The End of The Enlightenment in The Land Down Under (CSIRO)

Published: 4:29 AM GMT on February 12, 2016

The End of The Enlightenment in The Land Down Under

Back in November, I wrote that our, the U.S.’s, political behavior seemed a concerted effort to accelerate our decline into the Dark Ages. This week we discover that we are not alone. Dr. Larry Marshall, the Chief Executive of CSIRO in Australia, announced large cuts in staff. CSIRO is the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization; it is Australia’s national science agency.

“At the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), we shape the future. We do this by using science to solve real issues. Our research makes a difference to people, industry and the planet.”

A large percentage of the CSIRO cuts target climate science.

Australia, Canada and the United States all have large landmasses and relatively low population densities. All have had easy access to energy, especially fossil fuels, that have allowed development of economies based on the inefficient use of energy and the sloppy management of energy waste. All have developed “gray” economies rather than “green” economies. All have the hallmarks of success and wealth, which is built on the luxury of cheap energy and the neglect of waste management.

Climate change has been a contentious issue in all of these countries. Significant political constituencies have evolved that would be happy if climate change would go away. Climate change will not go away; therefore, climate scientists are a good proxy to target. In all of these countries there have been both subtle and overt efforts to discredit the scientific study of climate as well as climate scientists. There are constant disruptions to public-funded research, with occasional grandiose budget reductions. There are political attempts to restrict the use of knowledge, and, at times, to limit the use of the word “climate.”

These efforts to disrupt and discredit climate science have been quite effective in keeping climate policy from forming, disallowing planning and preparation for accelerating climate change, and maintaining a public dialogue of doubt based on misinformation. In fact, let’s look at my last blog entry. I was organizing and analyzing information to help a scientist colleague, who is not a climate scientist, explain manufactured doubt about the warming of the Earth. That discussion was to be had on a vacation cruise. That manufactured doubt motivated research to vanquish that doubt, a disruption that consumes time, money and highly trained people.

We are presented in Australia with what has all of the appearances of a politically motivated purge of climate scientists from Australia’s premier government research institution. It is justified, according to The Guardian, by

“Our climate models are among the best in the world and our measurements honed those models to prove global climate change. That question has been answered, and the new question is what do we do about it, and how can we find solutions for the climate we will be living with?”

This is not a convincing compliment to the success and excellence of Australia’s scientific enterprise. There is no doubt that the first sentence of the quote is true. However, the logic of then, de facto, terminating efforts in climate modeling and monitoring has no merit. It could be stunningly naïve or misinformed management or, perhaps, it could be trying to bury climate science and climate scientists for political or punitive purposes. They are messengers of Mr. Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, and it is well-honed behavior to cause harm to the messenger.

The simple conclusion that the climate modeler’s job is done might play well with a willing audience that finds the message of climate science to their dislike. The simple thread of logic that we have taken the observations that have been used to make their singular and compelling point might appeal those who want to cut budgets. However, the argument that climate modeling and observing needs to be cut away to make room to find solutions has no credibility in knowledge-based reasoning.

We know that the Earth is warming, ice is melting, sea level is rising and the weather is changing. We know that we will not stop these trends in the decades of those currently living. Therefore, a constant factor in our lives and our children’s lives will be that the climate is changing. We will be required to live with sea level rise. We will be required to adapt to changing weather. We have the high likelihood that persistent patterns of drought and flood will become more persistent and more intense. We have the fact that oceanic and terrestrial ecosystems will be changing rapidly; the value stream that we expect from those ecosystems will become uncertain. We have the fact that agriculture will have to adapt to changing climate as well as to changing populations.

We live in a crowded, complex, and technical world, which functions in perilously fragile balances. Climate change is making those balances more fragile. For successful futures, we will need increased fidelity, reliability and detail in many types of models, including climate models. There is need for better-bound knowledge of the where and when of sea level rise. Our weather forecast models, which are explicitly anchored in the observations of many decades of a stable climate, no longer have that stable firmament. Aside from needing more precise, perhaps deterministic, predictions, we also need models that explore the possibilities of the future. What new extremes, what new modes of behavior might we find? To argue that the climate modeler’s work is done is a step back decades, centuries, to a time like the Dark Ages, when we lived in abject ignorance of what is to come.

Science is an observation-driven investigation of the world. Models follow observations. Better models follow better observations. This might be sufficient in and of itself to justify continued observations and improvements of observing systems. Consider, however, that our people, our cities, our fleets, our militaries and our countries will be competing to thrive in a climate that is not constant, but constantly changing. This amplifies the need for observations. The observations, the monitoring, allow us to make real-world evaluation of the modeling information. Are the models under predicting, over predicting or just badly predicting what is happening on the ground? Observations are our way of managing uncertainty in predictive science as well as in adaptation planning and implementation. Observations provide the convincing evidence to decision makers. Stripping away observing capabilities takes away essential knowledge not only from those who study climate change but from those who are responsible for responding to climate change.

Disruption of organizations to change organizational cultures, to re-direct priorities, is at times a well-founded management tactic. On the other hand, disruptive policies are also the tactic to destroy unions and organizations that one does not like. It is well known that if you tear down capabilities and capacity, it is not easy to rebuild those capabilities and capacities. Dr. Marshall maintains, “Our climate models are among the best in the world and our measurements honed those models to prove global climate change.” Therefore we can conclude that his workforce is outstanding, and they have done their job. We have a future where success will demand more observations and better models to support decision making. Therefore, Dr. Marshall appears to be carrying out a political agenda that is in direct contradiction to what is needed for his country to thrive. Regional competitors such as China and Korea increase their climate-change initiatives.

Consider the work force and its expertise. Scientists at the level required for these tasks obtain college degrees, post-graduate degrees and post-doctoral education. As individuals and societies, we invest 30-years in the education of these individuals. The human and societal investment in this skill base is enormous; it is at a very real level unique. This is not a field that is changed by dismissal of expertise, orphaning capacity and destroying that which has been built. A scenario to sustain disruption is to remove the skill base and capacity from the government, and in the future, when the knowledge base is needed, claim that a government source is needed for credibility and legitimacy. Therefore, this is a management decision that disrupts a skill base for years and potentially decades.

From a managerial point of view, this is, perhaps, a hard management decision in a government organization. If that is true, then that decision has been made without effective public justification or skillful communication. What is presented to the world appears as a political decision. It is a political decision that squanders unique human capital and damages or destroys capacity. It is a conscious decision to increase ignorance about the future in a precarious world where knowledge supports economic success and societal security. As such, it is a fundamental abrogation of civil responsibility.

r

References:

The Guardian

Gutting of CSIRO

Australian Chief Scientist Not Notified

CSIRO Chief Confirms Cuts

CSIRO Chief: Backlash More Like Religion Than Science

Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)

CSIRO Climate Science on Chopping Block

Without Climate Modeling Adaptation More Difficult

CSIRO Chief: Backlash More Like Religion Than Science

CSIRO Chief: Apologizes for Statement That Backlash More Like Religion Than Science

CSIRO Cuts Draw International Condemnation

CSIRO Climate Scientists Speak about Cuts

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About The Author
I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.

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