An overhaul of the nation’s climate research system has been recommended by Australia’s top scientists after a review found a critical lack of staff in key areas like climate modelling, writes ABC’s Jake Sturmer.
For the Murray-Darling Basin — one of the nation’s most critical food-producing regions — that knowledge is crucial, according to the Australian Academy of Science.
The academy conducted a year-long review of the nation’s future capabilities, prompted by a major restructuring of climate teams at the CSIRO last year.
It found the nation was critically understaffed when it came to climate projections and measurement.
“We currently do not know whether rainfall evaporation is going to increase or decrease over [the Murray-Darling Basin] and this has obviously large implications for sourcing our food and profitability in those regions,” Professor Trevor McDougall, who led the review for the academy, said.
“We’ve progressed over the last decades from being confident in predictions at the scale of Australia to being almost sure of some predictions of temperature [at state level].”
But without any more climate science researchers, the academy said the nation would not be able to get any more precise than that.
Climate modelling can help policy decisions
Accurate climate modelling can potentially avoid costly, unnecessary investments by helping work out the difference between natural climate variability and climate change itself.
“In Queensland they went ahead and built a desalination plant at the cost of $2 billion but in fact, that was in response to the millennium drought, which really wasn’t an indication of climate change at all, but just the regular climate variability,” Professor McDougall said.
“So that’s the kind of expensive mistake that we can make if we don’t do this kind of research.”
If you live near the coast, you’ll probably want more localised predictions — but global models from the US and Europe are unable to account for the specifics of Australia, according to scientists.
“Coastal inundation is a complex issue which looks at the interaction between sea levels, which are increasing, storm intensity, which is also likely to change within a warming planet, and also the structure of the coastline,” Dr Graham Pearman, a private consultant who assisted the review, said.
“It’s highly specific and it’s not something you can use in a global model — you have to have detailed information about particular areas of the coastline.”
More staff needed ‘urgently’
The review calls for 77 extra positions — 27 of which are needed urgently this year — in areas like climate observation, modelling and understanding.
It doesn’t prescribe where those staff should be based but offers suggestions, such as within the Bureau of Meteorology or CSIRO, or even a new climate research agency similar to the Australian Institute for Marine Science.
The CSIRO’s plans to significantly reduce its climate measurement and modelling teams last year triggered national and international condemnation.
When staff voiced their concerns publicly, CSIRO CEO Larry Marshall infuriated them further when he told the ABC there was so much emotion in the debate it almost sounded “more like religion than science”.
There were fears up to 100 climate staff would be let go but the Federal Government intervened, ordering the CSIRO to refocus on climate science and creating a new research centre based in Hobart.
According to the academy, only about 30 climate staff ultimately left the agency.
One of those was Professor John Church, a world-leading oceanographer who was let go after almost four decades at the CSIRO.
“It was tough on me but more importantly, it did a lot of damage to climate science in Australia and Australia’s relationships with international partners,” Professor Church said.
He’s now at the University of New South Wales — supporting the review’s findings that university research groups were generally well-resourced.
Professor Church welcomed the review but said it needed to be acted upon urgently.
“We really need to move on implementation. There have been various plans developed previously on what climate science is needed but these have never moved to implementation,” he said.
In a statement, Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg thanked the academy for its review.
“[The academy’s] report acknowledges that Australia has ‘substantial climate science capability’ and ‘well-funded and supported’ climate science infrastructure,” he said.
The minister pointed to funding commitments worth tens of millions of dollars for long-term climate science monitoring and a climate change hub, but did not address the report’s urgent calls for extra staff.