Former senior CSIRO climate scientist explains climate models in Australia were not being used to ‘prove’ climate change. That had happened long ago
A sign marks the entrance to CSIRO headquarters in Canberra.
A sign marks the entrance to CSIRO headquarters in Canberra.
Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Friday 5 February 2016 13.57 AEDT Last modified on Friday 5 February 2016 13.58 AEDT
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Dr Penny Whetton had spent 25 years working on climate change modelling for Australia’s premier science agency, but in 2014 it was time to go.
“I could see the writing on the wall,” says Whetton, who put up her hand to take a redundancy package in October 2014.
This week, she has heard of the anger and sadness among her former CSIRO colleagues at the news that climate change research is being targeted for cutbacks and redundancies.
Whetton still holds an Honorary Research Fellow position at the agency, where she had worked as a senior principal research scientist and one of the key people leading the CSIRO’s climate modelling work.
She is one of a very small handful of Australian scientists to have been a lead author on three consecutive Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports.
Her central role has been to use climate models to work out the implications for climate change on Australia. Whetton had also been a leader of the project to deliver the latest climate change projections across Australia, released last year.
In short, Whetton has intimate knowledge of what Australia’s climate modelling expertise is being used for.
This week’s announcement by CSIRO executive director Larry Marshall has angered many in the country’s climate science community, who have been queuing up to criticise the moves.
But beyond the implications of the announcement, there has also been much bemusement about Marshall’s statements and his apparent simplistic understanding of aspects of climate science.
If Whetton saw the writing on the wall in October 2014 then surely everyone else should have been able to see the letters scrawled metres high when Marshall was appointed that same month.
In one of his first interviews, Marshall appeared to be intrigued by water dowsing – the ancient idea that farmers could use sticks together with a mysterious unidentified perception to find water under the soil.
Former CSIRO chief of Land and Water told Science at the time that he was “appalled” by Marshall’s statements on dowsing.
Marshall has a scientific background (he studied physics), but before taking the job at CSIRO he had spent 25 years in Silicon Valley starting tech companies and working as a venture capitalist.
In an email to staff this week, Marshall acknowledged Australia’s climate models were “among the best in the world”, saying “our measurements honed those models to prove global climate change”.
Elsewhere, Marshall has said that we “spent probably a decade trying to answer the question ‘is the climate changing’” before then suggesting that “after Paris, that question has been answered”.
There are several things wrong here. One is that the main use of CSIRO’s climate modelling work has not been to “prove” that humans are changing the climate.
Another is the frankly bizarre idea that the question of human influence on the climate was answered only three months ago at the Paris climate talks.
Dr Whetton told me: “At what point did we know with a high level of certainty that humans were changing the climate? Well, the IPCC in 2007 said human influence was unequivocal.”
While it’s true that models have been used to measure human impacts, this has not been the focus of modelling work at CSIRO.
“The work [at CSIRO] was very much supporting climate adaptation work,” says Whetton.
“Proving global climate change? I don’t know what [Marshall] means by that. That’s settled. What needs to be further pursued are the details of regional climate change.
“The models are there to understand how the climate works but also to make projections for the future. That’s the information that you need to do appropriate adaptation planning and to calculate costs and benefits of mitigation actions.
“None of that regional climate work is settled. We need to refine our projections.”
As an example, Whetton pointed out that while there was now a lot of evidence pointing to a decline in rainfall in the south of Australia, there was “less certainty” about what would happen in the north.
The north of Australia happens to be the area where the Liberal Government has fantasised about creating new food bowls, new industries and new communities.
Professor Steve Sherwood, the director of the University of New South Wales Climate Change Research Centre said: “Marshall speaks of contributing to the proposed agricultural development of the Northern Territory, but we don’t know for how much longer this region will still support agriculture or even human habitation as the Earth keeps warming, nor how much drying (if any) Australia’s existing agricultural regions will experience.
“The groups that would help provide answers are the ones he says we don’t need any more.”
In interviews this week, Marshall has said he has been inspired by the approach taken by Netflix and its high performance culture.
Professor Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law at Deakin Law School, pointed out that CSIRO was “not a technology startup” but was a “crucial agency for social and environmental progression”.
Whetton said the reaction among her former colleagues had been “initially shock and disbelief” because many had not seen the latest announcement coming.
“Certainly now there’s a lot of anger as well,” she said, “but we don’t know the full details yet.”
“It is not just that people feel their jobs are under personal threat,” she said. “They can’t imagine why such an important part of scientific research to support Australia’s decision making is to be shut down. It is difficult to believe that anything like our current efforts will be maintained.
“New modelling work is being done right now. Who will do the job that CSIRO has always done in interpreting those models to understand the impacts for Australia. Where will that advice come from in the future?”
Perhaps we could ask Netflix?