CSIRO starts its new journey by smashing the headlights

A Hobart meeting discussing the biggest global issue of them all highlights our dire need for more climate knowledge.

If the Turnbull government still needs convincing that we need all the climate modelling and analysis we can get our hands on, a conference in Hobart last week provided the evidence required.

At the Species on the Move conference, 259 specialists from more than 40 countries were presented with a mountain of evidence on the planet’s biggest issue: the deep and lasting impact of climate change on animal and plant species.

A packed public meeting ahead of the conference heard co-convenors Gretta Pecl, of the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies in Hobart, and Stephen Williams, of James Cook University, Queensland talk about radical changes in animal behaviour and distribution.

Animals are moving higher up the slopes of mountains in north Queensland, said Williams, and Pecl spoke of subtropical fish being caught in Tasmanian waters, lured by a global ocean “hotspot” where waters have warmed nearly four times faster than the global average.

Camille Parmesan, a globally-renowned biologist affiliated with leading US and UK universities, said that multiple studies of thousands of land and marine species show most species moving habitats or altering life cycles, mainly as a result of increasingly rapid climate change.

Since 1900, she said, about half of all species studied have shifted their ranges towards the poles by between 50 and 1600 km or up to higher elevations by as much as 400 metres. The future of those species unable to move is very uncertain.

Parmesan reports that two-thirds of species have begun breeding, migrating or blooming earlier in spring, and every major group studied – trees, herbs, butterflies, birds, mammals, amphibians, corals, invertebrates, fish, marine mammals and plankton – has been affected.

Over three days, speaker after speaker told of species on the move, in tropical and temperate lands and seas all the way to frozen (or not-so-frozen) Arctic and Antarctic regions. They spoke of the rising pace of change, forcing some species into a pattern of continuous migration.

They described the involvement of non-scientists (“citizen scientists”) in the mammoth task of describing the changes to our living world – dedicated bands of ordinary people recording millions of observations of species in places where they haven’t been seen before.

They spoke of the new digital tools being utilised to trace these movements and other behaviours. Above all, they emphasised their need for the most advanced modelling available, especially in light of the unprecedented speed of changes being experienced.

Biologists wanting to keep a handle on future conditions in Australian regions turn instinctively to the CSIRO, so it was no surprise to hear conference delegates publicly and privately express dismay at CSIRO management’s plans to decimate its climate research program.

Chief executive Larry Marshall’s media statements last week left much unexplained – not least his assertion that the CSIRO’s main focus must be “turning inventions into benefit for society”.

Is that the limit of his vision for this icon of Australian science? What are the inventions that he envisages CSIRO can produce to turn around our little warming problem, and how does he think that can replace scientific analysis?

Marshall cited CSIRO’s creation of WiFi as a reason why the organisation should focus on inventing, but omitted to mention that WiFi was an incidental outcome of radioastronomy research, and would never have happened without that pure science base.

If Marshall’s move has government blessing, that needs explaining. The Hodgman government should be banging on Malcolm Turnbull’s door demanding to have this idiotic decision reversed.

Having been dubbed “best minister in the world” in Dubai last week for his efforts to reduce carbon emissions, environment minister Greg Hunt should be joining them. Whatever we might think of that glittering prize, it can only be tarnished when climate scientists are sacked.

We face a very uncertain future. Computer scientist John Mashey likened it on Twitter last week to driving at night on unfamiliar roads. In such a situation, he said, “most people don’t smash their headlights before setting off”.

Travelling blind might be Marshall’s cup of tea, but that’s no reason to force it on the rest of us.

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