The news that Australia’s federal science agency plans to cut as many as 350 climate science research jobs is being met with worldwide condemnation from the climate science community.
The cuts, which are planned for the country's Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), are based on the organization's new director's reasoning that climate change is proven and needs fewer research dollars and assets going forward.
The latest expression of alarm comes in the form of a letter to the Australian government and CSIRO governing board from at least 2,800 climate scientists from around the world, which is scheduled to be sent by Thursday morning.
Scientists say that if the cuts go through, it’s going to be impossible for Australia, which is highly vulnerable to climate change-related impacts, such as bushfires and drought, to anticipate and adapt to a changing climate.
In a Feb. 4 staff memo, Larry R. Marshall, the new CSIRO chief executive, revealed the dramatic shift in priorities for the agency. The move surprised many, since the election of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was expected to usher in a more climate-friendly federal government, at least in contrast to former prime minister, Tony Abbott, who expressed doubt that manmade global warming existed.
Marshall has no background in science research. Instead, he was previously the managing director of Southern Cross Ventures, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, and he is bringing that experience with him to lead an agency whose core function is to pursue basic science research.
Marshall has even brought the Silicon Valley lingo to the research agency.
In his memo he stated: “Indeed, just like a startup, our nation needs to re-invent itself (pivot) in order to navigate a new and uncertain future.”
“CSIRO pioneered climate research … But we cannot rest on our laurels, that is the path to mediocrity,” he wrote.
On Feb. 8, Marshall tried to correct the record on the size and purpose of the staff cuts, which reportedly caught the country’s chief science advisor and other officials off guard.
He said the oceans and atmosphere unit will have about 355 staff members after the cuts, down from about 420. Reports from within CSIRO and outside the agency indicate the entire climate science division may be on the chopping block, and there is continued speculation about the size of the cuts despite the Feb. 8 statement.
Marshall said Australia will continue to maintain an ocean observing platform known as the Argo network that provides key data on temperature and ocean salinity, among other observational assets.
He again indicated that climate science is not a core subject area that CSIRO should be focusing on, at least in terms of basic research.
"No one is saying climate change is not important, but surely mitigation, health, education, sustainable industries, and prosperity of the nation are no less important,” he wrote.
Scientists speak out
In response to the CSIRO cuts, more than 2,800 climate scientists from around the world have signed on to a letter condemning the moves. The letter, organized by Paul Durack, a researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, states that it will be delivered to the prime minister and his cabinet, as well as other government leaders and the CSIRO governing board.
Image: ullstein bild/Getty Images
The letter, a draft of which was shared with Mashable, labels the proposed cuts “devastating” and says it 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 letter warns that beyond the fact that global warming is mainly the result of manmade emissions of greenhouse gases, much of climate science has yet to be firmly established.
“Instead, a concerted, urgent and laser-focused effort is required by the international climate research community as a whole, to fully understand and prepare for pervasive climate change impacts,” the letter states.
The draft letter, as well as conversations between Mashable and a half-dozen leading climate scientists, makes clear that Australia plays a major role in world climate research, particularly in three areas: climate modeling, El Niño-related research and prediction, and ocean observations.
“I am appalled at the cuts being proposed,” said Kevin Trenberth, a climate researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, in an email to Mashable.
Trenberth views climate change research as a three-legged stool, with the first two legs getting the most attention: how to combat global warming and adapt to its impacts. The third leg, though, is also necessary, which is “the need for information on what to adapt to,” Trenberth said.
The cuts would target that crucial third leg, he said.
David Carlson, the director of the World Climate Research Program in Geneva, told Mashable in an interview that cutting climate research now, so soon after nations agreed to step up climate action and research in Paris in December, is akin to “finally agreeing you’re going to start your car and take a trip in a positive direction, and then throwing away your maps.”
The WCRP sent its own letter to the Australian government expressing concern about the climate research cuts.
Carlson is a signatory to the broader draft letter as well. This letter warns that if the cuts to CSIRO’s oceans and atmosphere research program go through, “the Southern Hemisphere will be left with no sustainable, world-class climate modelling capability” and large portions of the hemisphere will go unmonitored.
“Measurements that underpin climate research are irreplaceable and invaluable,” the letter states. “If observing and modeling capacity is lost, so too is Australia and the world’s ability to understand and prepare for climate change.”
Richard Alley, a geologist who studies climate change at Penn State University, told Mashable that a failure to continue investing in climate and weather research could leave Australia more vulnerable to crop failures and other disasters.
"Knowing what is coming gives us a chance to respond wisely," he said.
"Agriculture, fisheries, transportation, power systems, and much more are improved with knowledge of short-term and long-term opportunities and risks from weather and climate. Global projections are informative, but there is much to be done in bringing the knowledge back home and making it useful."
One area where CSIRO cuts may hit hard concerns efforts to better understand the Southern Ocean.
The Southern Ocean was until recently a massive blind spot for climate scientists, and is only now becoming understood as a linchpin in the global climate system, cycling heat, nutrients and carbon dioxide between the air and ocean, and transporting them thousands of miles away.
“The Southern Ocean, that’s our window on the climate system,” Carlson said.
A multi-year research effort involving CSIRO’s assets is underway to better understand the dynamics at play in this vast, stormy region, and how they affect far-flung areas of the world.
Australia will be 'flying blind'
In interviews, climate scientists told Mashable that if Australia goes through with the cuts, the country will essentially be flying blind when making infrastructure and development decisions, since it won’t have the climate information needed for anticipating how climate impacts will alter the landscape.
Image: Argo information center
“It’s extremely dangerous to separate out basic research from its use in applications … whether it’s environmental impacts or health or the economy,” said Lisa Goddard, the director of the International Institute for Research on Climate and Society at Columbia University, which specializes in climate prediction.
Goddard warned of a potential “brain drain” of Australian climate experts to other countries that are investing more in such research.
Carlson said the global climate science community is not able to easily withstand a loss of as many as 300 climate research positions, along with the data those people were gathering.
“We’re not that deep and we’re not that flush,” he said, “so to see a piece of it drop out like this is startling.”
“Right now I don’t know anyone that’s hiring 20 or 50 climate scientists,” Carlson said. “It’s not like there’s automatically a place where they could go.”
Carlson said it’s possible that Australia and other countries could mistakenly conclude that the Paris Agreement means the climate issue is on its way to being solved, so research dollars can then be shifted, since so many questions and information needs remain.
He added that many climate scientists have pointed out that the Paris Agreement contains emissions reduction commitments that fall far short of the stated goal of keeping global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial conditions.
“It would be ironic if one of the side effects of the Paris agreement was this sense that we’ve solved something and we need to move on,” Carlson said.