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Senator Waters questions the Bureau of Meteorology

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Larissa Waters 26 May 2015

Senator WATERS: Thank you, Chair. Thanks Dr Vertessy and Ms Middleton for coming today. Sticking with El Nino, can you explain the impact of El Nino on global temperatures?

Dr Vertessy: Yes. I think this infographic might even say it: a large number of the big jumps in global temperature are associated with El Ninos. This is because El Nino is the largest climate influence on the whole global climate system. What it is really all about is the turning over of heat energy from the oceans to the atmosphere. So during a La Nina—the opposite—we see a dominance of heat being subducted down into the deep ocean from the atmosphere. We have been in a kind of La Nina dominated phase, you might say, since 1998, which was the last big El Nino where there was a temperature spike. The risk now is, if this El Nino continues to intensify, there is a good chance that we will see global atmospheric temperatures start climbing much faster again, as they did prior to the last El Nino.

Senator WATERS: Another senator asked you about the impact of climate change on El Nino. You said there was a mooted relationship. My understanding from CSIRO is that, they say, climate change will double the risk of super El Nino—the really extreme ones—to one every 10 years. Do you share that view?

Dr Vertessy: That is based on outputs from model projections. They are not observations, which is the difference I would draw. It is not to say they are invalid at all, but that is why I am saying they are mooted. We have not observed such changes per se. But they are projected to occur on the basis of what the models are telling us.

Senator WATERS: Your models are also telling you that same information?

Dr Vertessy: Yes. We are operating with the same model base. Everything that CSIRO is talking about is effectively something that we are doing in collaboration with them with a joint model.

Senator WATERS: It is modelled that super El Ninos will become twice as frequent; namely once every 10 years, as climate change intensifies.

Dr Vertessy: We don't use the term 'super El Ninos'. We would say that strong El Ninos are likely to be more frequent. I cannot remember the exact figure of frequency increase, but I do know that they are increasing.

Senator WATERS: Perhaps you could take it on notice. My understanding is that it is one every 10 years, which is a doubling.

Dr Vertessy: We would be happy to provide a more detailed answer to that.

Senator WATERS: Moving now to what might be very controversial and ill-informed comments from Maurice Newman, the head of the Prime Minister's Business Advisory Council. In an op-ed presumably written by him, published under his name a few weeks ago, he said: Global warming is the hook.

CHAIR: Senator Waters, you are probably a little close to the wind there. Would you like to keep your comments to the facts. By making the statement that it presumably has been written by him you are making an inference it was not written by him.

Senator WATERS: I am astounded that anybody holds those views. But it purports to be an op-ed in his name.

CHAIR: If it purports to be an op-ed in his name I think we can assume that he wrote it. Maybe we can start from that premise.

Senator Birmingham: I do not think Mr Newman contests that they are his views or that it is his op-ed.

Senator WATERS: More the pity. His quote was: Global warming is the hook. It's about a new world order under the control of the UN. He makes other disparaging remarks about climate science in the course of that opinion piece, which I hope you have had a look at. Can you give me the bureau's scientific perspective on that view?

Senator Birmingham: You might like to rephrase the question. I am sure Dr Vertessy will happily answer factual questions in relation to the bureau's scientific work and analysis. But you have made a sweeping generalisation: can he comment on Mr Newman's op-ed? While Mr Newman is entitled to his opinion, everybody is entitled to contest that opinion. Dr Vertessy appears at Senate estimates to answer questions on matters of fact, not on matters of opinion. If you want to ask him questions on matters of fact I am sure they can be addressed.

Senator WATERS: Thank you. Does the climate science support Mr Newman's views?

Senator Birmingham: If you want to put a statement, a particular statement, and ask Dr Vertessy whether climate science, as he understands it, accords with that statement, that is fine. Let us not generalise Mr Newman's views and then seek Dr Vertessy's response.

Senator WATERS: I can spend the next eight minutes reading the op-ed into Hansard, if you like, but I figured that would not be a good use of anybody's time.

Senator Birmingham: I would have hoped you might have come prepared for questions with particular comments that you might want Dr Vertessy to respond to.

Senator WATERS: I have put a comment that I am seeking comment on.

Senator Birmingham: A claim that you might want him to respond to.

Senator WATERS: You have not let him speak yet.

Senator Birmingham: You have not put to Dr Vertessy a properly formed question for Senate estimates.

Senator WATERS: Dr Vertessy, I asked before: Global warming is the hook. It's about a new world order under the control of the UN. Does the climate science support that global warming is simply about a new world order under the control of the UN?

