Members of the Community and Public Sector Union rally in Brisbane last year. This year will be the 100th anniversary of the body that eventually grew into the CSIRO. Photograph: Dan Peled/AAP
Story written by Michael Slezak, published in the Guardian, Monday 8 February 2016
Chief executive Larry Marshall is right that we need to invest in adaptation, but this requires a proper understanding of how the climate will change.
The decision to gut Australia’s government science agency of climate research may seem hard to fathom. But let’s pause from the hyperventilation of the past week and ask whether there is an underlying logic.
Could the shift from studying how climate changes, to studying ways of mitigating and adapting to climate change, be a good thing?
The CSIRO’s chief executive, Larry Marshall, who is responsible for the decision, has deployed several arguments in defending the move. Let’s take a look at them one by one.
Marshall’s first justification for the shift, as laid out in an email to staff, pointed out that the question of whether climate change was real had been answered. So it was time to move on. He said: Our climate models … [proved] 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?
At the UN climate change conference in Paris last year, the world agreed to try to limit global warming to 2°C, or maybe even 1.5°C. Of course, it looks as though the world will probably warm by much more than that.
Marshall is right that we need to invest in adaptation to these very significant and inevitable changes.
But adapting to climate change will require a proper understanding of how the climate will change.
Humans know how to live in different climates – they are nothing if not adaptable. There is nothing mysterious about how to live in a new climate.
But the one thing that makes adaptation really difficult is uncertainty. 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.
And our uncertainty in how the climate will change is very significant. In 2014, nearly 1,000 of the world’s top climate scientists produced the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. One third of the report – working group two – is all about adaptation. This is the best statement of what we know about how climate change will impact on people and how we should adapt. And the central message of that chapter is that we simply do not know how the climate is going to change in many cases.
We have some idea about how much the average temperature across the surface of the Earth will change. But, as Andy Pitman from the University of New South Wales, tells Guardian Australia: What we don’t know is, over Australia, what the detailed pattern of rainfall change will be, how extremes will change, how much cyclones will intensify, how much heatwaves will intensify and a whole range of other things that are precisely what you need to know in order to adapt. And the closing down of Australia’s climate modelling capacity leaves Australia hopelessly exposed to the range of climate impacts we are likely to experience.
Adapting to different climates isn’t the problem. The problem is that we don’t know what those climates will be.
When challenged with the above concerns, Marshall argues that the CSIRO isn’t needed to do that work because universities are now doing it. On the ABC’s 7.30 program, he said: The good news is most of the universities in this country and around the world have become really good in that area. We’ve disseminated, for example, our unique climate models and shared them with those universities and with the Bureau of Meteorology.
But experts in the field say that argument doesn’t hold up.
Universities are not the same sort of institution as the CSIRO and there is a difference in the sort of projects they are capable of doing.
As Pitman explains, university research is funded by grants, which last for a few years, and so cannot do some of the long-term monitoring and modelling that the CSIRO has done over several decades: A climate model is the fundamental enabling tool that one needs. It’s a million lines of computer code that runs on the biggest supercomputers in the world. Someone has to be the custodian of that code and it has to be someone with permanency in the Australian system … No individual university could hope to be the long-term custodian of a climate model because it’s impossible to guarantee the [continued] funding necessary by any of the competitive grants that universities have access to.
Besides spending three decades developing the capability to model future climates, the CSIRO has, for decades, been key in running one of only three “baseline” atmospheric measuring stations, at Cape Grim in Tasmania. When we heard last year that the world had passed a new milestone of carbon dioxide concentrations, it was, to a significant extent, based on data from Cape Grim and two other stations, both in the northern hemisphere.
David Karoly from the University of Melbourne says it’s also hard for university researchers to get funding for work that helps specific communities. He says competitive grants for academics prioritise projects that answer questions of global significance, which would leave projects like the CSIRO’s Australian Community Climate and Earth System Simulator, which provides better forecasting of fire, cyclones and floods across Australia.
The loss of these capabilities will impact most Australian industries, says Tony Haymet, previously a policy director at the CSIRO and a director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the US: Australian farmers and the fishing industry, the Royal Australian Navy, anyone who lives on the coast and worries about erosion or sea level rise, this is a kick in the guts to them because there are so many stakeholders and users of this CSIRO capability who not only need it now but are going to need it more in the next 30 years.
One of Marshall’s motivations seems to be that the CSIRO should be more like the start-ups, which he would have been accustomed to as a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. In his letter to staff, he said: In Australia we worry a lot about failure and spend too much time analysing rather than doing. Start-ups work faster because they dare to try new things and measure in real time whether they are working, and they are not afraid to change or pivot to deliver the best outcome. We must not be paralysed by our past.
As Marshall hints at, start-ups are built to fail. And the vast majority of them do – up to 90% . Like with natural selection, failure is part of what makes start-ups, in toto, so successful: only the best survive.
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The calculation that makes failure OK for start-ups is that their failure costs relatively little but success has a huge payoff. So the risk is worth it.
The CSIRO, however, is different. This year will be the 100th anniversary of the CSIRO, or at least of the body that eventually grew into the CSIRO. And, despite cuts to its budget, it costs more than a $1bn a year.
Far from anything like a start-up, Dave Schimel, the chief adviser on carbon cycle science at NASA’s jet propulsion lab in California, has described the CSIRO as “a national treasure”.
This group is one of only three or four groups in the world that enable this kind of work to happen … This is a national treasure. From the perspective of an international scientist with a 30 year history of collaboration, this is a little like selling off the library of Congress or the British Museum.
In that context, others point out that “pivoting” – as start-ups do – doesn’t make sense. Haymet said: It’s like shutting down the Australian cricket team, saying we need a lacrosse team, and spending three decades investing in that.