Australia’s premier science organisation abruptly scrapped a fully-funded, globally recognised program to predict the climate in coming years without consulting an advisory panel that had praised its “good progress” only weeks earlier.
Launched in 2016 with $37m in funding over 10 years by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, the Decadal Climate Forecasting Project was meant to help industries from agriculture to dam operators and emergency services to better cope with climate variability and extremes.
“While current weather and seasonal forecasts can help predict conditions between several days and a few months ahead, we are currently missing a key piece of the puzzle: what will our climate look like anywhere between one year and a decade into the future?” CSIRO said. “That research gap is now being filled by our work in decadal forecasting, providing invaluable insights to industry and beyond.”
However, without fanfare and after having spent what one insider said was about $15m, CSIRO managers halted funding after June 2021.
“It was doing excellent scientific research,” said David Karoly, a former CSIRO climate scientist who was on the unit’s advisory board. “It’s bloody stupid; they had made a commitment to a government minister” – the then environment minister, Greg Hunt.
A month before the project’s demise, the board found it was making “good progress”, and had “an excellent team of senior and early-career researchers”. It was producing “exciting research” cited in 28 peer-reviewed papers in the previous year alone.
The World Meteorological Organization also recognised its work, making CSIRO just one of five global data-producing centres for its near-term climate prediction “grand challenge”. The system supplying that data, known as the Climate Analysis Forecast Ensemble (CAFE) based on 100 climate models, has now ceased, insiders told Guardian Australia.
“The primary reason [for ending the program] was the external income was negligible,” Karoly said, adding CSIRO typically requires units find more than 50% of funding from outside.
CSIRO was a pioneer in researching links between rising greenhouse gases and global heating. That work, though, has endured pressure over the years and efforts to slash job numbers in 2016.
Fresh concerns about job security have arisen in recent weeks after the merger – again without a CSIRO media release – of its Oceans & Atmosphere and Land & Water divisions into a single environment business unit.
“Regardless of the merits of this decision, the fact is that staff and their representatives have not been consulted prior to the announcement of major workforce change,” the CSIRO Staff Association secretary, Susan Tonks, said. “That’s not good enough.” A union and staff meeting is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.
One concern is the recent identification of a $4m-plus hole in expected revenue. Ocean and atmospheric monitoring might face cuts, one insider said.
A spokeswoman said the decadal forecasting project “has had many scientific successes over five years”, leading CSIRO’s “capability to deliver into new priority areas for climate research”. She did not say why the CAFE was closed.
Project staff had been transferred to other sections, including the Australian Climate Service (ACS), with one staff member made redundant “in order to align capability to deliver across priority areas”, the spokeswoman said, adding the supply of data to WMO was voluntary.
The claim of a new funding gap was “incorrect”, she said.
Scientists said decadal forecasting was “high risk, high reward”, combining the most difficult overlap between weather and climate prediction.
“We produced the first two official forecasts of the near-term climate over the next one-to-five years,” one researcher said. “They are already being used in Europe.”
Michael Mann, the renowned climate scientist now with the University of Pennsylvania, said near-term climate research could benefit “all sorts of stakeholders”, from farmers to energy producers and water managers.
Research by Mann and others showed modelling remained challenging because it involves forecasting how complex ocean-atmospheric processes work in tandem. (For instance, how ocean gyres and the North Atlantic overturning circulation interact and affect wind patterns remains uncertain, he said.)
“It’s definitely a key area of applied climate science that deserves ongoing support, and CSIRO has made important contributions to the scientific advancement in this area,” Mann said.
Guardian Australia approached the science minister, Ed Husic, for comment. CSIRO and the government will likely face questions on the cuts at Senate estimates, which begin in late October.
“With residents in three states being evacuated in recent days due to floods, the serious impacts of climate change on humans and our environment are acutely apparent,” the independent senator David Pocock said. “Now is the time for more – not less – research into measuring coming changes to the climate.”
Zali Steggall, also an independent federal MP, said climate change was “one of the biggest of disruptors of our time so ongoing climate science funding should be increasing to reflect that”.
“It’s very concerning the data collection was wrapped up with limited consultation as we need good science to help inform ongoing decisions at the national and global level,” Steggall said. “I am in favour of a model where business and researchers can work together, but some research is just too important to rely on commercial support.”