Senator Birmingham: I am sorry but I do not think Dr Vertessy is here to comment on Mr Newman's great rhetorical flourish in his op-ed, whatever the merits of the facts, whether they are informed or not, or on the rhetoric of Mr Newman's arguments about whether or not this is a UN conspiracy or the like. If you want to ask him about the climate science, that is fine, but not about the UN.

Senator SINODINOS: Isn't that the province of DFAT, international conspiracy?

Senator Birmingham: That is right. Ask DFAT whether they think there is a conspiracy operating in the UN, if you want, but not the Bureau of Meteorology.

Senator WATERS: I am sure Mr Newman is not your friend, minister. I am sure he is not your adviser or friend, Senator Birmingham.

Senator Birmingham: I have met with Mr Newman. I respect his business credentials.

Senator WATERS: If I can review my question, please.

CHAIR: Excuse me, Senator Waters.

Senator WATERS: Pardon me, I am being interrupted.

CHAIR: I am the chair and I am in control here. So what I would respectfully suggest to you is that if you have a statement of scientific fact or a science statement that Mr Newman has made and you wish to question the validity of that statement in terms of climate science, then maybe ask it now, otherwise we might move on because this is not serving any purpose at all.

Senator WATERS: Thank you, Chair. There are multiple statements which assert facts about climate science that I am intrigued to get the bureau's view about. Given the invitation to do so, I shall go through them all, starting with: It's a well-kept secret, but 95 per cent of the climate models we are told prove the link between human CO2 emissions and catastrophic global warming have been found, after nearly two decades of temperature stasis, to be in error. What is—

Dr Vertessy: That is incorrect.

Senator WATERS: That is incorrect. Thank you.

Senator SINODINOS: Does Newman source his material?

Senator WATERS: No, there are no references in this piece. Another states: We have been subjected to extravagance from climate catastrophists for close to 50 years. Is that correct?

Senator Birmingham: It depends how you define 'extravagance'.

Dr Vertessy: I would need something a bit more specific. That is talking about the dialogue that occurs rather than any scientific fact.

Senator WATERS: Indeed. Another is: In January 1970, Life magazine, based on 'solid scientific evidence', claimed that by 1985 air pollution would reduce sunlight reaching the Earth by half. In fact across that period sunlight fell between 3 per cent and 5 per cent.

Dr Vertessy: I am not familiar with that work at all but I do not think it is relevant to climate change.

Senator WATERS: It is not of significance in determining whether climate change is indeed anthropogenic or not?

Dr Vertessy: Not that I am aware of. There is one related thing that I could talk about a little and that is the so-called process of global dimming, which is the accumulation of pollutants in the atmosphere, which is actually reducing the amount of sunlight that is coming to earth and which, to an extent, is actually suppressing the effects of global warming. And should that pollution be removed we would expect actually an increase in the warming process.

Senator WATERS: I continue, as the chair has allowed me to: Fast forward to March 2000 and David Viner, a senior research scientist at the Climatic Research Unit, University of East Anglia, told The Independent: 'Snowfalls are now a thing of the past.' In December 2010, the Mail Online reported 'Coldest December since records began as temperatures plummet to minus 10C bringing travel chaos across Britain'.

Dr Vertessy: I am not familiar with that particular article but I think it is referring to a bit of an old red herring that suggests that just because you are getting cold weather in the Northern Hemisphere it somehow discredits the fact that there is global warming occurring. There is a perfectly good explanation for that. The theory in global warming does not hold that there will be no cold weather anywhere. In fact there is evidence to suggest that global warming will actually intensify the onset of some cold weather due to the effect of the changing behaviour of the jet stream which wanders around a hell of a lot more latitudinally than it used to as a result of changes to the global climate system. That has the effect of actually bringing more polar air down into some populated areas in the Northern Hemisphere as well as bringing up some hot weather. It is by no means any kind of proof that global warming is not occurring.

Senator WATERS: Another is: Weather Bureaus appear to have 'homogenised data to suit narratives'.

Dr Vertessy: I reject it.

Senator WATERS: I am quoting here from Maurice Newman: We've had our own busted predictions. Perhaps the most preposterous was climate alarmist Tim Flannery's 2005 observation: 'If the computer records are right these drought conditions will become permanent in eastern Australia.' Subsequent rainfall and severe flooding have shown the records or his analysis are wrong. We've swallowed dud prediction after dud prediction.

Dr Vertessy: It is someone else's opinion and it is a very broad canvas of ideas in that. I am not quite sure what I could say about that, other than to say that there is already a climate change effect on the rainfall of southern Australia.

