, the USA, New Zealand, Japan, China and beyond. Australia will find itself isolated from the community of nations and researchers devoting serious attention to climate change.
When the latest round of cuts was announced in April 2014, the CSIRO’s staff association said one-in-ten jobs had gone since 2013.
To try and recoup costs, CSIRO’s marine research vessel the RV Investigator has been hired out to oil companies BP and Chevron.
Both firms are prospecting for oil and gas in the “frontier” waters of the Great Australian Bight.
Image: Larry Marshall gives evidence to a Seante committee over planned cuts to the CSIRO's climate research