Australia slashes funds for climate science

Bushfire Research Task Force
Copyright: Nick Pitsas /CSIRO

Speed read

  • CSIRO shifts focus from fundamental research to adaptation and mitigation
  • Scientists view the move as ‘like removing the foundations of the house’
  • Asia-Pacific’s capability against human-induced climate change may suffer

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[MANILA] Scientists around the world have slammed Australia’s decision to slash its climate research programme — raising concerns about knock-on effects on developing countries.

Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) is shifting its research focus to efforts to adapt to and mitigate the effects of global warming rather than understanding climate change through fundamental research, CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall announced last month.

“The loss of much of this capability with the impending cuts is a real blow for climate research throughout the region.”

Adam Switzer, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore,

In an email to CSIRO staff quoted by international news outlets, Marshall says that models have proved climate change, and we should now focus on solutions.  

“That argument would be like removing the foundations of the house because you need to build a roof,” says Lisa Alexander, an associate professor in the climate change research centre at the University of New South Wales in Australia, and one of almost 3,000 people who signed an open letter to the Australian government protesting the cuts on 11 February.

“CSIRO’s decision to slash climate research will severely curtail Australia's capacity to deliver on [key] promises of the Paris Agreement,” the letter says. This includes governments’ commitment to “assist developing countries by providing advice for adaptation […], a role that CSIRO and Australia have already begun in their investments in the Pacific Climate Change Science Program”.

In practice, CSIRO will cut about 350 staff jobs over two years, Marshall wrote in a statement on 8 February. “Some people will be redeployed or reskilled and some will be made redundant and those final figures are not yet determined,” he added.

CSIRO says the cutbacks won’t affect data collection from Cape Grim in Tasmania, Australia which has been measuring airborne greenhouse gases since 1976, as well as an ocean-monitoring programme called Argo.

The agency’s contributions are crucial in global efforts to predict and prepare for severe weather changes, including typhoons and drought. For example, CSIRO provided forecasts for the current El Niño, which helped governments throughout the region to prepare for it.

“CSIRO has been at the forefront of modelling and monitoring efforts throughout the Asia-Pacific for decades,” says Adam Switzer, an assistant professor in environment at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, who also signed the petition. “The loss of much of this capability with the impending cuts is a real blow for climate research throughout the region.”

“The regional implications of this are fairly dire and I must admit I’m somewhat surprised that the governments of Asia-Pacific haven’t been more vocal,” notes Switzer.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s South-East Asia & Pacific desk.