Federal Politics

Co-ordinated action needed to limit damage from CSIRO climate cuts: ex-officials

Plans by the CSIRO to unleash deep cuts on climate science programs have created a "policy vacuum" that demands a co-ordinated effort by the Turnbull government to fill, two senior officials say.

In the dark: former officials warn that Australia's national and global interests may be damaged by climate change cuts ...
In the dark: former officials warn that Australia's national and global interests may be damaged by climate change cuts at CSIRO. Photo: NASA

Tony Press, the former chief of the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre, said national and global interests were at stake in CSIRO's decision to axe about 110 of the 140 present staff involved in two key climate monitoring and modelling programs.

"It's essential that a country like Australia, which stretches from the monsoonal tropics to the Antarctic – and is surrounded by three oceans – has the capacity to build, develop and run complex climate models," Dr Press said in a report published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. "These can't be just 'bought off the shelf.'"

Antarctic research programs are also under a cloud.
Antarctic research programs are also under a cloud. Photo: ANDY ISAACSON/The New York Times

With the third-largest maritime jurisdiction, Australia's understanding of how oceans were changing was "fundamental", he said: "Losing our ability to participate in large-scale ocean science and observation will ultimately erode Australia's ability to shape the future and influence regional affairs."

Howard Bamsey, formerly Australia's Special Envoy on Climate Change and ex-head of the Australian Greenhouse Office, said CSIRO's research "has been absolutely critical to the global understanding of climate change". 


"It's not alarmist to be alarmed," Mr Bamsey, who is also an honorary professor at the Australian National University, said. 

The impact of the proposed cuts – with the precise details still unclear – go far beyond the technical agency of the CSIRO, and affect Australia's international interests, he said.

"The rest of the world regards Australia as having an obligation because of geography," Mr Bamsey said. 

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's office and departments of foreign affairs and trade, defence, science, environment and agriculture were among those that should develop a "whole of government response" to preserve vital capabilities, Dr Press said.

Fairfax Media sought a comment from CSIRO on Dr Press's report.

CSIRO scientists say privately that a whole range of partner programs are at risk, some of them with international links.

"Everything is leveraged," said the head of one program facing potential impacts from the CSIRO cuts. "There are so many dependencies."

CSIRO staff often pitch in to provide technical support, including calibration of instruments or data analysis, that may now be at risk, the scientist said.

CSIRO's technicians, for instance, help to ensure the reliability of Argo floats, devices that drift across seas collecting temperature and salinity data on the top 2000 metres of the ocean.

"You don't just buy these things and throw them off the coast of Tasmania," the scientist said.