CSIRO Climate Research Cuts Will Cause Dangerous Gaps In Environmental Data Used by Local Governments

Words by: Jonathon Davidson

The heavy flooding which lashed the northern coast of NSW over the weekend has been referred to as a ‘wake up call’ for CSIRO by University of Canberra chair of urban and regional planning Professor Barbara Norman. Speaking to ABC’s 720am, Professor Norman highlighted that in the last 10 years, disregard for coastal erosion planning strategy has become the preferred stance of all political parties across Australia. It was her opinion that money was the main factor driving hesitation (which she admitted came from a place of internal cynicism), but it’s not exactly a difficult sentiment to get on board with.

The recent destruction of coastal homes in Sydney has already brought up questions about whose responsibility it is to pay money when the environment goes wrong. Professor Norman posits that it is the responsibility of State Governments, as these bodies are already responsible for planning regulation. This is where the concern of the ABC interview flowed, but one of Barbara’s side comments slipped away – CSIRO straight up give local councils reliable environmental data, particularly related to coastal erosion. If CSIRO climate divisions continue to disappear, that means there are no more scientists, and if there are no scientists that means there’s no active research being done. What local (and state) governments will then need to do is source this data through a private organisation. This probably won’t happen if science budgets keep getting cut. It is not probable but definite that many smaller localities will be unable to afford the data provided by private research, and this will likely be a long-term issue that extends over decades.

So, in those decades, there is less and less high quality data getting sent out across the web of locales across Australia, leading to an increasingly large vacuum of data. In turn, we will lose track of contemporary climate trends. We will need to look towards overseas research and come up with ways to model that to our own geography. It is unlikely this process will be perfect. When there is no contemporary data, there can be no think tanks, there can be no innovative policy. Strategies will fall behind. People will keep putting up coastal properties and the sea will continue to encroach onto the land. And then, we can repeat the financial burden debate.

And just like that, we have our own little bite-sized dark ages.

Remember, CSIRO is Australia’s “peak” research body, and it is through the facilitation of government funding that CSIRO has produced world-renowned, high quality research in the last few decades, made readily available for all council and state governments nationally. Our research into climate change has been immense, which is why so many people are outraged at the sudden “turnaround” of the last half-decade or so.

It’s not like all of this research has been done, and now needn’t be carried out anymore. We know for a fact that conditions are changing – the storms in Sydney are proof of that. Critics will say that king waves have always been a thing, and that’s true, but never with the sea level at the height it currently is. In short – we need this research to cover our backsides whenever some kind of freak environmental accident occurs. We have homegrown data showing that patterns of extreme weather are only going to increase in the coming decades. You’ll never guess which body carried out that research.

And in the last 2 years, reportedly 1300 jobs have been cut from CSIRO. Debate since April has refused to die down. While the CSIRO are fairly dormant in their media interviews, the CSIRO Staff Association – a kind of quasi-union made up of CSIRO scientists – are less politically submissive, and have largely been the driving source of dissent and outcry trailing the announced cuts going back to February. So far, there have been no official layoffs since the announcement – the potential number of suddenly unemployed scientists hovers at around 400 – but a lot of other things have happened. The CSIRO have established a “band-aid” plan to establish a 40-employee-strong climate research center in Hobart, but it is likely this will do little to solve the larger cuts at hand.

It should also be noted that, tucked down in Tasmania, the CSIRO’s helpfulness to anyone will only extend to the people of Tasmania – although they are currently going through a disastrous flood as I write this, so maybe wise placement.

A select senate committee inquiry into the proposed job cuts has urged governments not to make any changes to CSIRO until after the election. This comes amidst claims that staff were never told of job cuts via official channels, another event in a string of controversies that have followed the new head of CSIRO into his position. This judgement was blasted in a dissenting report. Because the Government is currently in caretaker mode, the senate inquiry is currently in limbo – the 44th Parliament of Australia has ended, and we are waiting for the 45th to resume on July 2. While this is no conspiracy by any means, it can’t be ignored that this plays perfectly into certain hands. Luckily, the hansard transcript is available.

According to the inquiry, the Oceans and Atmosphere division is likely to be hardest hit. Yes, the same Oceans and Atmosphere division responsible for monitoring the steady rise of the sea level over the last thirty years. If you’re struggling to make sense of that decision, you’re now up to date. One can only hope that the presence of two almost simultaneous floods which have devastated two separate regions of Australia will provide some alarm to our campaigning political parties to make coastal planning (and the atmosphere in general) part of the public conversation.

The CSIRO have made the decision to politicise themselves this election, with a recent announcement made by the CSIRO Staff Association that CSIRO would be polling, door knocking, house calling and campaigning on the streets to combat what is becoming an entrenched attack on Australian environmental science funding, largely disregarded by a government populated by churlish aging Australians who have repeatedly advocated loyalty to climate change denial.

The Turnbull government are big on data, but the most important data of all is being cut out.