For many years politicians said, “We’re not even sure climate change is real, so why should we waste money studying it?”
And seemingly overnight, the message has become, “Now that we know climate change is real, we can stop studying it.”
Don’t believe me? This is what Larry Marshall, the chief executive of Australia’s federal science agency CSIRO, wrote in an email to staff earlier this month:
Our climate models are among the best in the world and our measurements honed those models to prove global climate change. That 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?
And then he cut 110 of the 140 climate research jobs in CSIRO’s Oceans and Atmosphere division.
Larry’s statement on its own is perfectly reasonable, but as justification for cutting basic research it is nonsensical. As Andy Pitman, the director of my research centre, responded, “What he fails to realise is that to answer these new questions, you need the same climate scientists!”
Luckily climate scientists are a tough bunch, and we don’t take shit like this lying down.
Why CSIRO matters
There’s not very many people in the Southern Hemisphere, and certainly not very many people studying the climate. Australia is really the only Southern Hemisphere country with the critical mass of population and wealth to pull off a significant climate research programme. And historically, Australia has done this very well. I can attest that the climate modelling community is larger and more active in Australia than it is in Canada, despite Canada’s population being about 50% higher.
Some of this research is done in universities, mainly funded by Australian Research Council grants. I’m a part of this system and I love it – we have the freedom to steer our research in whatever direction we think is best, rather than having someone from the government tell us what we can and can’t study. But there isn’t very much stability. Projects are typically funded on a 3-5 year timeline, and with a success rate around 20% for most grant applications, you can never be sure how long a given project will continue. You wouldn’t want to be the official developers of a climate model in an environment like that. You certainly wouldn’t want to be in charge of a massive network of observations. And that is why we need governmental research organisations like CSIRO.
Right now CSIRO hosts the ACCESS model (Australian Community Climate and Earth-System Simulator) which is used by dozens of my friends and colleagues. ACCESS has a good reputation – I particularly like it because it simulates the Southern Ocean more realistically than just about any CMIP5 model. I think this is because it’s pretty much the only contribution to CMIP5 from the Southern Hemisphere. Even if a model is ostensibly “global”, the regions its developers focus on tend to be close to home.
The official ACCESS developers at CSIRO distribute new releases of the code, collect and resolve bug reports, organise submissions to model intercomparison projects like CMIP5, and continually work to improve model efficiency and performance. Some of this work is done in collaboration with the Bureau of Meteorology, the National Computational Infrastructure, the UK Met Office (which provides the atmosphere component of the model), and researchers at Australian universities. But CSIRO is the backbone of ACCESS, and it’s unclear what will happen to the model without its core development team. The Bureau and the universities simply will not be able to pick up the slack.
[It’s] completely understandable that someone who’s spent 20 years, for example, studying climate change, measuring climate change or modelling climate change, it’s perfectly understandable that they don’t want to stop doing that and we must respect that, and we must find a place for them in the rest of the innovation system, perhaps in an university.
In his letter to staff, Larry Marshall wrote that he wants CSIRO to focus on (among other things) “our management of the oceans, climate adaptation, climate interventions (geo-engineering), [and] emergency response to extreme events”. It’s clear that he wants climate research to move away from the question “Are we really, really, really sure that climate change is real?” and more towards “How will climate change impact us and what can we do about it?” Again, I completely agree. But here’s the thing, Larry: We’re already doing that. The research program that you want to eliminate is already evolving into the research program you want to replace it with.
Climate science is evolving in this manner all over the world, not just at CSIRO. Try publishing a paper that concludes “Yes, humans are changing the climate” and see how far you get. Your reviewers will almost certainly respond with “Is that all?” and hit reject. Papers like that were a big deal in the 80s and the 90s. But by now we’ve moved on to more interesting questions.
