Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

CSIRO Cools on Climate Science

The science of climate change might now be accepted by world governments, but it’s short-sighted of CSIRO to short-change its research capabilities in this area.

The scientific community was shocked by the February announcement that hundreds of CSIRO positions will be axed. The cuts follow a steady erosion of the public science body, with more than 200 redundancies per year in recent times.

The new CEO, Larry Marshall, justified the attack on CSIRO’s climate science capacity by saying that the UN conference on climate change in Paris last December meant that the science was settled. Of course, the basic science has been settled for a long time, largely because of the work done by CSIRO scientists over the 30 years since the Villach conference. But we still have a great deal of uncertainty about the scale and rate of changes that are resulting from the human impact on the atmosphere.

It’s always disappointing when science is cut back, especially when we need to be more innovative to overcome the economic problem of falling commodity prices. It’s particularly bad when the cuts are in such areas as Oceans & Atmosphere, Land & Water and Manufacturing, as these are all critical to our chances of a sustainable future.

More worrying than the cuts is the language used by the new CEO: there won’t be scientists sacked, there will be “reductions in headcount”! And these aren’t research areas, they are “business units” headed not by top scientists but “business leaders”. The cuts are “something that we must do to renew our business,” according to the CEO.

I fear that the government is trying to sabotage our public science body and turn it into a consulting business. I was worried this might happen when the new CEO was appointed, as his background was in venture capital rather than science.

At least one member of the lunar right on the government back bench has hailed the attack on climate science. Dennis Jensen, the member for the WA electorate of Tangney, boasted on his Facebook page that he had given what he called science advice to former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and expressed delight that the head of CSIRO was now acting to reduce public funding of climate science.

Three Minutes to Midnight

Each January, the US-based Bulletin of Atomic Scientists updates its Doomsday Clock. The annual exercise began in 1947 when concern about nuclear weapons produced a reading of seven minutes to midnight. As the Cold War intensified and more nations joined the nuclear arms race, the clock steadily inched forward and reached 11.58 pm in 1953.

Tension remained high throughout the 1970s and 1980s, despite the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which aimed to curb the spread of nuclear weapons. Under the Treaty, the five nations that had nuclear weapons – USA, UK, France, China and the Soviet Union – agreed to reduce their arsenals. In return, the rest of the world agreed not to develop nuclear weapons.

There are different views about the Treaty’s effectiveness. Critics warn there are still enough nuclear weapons to render the planet uninhabitable. India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea now also have bombs. But those who support the Treaty argue the spread of nuclear weapons might have been worse without the agreement.

The collapse of the Soviet Union saw the clock wound back to 11.43 in 1991. Since then things have steadily got worse. Last year, the clock moved to 11.57 pm and this year it stayed there. The report said the threat of nuclear weapons remains, and is augmented by such other risks as climate change, terrorism and cyber-threats. There are still 16,000 nuclear weapons stored at 100 sites in 14 countries. Of these, about 10,000 are in military arsenals, ready for use.

The USA, Russia and China are still modernising their nuclear weapons, with the US government recently committing more than US$100 billion to its program. India and Pakistan are increasing their weapons stocks, while North Korea recently claimed to have tested a hydrogen bomb. And around the world, there are on average about 15 instances each year of nuclear material being recorded as lost, stolen or mislaid.

The report is significant for Australia as a uranium exporter. We export uranium to countries that have not fulfilled their obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, like the USA, or that have not signed it, such as India. The modest economic return from our uranium exports is making the world more dangerous.

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