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The nation’s climate and weather predicting capacity and the jobs of dozens of scientists are at risk if the Abbott government accepts a recommendation of the National Commission of Audit to axe a key program, researchers said.
The Australian Climate Change Science Program’s four-year funding of $31.6 million, mostly to the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, duplicates work by those and other agencies and “should be returned to the budget or allocated to priority areas”, the commission said in its report.
But scientists, including Michael Raupach, formerly of the CSIRO and now at the Australian National University, said the program supported a “great deal of critical scientific work” that helps refine climate models which are also used for weather forecasting.
“The future course of climate change matters hugely for Australia, and continued observation and modelling of climate is absolutely vital,” said Dr Raupach, whose research over more than three decades for CSIRO also included funding from the program. “The ACCSP is an important component of our national effort, and the whole effort would be much reduced without this program.”
“The government is currently considering the commission of audit,” said a spokesman for Environment Minister Greg Hunt, declining to elaborate.
While the bulk of the commission’s recommendations – ranging from cutting the minimum wage to raising the cost of doctor visits – are not expected to feature in the federal budget on Tuesday week, the dismissal of the threat from global warming by senior Abbott government members has scientists nervous about their future.
One scientist said the $4 million or so provided to the CSIRO by the ACCSP per year was the reason the institution “was still in the game". Another said 30 to 35 climate scientists would lose their jobs directly if the program ceased and probably a similar number indirectly.
Despite the increasing heatwaves, rising sea levels and ocean acidification - which scientists link to rising greenhouse gas levels - the Abbott government has downplayed the risks from climate change, said Opposition climate change spokesman Mark Butler.
“This is a government that has shown a disdain for scientific research,” Mr Butler said. “From the Prime Minister down, it has regularly denigrated the work of scientists here in Australia and internationally around the area of climate change.”
Last week Treasury launched a Productivity Commission inquiry into disaster relief funding with its terms of reference omitting any mention of climate change, noting only that "the impacts and costs of extreme weather events can be expected to increase in the future with population growth and the expanding urbanisation of coast lines and mountain districts near our cities".
Axing the ACCSP may also put at risk Australia’s ability to receive information from other agencies. Australia's area of expertise includes the Southern Ocean and Antarctica, information the program shares with international bodies, receiving access to their work in turn on other regions also important to Australia’s climate.
“Climate change has not gone away,” said Dr Raupach. “The best scientific assessments indicate that Australia could be subject to warming over the 21st century that could range from less than two to more than five degrees.”
“The high end of this range would be catastrophic,” he said.
The potential for cuts to climate modelling comes as odds increase for an El Nino weather pattern in the Pacific. Recent signals include a significant weakening of the tradewinds and the warm pool of water now extending east of the international dateline.
El Nino years tend to be drier and hotter than average in Australia, with increased risk of droughts and bushfires.