For example, I’m using ocean models to study how the Southern Ocean might melt the Antarctic Ice Sheet from the bottom up. I’m not doing this to “prove” climate change – how could I even do that in this context? – but to get a better understanding of how much and how fast the sea level will rise over the next few centuries. If we’re going to have to move Miami, Shanghai, New York, and countless other major coastal cities, it would be good to have a few decades’ notice. And we won’t have that kind of notice unless we understand what Antarctica’s doing, through a network of observations (to see what it’s doing right now) and modelling studies (to predict what it might do next).
Without measuring and modelling, our attempts at adaptation and mitigation will be shots in the dark. “The one thing that makes adaptation really difficult is uncertainty,” writes journalist Michael Slezak. “If you don’t know what the climate will be like in the future – whether it will be wetter or dryer, whether cyclones will be more or less frequent – then you can’t prepare. You cannot adapt for a future that you don’t understand.”
Someone’s going to have to convince me that measuring and modelling is far more important than mitigation – and at this point you know, none of my leadership believe that.
Scientists fight back!
My colleagues at CSIRO are having a difficult month. They know that most of them will lose their jobs, or their supervisors will lose their jobs, and that they may have to leave Australia to find another job. But they won’t know who’s staying and who’s going until early March – a full month after the announcement was first made. Due to Larry’s lack of consultation on this decision, the CSIRO staff are reportedly considering industrial action.
The really maddening part of this whole situation is that climate science was specifically targeted. Of the 350 job losses across CSIRO – which studies all kinds of things, not just climate science – 110 were to the climate unit of the Oceans and Atmosphere department, and a similar number to Land and Water. It wouldn’t be so insulting if CSIRO was trimming down a little bit everywhere to cope with its budget cuts. Instead, they’re directly targeting – and essentially eliminating – climate science. “”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,” Larry wrote in response to mounting criticism. So are we going to cut all of those research programs too?
Climate scientists are rather battle-hardened after so many years of personal attacks by climate change deniers, and everyone jumped into action following CSIRO’s announcement. At the annual meeting of the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society the following week, the attendees organised a bit of a demonstration. It’s not often that the Sydney Morning Herald publishes a photo of “angry scientists”:
(I know just about everyone in this photo. The guy front and centre shares a cubicle with me. Hi Stefan!)
Then scientists from outside Australia started to get involved. The normally-staid World Climate Research Program released an official statement condemning CSIRO’s decision. “Australia will find itself isolated from the community of nations and researchers devoting serious attention to climate change,” they warned.
A few days later an open letter, signed by 2800 climate scientists from almost 60 countries, was sent to the CSIRO and the Australian government. “Without CSIRO’s involvement in both climate measurement and modelling, a significant portion of the Southern Hemisphere oceans and atmosphere will go unmonitored,” the letter warned. You can tell it was written by scientists because it’s complete with references and footnotes, and the signatories are carefully organised both alphabetically and by country.
We’re not sure if our efforts will make any difference. We’ll find out next month whether or not these cuts really will go ahead. Media coverage of this issue has slowed, and there have been no more announcements out of CSIRO. But I suppose we’ve done everything we can.
I feel like the early climate scientists in the ’70s fighting against the oil lobby…I guess I had the realisation that the climate lobby is perhaps more powerful than the energy lobby was back in the ’70s – and the politics of climate I think there’s a lot of emotion in this debate. In fact it almost sounds more like religion than science to me.
Thanks for this blog post regarding climate science; I really enjoyed it and am definitely recommending this blog to my friends and family. I’m a 15 year old with a blog on finance and economics at shreysfinanceblog.com, and would really appreciate it if you could read and comment on some of my articles, and perhaps follow, reblog and share some of my posts on social media. Thanks again for this fantastic post.
Thank you for providing still more proof that ‘homo sapiens sapiens’ ought to be renamed ‘homo fatuus brutus’.
Wow, I misunderstood this whole issue. I thought it was a budget shortfall type of thing. Marshall seems very misguided. I imagine we in the USA will have to worry about a similar exodus of scientists if Donald Trump becomes president.
You are speaking out on behalf of Gaia, our higher self. If you don,t who will?
