Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

PM Freezes Out Science

By Ian Lowe

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s road map for Australia is not being guided by science.

It is looking as if the recently elected Abbott government has a serious problem with science. For the first time in decades, Australia does not have a Science Minister. The Climate Commission, set up to provide advice to government on the science, was closed down, but then the community stepped up and funded its reincarnation as the Climate Council. Now it seems the arbitrary freeze on filling public service vacancies is being extended to the CSIRO.

The changes to funding implemented by successive governments over the past decade have produced a situation in which increasing amounts of CSIRO research are conducted by scientists on short-term contracts. That is a dubious practice at the best of times, denying security to researchers and limiting the capacity to tackle serious long-term research projects. It inevitably increases the emphasis on short-term problem-solving rather than fundamental research. When it is combined with the prohibition on filling of vacancies, it means hundreds of scientists will be out of work, and their projects will languish. That doesn’t even make economic sense.

Another symptom of the government’s problem with science is the comment made by the Prime Minister about the super-typhoon that devastated parts of the Philippines. Abbott said that CSIRO was the source for his claim that the typhoon was not evidence of climate change. That is the sort of misquoting I have experienced myself from the Murdoch press, but not what I expect from responsible government ministers.

In 2011 I was asked if the Brisbane floods were an indication of climate change. I gave a careful response that reflected the science: while no single event like the Brisbane floods or Cyclone Yasi or the Black Saturday bushfires is by itself confirmation of climate change, the overall pattern of more severe extreme events is exactly what the science has been predicting for 25 years.

The next day one Murdoch journalist, Piers Akerman, wrote that “even Professor Ian Lowe… a die-hard global warmist” had to admit that these events were not evidence of climate change – taking the first part of the comment out of context to misrepresent my portrayal of the science. In a different Murdoch paper, Andrew Bolt accused me of seeing “a clear relationship between increased (man-made) Greenhouse emissions and changes in the climate”. He went on to say that “some people are really, really determined to see man-made global warming in every single inflection of the weather” – taking the second part of the comment out of context to give an equally dishonest misrepresentation of the science.

Mr Abbott has taken the Akerman approach, using the first part of the scientific explanation and omitting the inconvenient second part.

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The Australian community turned out in huge numbers for the Climate Day of Action on Sunday 17 November. I spoke at my local rally on the Sunshine Coast to an audience of more than 400 from that region, while crowds of many thousands turned up in the major cities.

A theme all around the country was concern about the extreme events already hitting us as a result of about 1°C increase in average global temperature, ranging from catastrophic fires in the Blue Mountains in October to a super-typhoon causing devastation in the Philippines. Just the day before my local rally, hailstones the size of tennis balls bombarded the Sunshine Coast. Firefighters spoke at some of the events, showing their concern about the extra risks they already see.

The concern is understandable, since the most optimistic view is that concerted international action would be needed to give us a reasonable chance of keeping the increase in average global temperature to 2°C. The business-as-usual strategy would see a 3–5°C increase in average temperature.

So I was critical of the Australian government for failing to send a Minister to the important climate change talks in Warsaw, as well as for its inadequate policy stance on the issue: not just trying to close down the response measures that are making a difference, but also supporting the further expansion of export fossil fuel industries. We urgently need governments at all levels to catch up with the community and recognise their responsibility for the future security of our country.