Senator WATERS: Another is: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which we were instructed was the gold standard on global warming, has been exposed repeatedly for misrepresentation and shoddy methods.

Dr Vertessy: I would reject that.

Senator WATERS: And then he goes to his real agenda which is concentrated political authority. 'Global warming is the hook'. And the UN is apparently trying to take over the world. He then goes on and on and on. I will not continue. Thank you for clarifying that his statements were variously not correct, not relevant, an old red herring rejected on multiple occasions. Did you offer Mr Newman a briefing on the state of climate science?

Dr Vertessy: No.

Senator WATERS: Have you since?

Dr Vertessy: No.

Senator WATERS: Will you?

Dr Vertessy: No.

Senator WATERS: Have you offered the Prime Minister a briefing on the state of climate science?

Dr Vertessy: No, I have not.

Senator WATERS: Is that something that you might consider doing?

Senator Birmingham: I think, as with all governments, prime ministers, their departments, ministers, their departments, members of the executive request briefings when and where they need them, and they are provided that in the context of certain decision-making processes. I have no doubt that, as matters would have gone through government around the construct of, for example, the highly successful emissions reduction fund, the department would have crystallised within its advice whatever information was relevant from Dr Vertessy and other arms of government in relation to climate science.

Senator WATERS: Thank you. Dr Vertessy, does the climate science support the statement that coal is good for humanity?

Senator Birmingham: One—

Senator WATERS: If you are allowed to respond.

Senator Birmingham: Once again, I would note that the Bureau of Meteorology, through its experts in its field, its experts in the field of climate and weather, is not a scientific agency like the CSIRO that has a range of scientific projects into the causes of climate change and that is a scientific agency looking at the occurrence of climate change. But if you want to try asking Dr Vertessy about causes of emissions, then again I am sure he would be quite happy to answer those where he can and otherwise refer you to CSIRO or elsewhere, where that is appropriate, but not to comment on rhetoric once again.

Senator WATERS: So just to be clear, Dr Vertessy is not permitted to answer the question of whether the climate science supports the statement by the Prime Minister that coal is good for humanity?

Senator Birmingham: You are asking Dr Vertessy for an opinion on a rhetorical statement.

Senator WATERS: Based on climate science, correct.

Senator Birmingham: You are asking for an opinion on a rhetorical statement. If you want to ask him about causes of emissions, go your hardest.

Senator WATERS: No, he really did say that. Our Prime Minister really said that.

Senator Birmingham: If you want to ask Dr Vertessy about causes of emissions, go your hardest.

Senator WATERS: Is there anything you feel you are able to contribute?

Dr Vertessy: What I can say is that the primary cause of global warming is the emission of CO2 and the primary reason CO2 emissions are increasing is the burning of fossil fuels. Coal is a fossil fuel.

Senator WATERS: Thank you. I think that is fairly self-evident to many of us. Apparently it is not to the Prime Minister. But thank you for your clarity. Can I move back to some questions that Senator Singh was asking about staffing. Just so I am clear on the figures, you said that as at 30 June 2013 there were 117 folk that worked on climate issues as opposed to climate change and that there were currently now 101½ working on climate issues. That is 15½ equivalent people that have been reduced, which is about 13 per cent. What work on climate issues is now not being done as a result of that 13 per cent reduction in staffing?

Dr Vertessy: As I mentioned earlier, the three of the 10 functions that are listed in that table are climate change research, climate variability research and the development of climate models. All of these things are going on in our research branch, basically.

Senator WATERS: Sorry, were you saying that is the work that is now not happening or that is the work that is happening?

Dr Vertessy: No, it is happening. It has being reduced. The overall effort has been reduced by, it looks like, about 15 people.

Senator WATERS: So the reductions have been in climate research, climate variability research and climate models?

Dr Vertessy: That is correct.

Senator WATERS: Can you explain for me the distinction that you make between climate issues and climate change? Can you tell me what those categories are?

Dr Vertessy: Sure. Let me talk about all of the stuff we were talking about earlier with El Nino for instance, which is tracking the state of the Pacific Ocean and the pressure systems around the country, looking at the impacts that that is having on rainfall and temperature, based on our observations. That is a whole lot of what you might just call climate analysis and climate forecasting. That has got nothing to do with climate change science at all. Likewise, there is all of the work we do on climate statistics that we provide for farmers and people in the energy industry et cetera, telling them what the distribution of solar energy is across the country or what the distribution of soil moisture might be for different seasons and so on. These are again general climate analysis activities that are very important to a lot of stakeholders but they have nothing to do with climate change.

