The war on climate science

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A series of e-mails leaked from the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) reveal concerns that CSIRO management is politically censoring researchers. These e-mails were published only a week after the March for Science, which saw tens of thousands of people globally protesting political attacks on climate science. But why do scientists face these attacks?

Climate change threatens to cause enormous damage to agriculture, generate natural disasters such as heatwaves, increase floods in low lying regions and drive people from their homes, creating climate refugees. All these disasters will be exacerbated by the capitalist system.

We need to restructure energy production, invest in renewables and clean transport and co-ordinate all this across national borders. But capitalism prevents us from doing this: the private ownership of energy production, the undemocratic financial markets that largely control investment, the narrow, national interests of capitalists, and the power of the huge fossil fuel companies are all systemic barriers to action.

So while climate change threatens to create crisis in the lives of ordinary people, for the capitalist class, any effective response to climate change poses a threat to their system. This is what lies behind the ‘war on science’.

Scientists under attack

E-mails obtained by the ABC’s Science Friction program record scientist’s concerns that CSIRO has been “missing in action” on the issue of climate change policy.

CSIRO says that its researchers should not discuss “the merits of government or opposition policies”. This ‘apolitical’ approach is common among public servants. However, this supposed neutrality does not hold up to scrutiny. Managers of government organisations are tied intimately to the ruling class. For example Larry Marshall, the chief executive of CSIRO, is an ex-venture capitalist with connections to both Liberal and Labor politicians, including Malcolm Turnbull.

The fact is that CSIRO often comments on policy. Early this year, they released a series of five ‘roadmaps’ for various areas of industry, making explicit political recommendations. For example, their Medical Technologies and Pharmaceuticals Roadmap for April 2017 criticises the level of regulation in the pharmaceutical sector. A report by Paddy Manning for Background Briefing in June 2016 revealed that CSIRO had been given a political direction from the government on climate change research as well.

Accusations of CSIRO censoring researchers go back to the 1970s. In 2006, Four Corners reported that scientists were regularly censored on climate change policy. CSIRO has been accused of interfering with the publication of papers and threatening the careers of people who don’t comply with their political line.

Last year, CSIRO announced hundreds of jobs were to be axed, including almost half of its climate researchers. CSIRO was restructured to turn away from climate monitoring and towards mitigation, with a drastically reduced staff. Cuts to science have been pushed by both major parties – Labor made annual cuts to CSIRO when in office, sacking almost 200 staff in one round. The losses aren’t limited to CSIRO – funding for research grants are regularly reduced, and redirected away from public research towards private industry-led research through the Cooperative Research Centres Programme.

The reality of climate change

An overwhelming majority of climate scientists – 97% – agree that climate change is being caused by humans. Public opinion is more mixed. A 2010-2014 study by CSIRO found that while 78% of Australians agree that climate change is happening, only 46% understand that humans are the main cause.

But the science is not ambiguous. Weather stations and satellites show a fast, recent, and ongoing increase in global average temperature. Historical records and signals preserved in ice cores, lake sediments, limestone build-ups in caves and many other places show that the recent warming is unusual, and began after the Industrial Revolution.

It is firmly established that human activity is responsible. We can directly measure the rising concentration of CO2 in the air produced by burning fossil fuels. We can watch the greenhouse effect in action: satellites can see that the sunlight reflected from the ground into space is being filtered by CO2, trapping heat. This trapped energy can be seen from the ground – CO2 leaves a unique fingerprint.

The consequences of this warming can be seen and measured. So why is there such resistance to the science? And why are we not taking action?

Climate change denial

The resistance of the large fossil fuel companies has an obvious cause: they want to protect their wealth. Companies like Exxon-Mobil have sunk millions into ‘climate denialism’. Corporate funding fuels the small number of professional climate deniers. But it is worth noting that the fossil fuel industry that provides this funding is not conflicted on the science – leaked e-mails have shown that Exxon accepted the science of climate change as much as 36 years ago.

Climate denial is becoming harder to maintain against the reality of a changing world. In Australia, politicians who try to appeal to traditional conservative denial are not as well received as in the US. Big business has more openly accepted the basic science.

However, while the capitalists agree it is happening, the taking of appropriate action faces another hurdle in that it threatens the system of private ownership that is the basis of their wealth. So their goal is to address climate change while remaining within the confines of capitalism. This is the logic behind emissions trading schemes (ETSs) and incentives to privately develop renewable energy.

Capitalism a systemic barrier

Emissions trading relies on a market mechanism, creating many problems, as shown by the European Union’s ETS. It has been subject to rorting on a grand scale. There is little oversight – the UK only inspects 1% of sites to see if they are staying within their carbon limits. And there is nothing preventing companies from passing the cost of carbon credits onto consumers.

Funding incentives for renewable energy have faced cuts in Australia. Public funding in general is under constant attack, as capitalists prepare for us to catch up to the economic crisis in the rest of the world. Their priority is to shore up their position through tax breaks for themselves, paid for with cuts to public spending.

Renewable energy uptake across the world has been sluggish, and subject to the whims of the market. While around 20% of global energy is from renewable sources, the majority of that is from already-existing biomass and hydropower plants. New renewable plants have not been taken up and integrated into energy infrastructure on the scale needed – only a tiny fraction of a percent in total generating capacity is added each year by renewables, though this miniscule figure is routinely distorted to sound more impressive.

More than two decades of climate conferences have been held by the world’s governments, with almost no progress. They are continually foiled by the fact that no one country wants to risk committing seriously to emissions reductions while its neighbours don’t, in case it loses a competitive advantage. Capitalist governments always have the narrow, national interests of their local big business in mind.

It is little wonder that discussion on climate change often turns toward merely adapting to the catastrophic changes that are in store. Given the history of failures of capitalism in handling refugee crises, natural disasters and agricultural droughts, it is likely this ‘adaptation’ will spell ruin for the majority of us.

We need socialism

There are signs we have already passed the point of no return. The science tells us that our energy infrastructure needs to be transformed on an international scale in a short amount of time to avoid the worst-case scenarios. This means rapidly building new renewable plants and restructuring our energy supply, as well as expanding public transport and finding new transport solutions.

This will require public ownership and control over the energy and transport industries. This doesn’t mean putting unaccountable bureaucrats in charge – as we have seen, senior public servants are not neutral. We need democratic management, where the public has real oversight and the right to recall officials. This would enable us to find the best technical advice and put together the best possible plan.

All this will be resisted by private owners of industry, so it can only be done through the actions of ordinary working class people. Unlike big business, workers have basic interests in common with workers in other countries. With a socialist approach we would be able to work for a common, global plan to address climate change.

While climate denialism is weakening, it is being replaced with a sort of ‘political denialism’ – the idea that the issue somehow transcends politics. This idea is untenable. Throughout history, scientists have faced pressure whenever their findings conflicted with the interests of the ruling class. The systemic causes for this pressure need to be recognised and taken seriously. The fact is that we live in a class society, and the interests of the capitalist class are an objective barrier to action on climate change. Scientists should organise with other workers in the fight for a socialist system, where ordinary people govern the world in their own interests.

By David Elliott