CSIRO scientists decry ‘mind-boggling’ climate cuts

By Gayathri Vaidyanathan | 02/08/2016 09:30 AM EST

With an ax rather than a scalpel, Australia’s federal science agency last week chopped off its climate research arm in a decision that has stunned scientists and left employees dispirited.

With an ax rather than a scalpel, Australia’s federal science agency last week chopped off its climate research arm in a decision that has stunned scientists and left employees dispirited.

As many as 110 out of 140 positions at the atmosphere and oceans division at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) will be cut, Larry Marshall, the agency’s chief executive, told staff Friday. Another 120 positions will be cut from the land and water program. Across the agency, 350 climate staff will be moved into new roles unrelated to their specialty.

Scientists say the cuts would affect Australia’s ability to cope with climate change. The nation is already the driest on Earth and experiencing significant shifts in rainfall. It would leave the global research community disabled, since CSIRO ran the Southern Hemisphere’s most comprehensive Earth monitoring and modeling programs. And it would leave young climate scientists at CSIRO without direction.

Larry Marshall
Larry Marshall, executive director of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia’s federal scientific body, believes climate science is settled. So he is cutting 75 percent of climate research jobs. | Photo courtesy of CSIRO.

"I’m saddened for climate science itself, for services to Australia, and particularly for the younger scientists who are just starting to make their mark in this important area," said John Church, an oceanographer at CSIRO and a world-renowned expert on sea-level rise.

Another CSIRO scientist termed the situation "depressing." Most CSIRO scientists requested anonymity, since employees cannot discuss government policies under the terms of their contracts.

"The situation is very bad here," the scientist said. "Eighty percent of our climate capability will be gone; it is clear that climate modeling will be cut completely."

CSRIO is a federally funded research agency akin to NASA in the United States. Its climate change program is the largest in the nation and the most advanced in the Southern Hemisphere, a part of the world that is 80 percent ocean and is home to 12 percent of the world’s population. The bottom half of the planet has historically been understudied, a problem because gaps in monitoring the Southern Hemisphere mean gaps in understanding the global climate. CSIRO began filling in some gaps in the 1970s.

"This is not about just Australia," another CSIRO scientist said. "Australia plays a very important role in measurements in the Southern Hemisphere."

Fate of CO2 records unknown

In southwest Tasmania, at Cape Grim, CSIRO scientists have collected continuous readings of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere since the 1970s. The CO2 record, together with readings from Mauna Loa, Hawaii, and Barrow, Alaska, are a confirmation of humanity’s dominion over the climate. It is unclear if these measurements will continue, Church of CSIRO said.

The only other detailed long-term CO2 record in the Southern Hemisphere is from the South Pole, said Ralph Keeling, an atmospheric scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, who oversees the Mauna Loa CO2 monitoring station.

"It is mind-boggling," Keeling said. "The Cape Grim observatory is a premier site, which is sustaining some of the most important long-term records of climate that exist on the planet."

Also in danger, Church said, are long-term observations of ocean, atmosphere and weather processes in the Southern Hemisphere. These are used to refine global climate models, which are algorithmic representations of the planet’s climate.

CSIRO’s scientists began building theirs in 1981 and have honed it to represent the Southern Hemisphere and Australia’s climate at particularly high resolution. There are two dozen other climate models, developed in the United States and Europe, but they have a Northern Hemisphere focus.

When scientists want to know if an extreme weather event, such as heat waves, would become more frequent in Australia with climate change, they query models. These project which parts of Australia would likely be affected in a warmer world. CSIRO’s climate modeling program will be cut.

"Australia is ground zero for climate change," a CSIRO scientist said. "In order to adapt, you need climate models that are going to tell us what you need to adapt to, where you need to adapt, and by when you need to adapt."

Settled science?

CSIRO’s climate programs have been in trouble since at least May 2014, when the then-conservative government cut the agency’s budget by $111 million. Almost 1,000 positions were eliminated, including in the climate departments.

Marshall, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, became CSIRO’s CEO in Jan. 2015 and immediately announced that CSIRO would focus on innovation over basic science. Marshall and CSIRO representatives did not respond to ClimateWire‘s request for comment by deadline.

When Malcolm Turnbull became Australia’s prime minister in September last year, replacing a pro-energy predecessor, environmentalists rejoiced. But Turnbull’s government has also emphasized science that can be easily commercialized, according to media reports.

In December, CSIRO’s management audited the atmosphere and oceans program for its commercial potential.

"We were having a hard time in demonstrating the capacity to be commercially valuable," one CSIRO scientist said. "Not that climate science can’t demonstrate incredible economic value to society by helping to adapt and reduce damages and risks, but that’s not the kind of economics that the new CEO and the government is going after."

The internal assessment was that perhaps dozens of jobs might be at risk, the scientist said.

On Feb. 3, Marshall wrote in a memo that CSIRO would henceforth focus on commercially viable projects. The next day, during a staff meeting, he said all climate change programs would be cut. Staff would be transferred into other programs, so there would not be job losses, he said.

Marshall wrote in the memo that climate change is now settled science, and basic research is no longer needed.

"The question has been answered, and the new question is what do we do about it, and how can we find solutions for the climate we will be living with," he wrote.

CSIRO would now focus on a path where "climate and industry can be partners, now we must walk that path to prove our science."

‘Business first’

Climate scientists rebuked Marshall’s understanding of climate change science and its importance.

Church said that the work at CSIRO is critical to understanding the climate change agreement that nations signed in Paris last year. While it is now certain that humans are altering the planet, scientists are still coloring in the shapes of the changes to come, he said.

"What do the targets from the Paris agreement mean? What do they mean regionally? Are we on track for these targets, or in fact, are we going to end up at some higher level? Are countries actually reporting emissions correctly?"

The reorganization was an internal CSIRO decision, and Turnbull and his staff were unaware of the decision, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. But since CSIRO is a government-funded agency, the events may affect how Australia is perceived globally, said Erwin Jackson, deputy CEO of the Climate Institute.

"It doesn’t help the perception that the government isn’t serious about climate change," he said. "If we want a good policy outcome that protects people, communities and our economy, then we need to be revaluating and ensuring that we have the capacity to understand and manage climate change risks."

Marshall has said that no one would be fired and the staff would be redistributed. Parallels could be drawn to the shutdown of CSIRO’s sustainable ecosystems division in 2009. About 50 social scientists were moved into an unrelated division headed by an insect expert. The economist, Clive Spash, is now at the Vienna University of Economics and Business.

"Climate science becomes secondary to business; business comes first," Spash said. "The interests of the corporate sector, of the mining and resource extraction industry, are primary in Australia."