Senator WATERS: Going back to those figures, you have nine people as at 23 February 2015 working on climate change as opposed to those broader climate issues that you just talked through; is that correct?

Dr Vertessy: That is specifically for climate change research. There is another area of climate change which is more in the operational services area. There were two people working on that on 30 June 2013. There are now three people working on that today.

Senator WATERS: There are now three, so you have 12 people currently working on what you would call climate change as opposed to climate issues?

Dr Vertessy: Predominantly on climate change work, yes.

Senator WATERS: You said you have 100—

Dr Vertessy: Sorry, could I hold you back there for a minute. Could we give you a copy of this table that we prepared?

Senator WATERS: Sure.

Dr Vertessy: There would be work that is undertaken currently in the development of climate models. Twelve people are working on the climate models. That is climate change related. Probably the distinction I would draw is that one group is looking at building the models; another group is looking at understanding the processes. There are subtle nuances, but if you really wanted to know how many people were working on climate change related things in the organisation, I am hazarding the guess that it is probably in the order of 30 or so.

Senator WATERS: You have confused me a bit. We have done the figures for climate research and for operational services, and that was 12. There are about an extra 12 on climate models, but then you said there are about 30. How do you get to the 30?

Dr Vertessy: Again I would draw attention to this detailed table that we have provided to a question on notice. If you like, I can read out all of the individual functions—

Senator WATERS: I will look that up. What was the number of that one? I will check that.

Ms Middleton: We will get you the reference number.

Senator WATERS: Thank you. That will help, because we do get a lot of useful QoNs back. So that is 12, possibly 24, possibly around 30, out of 1,669 staff. Is that a traditional proportion of climate change work?

Dr Vertessy: Traditional in what sense? Compared to other meteorological agencies?

Senator WATERS: Along the lines that Senator Singh was asking about before: has that diminished significantly or increased, or is it about the same?

Dr Vertessy: I think I explained earlier that it has decreased by about 15 or 16 people since June 2013.

Senator WATERS: I am trying to remember what you said—that it was not deliberate by the bureau.

Dr Vertessy: No. There is no intent within the Bureau of Meteorology to reduce the amount of climate change activity. The reductions that have occurred reflect changes in the availability of external funding which sustain that activity, and that has diminished. It is not just from the federal government; it is also from state governments and others.

Senator WATERS: I want to go to that now. You mentioned that you have some external funding from Defence, from state governments and also from offshore oil and gas.

Dr Vertessy: Yes.

Senator WATERS: Can you tell me about your offshore oil and gas work? How many staff do you have through that capital program working on offshore oil and gas?

Dr Vertessy: I might go to Dr Canterford on that.

Dr Canterford: We do have some figures here. I have an approximate number of about 30, but I would need to check our table.

Senator WATERS: So it is about the same amount of people doing climate change work as doing offshore oil and gas?

Dr Canterford: Let me confirm the number first.

Ms Middleton: In terms of our external revenue, in the last financial year, 2013-14, we generated about $74 million worth of revenue. In terms of headcount that equated to roughly 300 staff at one time or another during the course of that financial year that were actively engaged in delivering services that were funded from the private sector. We provide about $6 million worth of commercial weather services to the offshore oil and gas industry. Those are bespoke services, where the oil and gas industry is looking for additional services beyond what we traditionally provide to the public—beyond what we are appropriated to provide. Specifically, it is around early warnings regarding tropical cyclones and other events that affect their production. So they are quite specific services where the industry actually defines the parameters and the nature of the service that they want and they pay to have dedicated forecasters available to provide that service to them.

Senator WATERS: Are there any other examples of the nature of the work performed for the offshore oil and gas industry beyond the clearly very useful predictions of tropical cyclones?

Ms Middleton: Predominantly it is in the tropical cyclone space.

Senator WATERS: Is there anything else you can mention?

Dr Canterford: They do other work, for instance, in terms of sea state and swell et cetera for loading and unloading in harbours. Essentially, it is very much an occupational health and safety issue for staff on those rigs to enable them to be evacuated before a serious event. So it is very much an operational service. It is funded by the offshore oil and gas industry. These staff work alongside our normal appropriation funded staff.

Senator WATERS: So that is a focus on safety. Is there any production-relevant work? You mentioned that the assistance is essentially for safety, and no-one would dispute the need for that. Is there any additional work or any relevance to the production ability of those sectors as a result of your advice?

