‘Jaw-dropping’ CSIRO job cuts to ‘gut’ climate science unit

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In further evidence that little has changed in federal climate policy since Tony “the science is crap” Abbott was replaced by Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister of Australia, reports have emerged that hundreds of jobs are to be cut at the nation’s top research facility, the CSIRO.

Fairfax Media reports that, as part of deep job cuts to be announced later today, as many as 110 positions in CSIRO’s Oceans and Atmosphere division will go, with a similar number affected in the Land and Water division.CSIRO-climate-adaption-infographic2

It is believed that this will leave just 30 staff in the organisation’s Oceans and Atmosphere unit, and that they will not be working on climate issues.

“Climate will be all gone, basically,” one senior scientist told Fairfax before the announcement. “We understand both the Prime Minister [Malcolm Turnbull] and the [Science] Minister [Christopher Pyne] have signed off on the cuts.”

The industry response to the job cuts has been one of anger and disappointment, as the realisation dawns that the Coalition’s politics have not changed.

As RenewEconomy editor Giles Parkinson put it on Tuesday, “the Turnbull government has begun 2016 in the same way that the Abbott government started 2014 and 2015; with legislation on the table that calls for the dismantling of the government’s key (climate and renewables) agencies.”

Clive Hamilton, Professor of Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University, put it this way: “CSIRO climate scientists are world class and are researching the most decisive factor that will influence the future of the world. To slash their numbers at a time when the urgency of understanding and responding to climate change has never been greater suggests that the Government does not want to hear the facts. At least Mr Abbott was upfront about his denial of climate science. This new phase is more insidious.”

Andy Pitman, the director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science at the University of NSW, described the scale of the cuts as “jaw-droppingly shocking”.

The president of the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (AMOS), Associate Professor Todd Lane said it was “terrible news” for climate science in Australia.

“(This) threatens our ability to predict future climate and the inherent risks,” Lane said in a statement. “Research at CSIRO is at the core of our climate modelling and monitoring efforts, and is essential for better future climate projections.”

“It’s a catastrophic reduction in our capacity to assess present and future climate change,” Professor Pitman said. “It will leave us vulnerable to future climate change and unable to take advantage of any positives that result.”

While Will Steffen, an Emeritus Professor at ANU and a Climate Councillor at the Climate Council of Australia said it was “deeply disturbing” news.

“We absolutely need to know more about the basic operation of the climate system – how it is changing and how best can we respond to the climate change challenge,” he said in a statement on Thursday. “The health, environmental and economic risks of climate change are just too large to sweep them under the carpet.

“CSIRO is Australia’s premier research organisation in terms of fundamental climate science, and has built a well-deserved international reputation for world-class science that has contributed much to global understanding of climate change.

“It takes decades of hard work by dedicated scientists to build up such a reputation. It can be destroyed overnight by senseless actions by those in power. Very regrettably, this seems to be happening.”

Greens Deputy Leader and climate spokesperson, Senator Larissa Waters said the mass sacking of climate scientists was “the enemy of innovation.”

“The Prime Minister’s speech in Paris about tackling global warming with innovation was all empty rhetoric – he is keeping Abbott’s climate policies and letting the Coalition climate dinosaurs rule,” Waters said in a statement.

“While so many communities across the country are suffering devastating droughts and the horrific aftermath of intense bushfires, the government is firing the climate scientists who can help us prevent and adapt to the extreme weather of global warming. …Australia may lose these exceptional minds to countries with governments that are listening to the science and acting on global warming,” she said.

Greens science spokesman Adam Bandt said the cuts showed Turnbull was “an innovation imposter”.

“In Paris, the Prime Minister said research and innovation are key to dealing with global warming, yet here at home the Liberal government’s cuts to the CSIRO mean that hundreds of climate scientists could be getting the axe,” Bandt said.

“The Coalition’s denialist dinosaurs continue to run the Turnbull government, just as they did under Tony Abbott,” he said.

On Twitter, the reaction has been the same.

The AFR, meanwhile, is reporting that the job “restructure” is part of sweeping cultural change driven by CSIRO’s new CEO, former venture capitalist Larry Marshall.


CSIRO CEO Larry Marshall

In an interview, the paper reports, Marshall said a “renewal” of staff was needed to pursue goals of being more innovative, more impactful and aligning more closely with industry.

And he said that a “worst case scenario” would see around 350 staff be affected.

“That’s the sort of number of people who will have to adapt, not move on,” he said. “It will be up to them and their abilities if they stay and go.

“Staff numbers will stay the same or go up slightly but in order to respond to the new strategy we realise that we need some people with different skills to the ones we already have,” he said.

Further, Marshall said that cuts to the agency’s climate science unit were not necessarily a bad thing.

“We have spent probably a decade trying to answer the question is the climate changing,” he told Fairfax Media.

“After Paris that question has  been answered. The next question now is what do we do about it. The people that were so brilliant at measuring and modelling [climate change], they might not be the right people to figure out how to adapt to it.”

But Penny Sackett – an adjunct professor at the ANU’s Climate Change Institute, and a former Australian Chief Scientist – said she was “stunned” by this reasoning.

“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.

“How can it be that our largest national research organisation chooses not to engage, indeed not to lead, the effort in finding the answer to that question?” she said.

Associate Professor Lane agreed: “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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