Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Victoria’s “Scientific” Grazing Farce

By Ian Lowe

Is Victoria’s alpine grazing trial any different to Japan’s whaling “research”?

Japan’s “scientific” whaling program has justifiably earned international condemnation. While whale hunting has allowed Japan to dominate the field of spurious science for economic and political gain, we now have a local challenger. In what appears to be a move to repay the Mountain Cattlemen of Victoria for helping them to win the last state election, the incoming Coalition government allowed cattle grazing in the alpine national park.

The policy change was portrayed as a scientific experiment to test the theory that grazing reduced the risk of bushfires. It was no more likely to lead to new scientific knowledge than the slaughter of minke whales.

Research was actually done after fires swept the national park 8 years ago. Scientists analysed about 100 km of transects across burned and unburned areas before concluding that there was no significant difference in the amount of burning between grazed and ungrazed areas. They added that there did not appear any justification for allowing cattle to graze alpine grassland in the hope of reducing the risk of fire damage.

A parliamentary task force pored over the research in 2005 and recommended the removal of cattle from the alpine national park. The Bracks government implemented that approach, based on solid science.

In January, the new Baillieu government announced that 400 cattle would be allowed back into the alpine park as part of a “scientific trial”. Within weeks, 125 scientists denounced the move, saying it had no scientific integrity.

The exercise reached farcical proportions when University of Sydney forest ecologist Mark Adams, who had been chosen by the Victorian government to direct the research, pulled out of the project. He was reported as saying it would have been “very helpful” for the government to have designed the research properly, rather than just allowing the cattle back into the park with no consideration of how impacts would be measured. He also said that any trial should be confined to forest areas, since research had already been done on grasslands.

Then the Commonwealth environment minister, Tony Burke, intervened and ordered the cattle to be removed from the park by April 8. At this point the Victorian government said the grazing season would have ended anyway at the end of April.

As one university researcher had found the wetland habitat of alpine tree frogs significantly damaged by the first 2 weeks of “scientific” grazing, it is hard to see how the Commonwealth could allow the cattle back in spring. Watch this space.

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I returned from overseas to find two parallel universes in Australia. The week I returned, a major conference in Melbourne considered the increasingly gloomy picture coming from climate science. John Schellnhuber of Potsdam Institute, a leading climate researcher, told the Melbourne conference that the difference between 2°C and 4°C of warming is the difference between civilisation surviving or collapsing. That summarises the scientific case for urgent concerted action.

In the parallel world of Australian politics, the government is doing a poor job selling a modest reform that does not go nearly as far as we need to slow down climate change, while the Opposition professes to believe that the small changes will cause the collapse of the entire economy. Coal companies tell their shareholders they have nothing to worry about while placing display ads in newspapers claiming the sky is about to fall.

The mining industry actually used some of its huge profits to bring the discredited Christopher Monckton back to our shores. Nobody I spoke to in the UK could believe that Australians were even listening to him, let alone taking him seriously. His tour was marked by a flood of letters to the commercial media deriding the science of climate change.

One writer cited a former researcher to conclude that “the science isn’t settled”. Of course, it isn’t settled; science is never settled, it is always a work in progress. It is always legitimate to subject current theories to critique and analysis in the light of observations or experiments. Science progresses by this sceptical approach. It does not progress by denying evidence or cherry-picking data to fit alternative theories.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.