Dr Canterford: I am sure that the type of information services we provide would assist, but I would not have knowledge of the production capabilities myself. We provide a service under contract. We do have, of course, other specific cost-recovered funding that we receive from the aviation industry for safe operation of aircraft, and also from the Department of Defence for assistance to them. These are longstanding arrangements we have with both of those industries.

Senator WATERS: Thanks for responding to the best of your ability. Could you take on notice your awareness, or anyone in the bureau's awareness, of any effect on production capacity for offshore oil and gas as a result of the bureau's advice?

Ms Middleton: I might just clarify that. In our discussions, when we provide a customised or bespoke service to the offshore oil and gas industry, they essentially advise us of the information they need and we provide them with a quote for what it will cost in addition to our normal public forecasting to produce that information for them. We are not actually privy to the decision making that the offshore oil and gas industry takes. So we would not be in a position within the bureau, nor would we hold that information, to say what the impact would be of decisions around offshore oil and gas rig evacuation in a cyclone event. We would not have that information within the bureau. That would be a question to ask the offshore oil and gas industry.

Senator WATERS: How do you know it is all relevant for safety?

Ms Middleton: They basically say to us, 'These are key thresholds for us in which we need forecasts.' So we respond to those. We are not actually privy to their decision making.

Senator WATERS: You just assume it is safety related?

Ms Middleton: Yes, that is what they have advised us. But it is very general.

Senator WATERS: That is what they have advised you or that is what you think?

Ms Middleton: Yes. In terms of how they operationalise their plans in severe weather or extreme weather, they have time thresholds. So they have indicated to us when it is useful for them to have particular forecasts available to them of a particular weather phenomenon—wind speeds, wave heights and those sorts of things—so that they can activate their operational plans. As to why they have those thresholds, we are not privy to that information.

Senator WATERS: I have a final few questions on a different topic. There was a program called the Environmental Information Program. My understanding is that BoM was in charge of it, and I think it expired last year. Do you know if anyone is doing that work now?

Dr Vertessy: No, it has not expired. It became an ongoing measure for the bureau.

Senator WATERS: Can you tell me more about that?

Dr Vertessy: Yes, I can. It is a small program. It resides within our environment and research division. It is undertaking a few things. It is the home of our so-called eReefs activity, which I believe you asked us about before. We are working with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, the Queensland government, AIMS, the Great Barrier Marine Park Authority and CSIRO to build a suite of different technologies that can help to more sensitively manage the Great Barrier Reef. Through that Environmental Information Program we have put together one operational product, and that is the marine water quality dashboard, which basically takes remote sensing data from satellites and produces maps of water quality in the Great Barrier Reef lagoon each day. So you can go onto the bureau's website now and every day see an updated map of what the water quality conditions are. That has been one of the products that we have produced under the program. We are now working on a hydrodynamic model for the Great Barrier Reef so that we can forecast what the circulation patterns will be in the Great Barrier Reef lagoon seven days ahead. That is work that is ongoing. In other areas of the Environmental Information Program we have been looking at things like developing data sharing standards and policies, and working with federal agencies to understand their environmental information needs, and developing those data sharing technologies. They are a few examples of the things that are under way.

Senator WATERS: Can you clarify the funding situation? There was $18 million for BoM over four years, and that funding came to an end in 2013-14. You say it is now an ongoing program. Does that mean you do not have any specific money dedicated to it?

Dr Vertessy: No, it was an ongoing measure.

Senator WATERS: What is the quantum of that?

Ms Middleton: I would say it is about a third of that, so it is in the order of $3 million to $4 million.

Dr Vertessy: Yes, I think it is running at about $3 million to $4 million per year. There is a little bit of extra money in the original measure to do some capital builds of some data infrastructure. We can give you the precise figure on notice.

Senator WATERS: Thank you. Can you tell me how much funding and staff time are currently allocated to consolidating environmental information on a continental scale, especially as regards biodiversity?

Dr Vertessy: It is pretty small. Again, I would have to look into that and we could give you a detailed answer.

Senator WATERS: Thank you; I would appreciate that. Specifically, whether there is anyone dedicated to that or whether it is just a responsibility shared amongst a few folk, and what resourcing they have available to them.

Dr Vertessy: I can certainly clarify one thing: we are not in the process of gathering and collating environmental information for the continent. Really, we are focused more on the standards and the technologies for doing it, such that other people can work together in what you might call a federated system whereby we are all doing our own bit and are able to share one another's data.

Senator WATERS: Thank you for your assistance today.

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