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Climate politics ‘more like religion’, says CSIRO boss

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The CEO of Australia’s peak scientific research body, the CSIRO, has described Australia’s national climate change discussion as “more like religion than science,” a week after announcing hundreds of job cuts to the organisation that will effectively gut its world-leading climate research team.

Larry Marshall – a former venture capitalist – is said to be driving sweeping cultural change at CSIRO, and has argued that the “staff renewal” will help the organisation pursue goals of being more innovative, more impactful and aligning more closely with industry.

But the strategy – which targets as many as 110 positions in CSIRO’s Oceans and Atmosphere division, and a similar number in the Land and Water division – has met with fierce resistance and savage criticism from within industry ranks, even prompting comments from Australia’s new chief scientist, Alan Finkel.

In his opening statement at Wednesday’s Senate Estimates Committee hearing, Finkel said that Australia’s most immediate concern was “to ensure… that the climate modelling capabilities developed by the CSIRO will continue to be made available for scientists to use and refine.”

But Marshall told the ABC on Thursday he will not back down from his decision to restructure the organisation, even though the backlash had made him feel like an “early climate scientist in the ’70s fighting against the oil lobby.”

“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,” he said.

“For that to happen, 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,” he said.

But this sort of reasoning was a key focus of the backlash from scientists, who said it showed a fundamental lack of understanding about climate science.

“Paris did not determine whether or not climate change is happening, scientists who generate and study big data did. The big question now, which underlies all climate adaptation work, is “How is the climate changing?” That answer will once again be determined by those scientists who gather climate data and model it,” said Penny Sackett – an adjunct professor at the ANU’s Climate Change Institute, and a former Australian Chief Scientist – last week.

The president of the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (AMOS), Associate Professor Todd Lane, said “climate science is not solved – out to the year 2030 most of the uncertainty in climate projections is due to uncertainty about the ways to represent some physical processes in climate models.

“We know that the risks associated with extreme weather and climate events increases disproportionately as the globe warms. Cutting funding in this area now doesn’t make any sense.”  

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  • Chris Fraser

    In addition to the climate work, they could design an EV we can manufacture here, make money on that investment, and then subsidise more climate work. We can dream …

  • Jennifer Gow

    Larry Marshall defines himself as an entrepreneur not a scientist. it seems that he was appointed by the Abbott government with very specific “riding instructions” in relation to climate research. He is doing what he was appointed for.

  • Ron Horgan

    Abbotts conservative policy of wrecking renewables continues. Turnbull looks like Peacock , pretty but useless.

  • Peter Campbell

    It’s not just the direct climate modelling and monitoring that is being cut back; it’s ‘public good’ research generally – ecological work, urban sustainability, social science etc. – in favour of work that might lead to intellectual property that can be sold to people to make widgets that can attract direct private funding. No matter that better understanding locally specific details of climate change would lead to application in better planning decisions that result in long-term economic benefit.

  • Chris Drongers

    innovative work in coal mining and burning – industry funded.

    • solarguy

      We can make this stupidity go away this coming federal election by not voting for the incumbent morons.

  • Chris Drongers

    Lets see?
    Defund climate modelling so less/imprecise knowledge of how hot/dry/windy an area will become
    In face of uncertainty,
    – apply 4x engineering safety margin instead of 2x, bigger cost but hey we haven’t wasted money finding out what is actually going to happen
    – Close Cape Grim CO2 monitoring and interpolate to fill in blank of world coverage, don’t worry that various bits of the world mix and change at different rates
    – Defund forest and catchment monitoring and research; the farmers and water companies will know soon enough when they have run out of water and the premium cost for urgent action rather than staged early action will be funded from the savings from not being able to predict what is going on
    – breed magic crops that need less water (don’t know how much less) and grow in hotter climates (don’t know how much hotter)
    – build homes, factories, offices to be energy efficient in all possible climates – cyclones might reach Melbourne before houses being built now become life expired so cyclone rate all construction in Australia

  • John McKeon

    > ‘“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,” he [Larry Marshall] said.’

    When I heard this on the radio this morning I almost had an accident. Actually I thought the radio journalist quoted Marshall as saying that the “climate lobby” is almost more like a religion than a science. How many people suffered ‘coffee snorts’ over their keyboards?

    I must find out his exact words. If this was his angle than I have to say “God help us”.

    If there is any “religion” in the ARTIFICIAL debate about climate change FOMENTED by the fossil fuel lobby (their Merchants of Doubt campaign), it is amongst the merchants of doubt themselves, intimately mixed up with “free” market ideology, but really about keeping fossil fuels hanging on by “its” fingernails.

    I’ll bet my bottom dollar Larry is in it for them.

  • trackdaze

    We’ve now had an apology from csiro boss.

    Although regretable’i didn’t have too much of an issue with the cuts/repurposing. The issue was these actions were accompanied by comments that perhaps exposed the true nature of the reason.

    I hope that’s not the case.

  • John McKeon

    Unfortunately it sounds like Larry “venture capitalist” Marshall is a “Market Good, Government Bad” ideological zombie.

  • onesecond

    Oh Australia, how much dumber can it get? It is embarrassing to watch.

  • DogzOwn

    Another Abbott legacy of fantasy that research needs to earn it’s own keep. Last report I saw was that even in holy grail USA, more than 80% of patents are from public sector folks, with many of the balance from crackpots. Malcolm, please discard Wally Marshall.

  • Miles Harding

    The current dismantling of the CSIRO is a continuation of a process started by the Abbott government, when the words “Sustainability” and “Climate Change” were erased from the organisation. It was very bad for those unfortunate departments with both of these in their names.

    If anything, the religiosity of climate change is largely in the domain of the denialists and contrarians, who, like creationists, maintain their beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The scientists merely state and re-state their observations and evidence.

    It seems to me that the religious transformation occuring within the CSIRO is to that of the worship of the dollar in the church of the born again banker. Not dissimilar to the university sector.

    This brave new world of fiscal fundamentalism leaves no place for those questions that don’t show an immediate profit. Unfortunately for all of us, those questions are of vital long term importance to all life on earth. Failing to answer these puts all of civilization at great risk.

    The present direction of the CSIRO is about as reckless as it gets and leads me to question the fitness of Larry Marshall to lead the organisation.