The known unknowns are substantial. The unknown, unknowns are still there.
If we stop science then we are so much more likely to be completely blindsided. With science we may get to see it coming, whatever it happens to be.
Climate change is likely the biggest threat humanity has ever faced. The more uncertainties can be narrowed, the better able we will be to avoid the one two punches. Without science we are just standing there blindly waiting for what should have been an obvious, easy to avoid,hay-maker.
Climate science is being led either by politics or by the economy. Unfortunately, scientists are in that trap and harmonize their life with politics/economy. If you are really a climate scientist, you can know yourself that the science is at the rudimentary stage. This artistic-science has just set to mimic the climate, not the science to predict. I think you can understand what I am saying if you are a good scientist or you need to dig deeper into the model and know how they are built.
I appreciate you now, kaitlin. I have seen you have influence of others and used to say that humans are causing the change in climate. People should not just say that, but they have to prove it with solid science, which is missing in the present state-of-the-models. Hence, we have to wait to become solid.
I read through your comment looking for some element of real information but couldn’t locate it. You seem to be arguing that since climate science uses models, it isn’t real science.
For your information, all science uses models. And, no climate model no matter how simple results in earth cooling when significant amounts of greenhouse gases are added to the atmosphere. The GHG forcing right now is about 2% of solar insolation reaching the earth’s surface.
Climate is the result of the interaction of several physical processes. I am not specifically talking about the climate models, but it is about how much we understood basic research about the climate.
I don’t want to go deeper into this, but I wanna ask you one question and its analysis may provide answer to your questions. When we have progressed and understood the underlying processes of the climate, why do different models show different results?
Finally, my contention is that the research community is overlooking the basic science, which is more important at the present stage, but trying to do applied research with insufficient science.
PS. Hope you are modeler and you see the model reference for the mathematical equations to know it the model is built !!! My analysis confirmed what I said in the previous comment. Thank you
No one saw this coming? Or did they see the encroaching water and choose to ignore.
“For example, I’m using ocean models to study how the Southern Ocean might melt the Antarctic Ice Sheet from the bottom up. I’m not doing this to “prove” climate change – how could I even do that in this context? – but to get a better understanding of how much and how fast the sea level will rise over the next few centuries. If we’re going to have to move Miami, Shanghai, New York, and countless other major coastal cities, it would be good to have a few decades’ notice. And we won’t have that kind of notice unless we understand what Antarctica’s doing, through a network of observations (to see what it’s doing right now) and modelling studies (to predict what it might do next).”
Specifically you say, “…it would be good to have a few decades’ notice.”
Would it? Look at New Orleans, Louisiana.
Its average elevation is 0.5 meters below sea level. Some parts of the city are several meters below sea level. People are building higher levees, not moving to higher ground. As long as there is tax money to rebuild after each disaster, people will stay for more disasters.
Without pumps New York City’s subway tunnels would flood within hours or days. With decades of advance notification will New Yorkers pack up and move to higher ground? More likely they will consult Venetians.
> from the bottom up
Now you’re worrying me. I thought I was making this stuff up to mock the worse-than-credible scrabblers, and the science caught up and bit me.
When I first read “Apparently climate science can stop now”, I smugly thought to myself, “At least we have NASA in the USA.” But now it is reported under President Trump, NASA may change direction and spin off earth monitoring programs to other agencies, perhaps de-funding or under-funding climate monitoring and research.
Opinion: “Earth, the Final Frontier”
by Adam Frank, Professor of Astrophysics, University of Rochester
NY Times, December 2, 2016
I am now just a retired old man, but I counted on the USA to be a leader in the effort to understand and to address global climate change. Any constructive ideas on what we ordinary people may do personally about this?
The Trump administration will work diligently to insure there’s no future for future generations.
Climate science is important, as its changing day by day. Now the farming based country is getting effected. Very soon the Foni created in Indian Ocean badly affected the mango farmaers of Satkhira Bangladesh.