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May 27th 2010 print

Tom Quirk

CSIRO blame game

Apparently, the final draft “State of the Climate” report was not reviewed by CSIRO or BOM scientists themselves, and when it is questioned others are blamed for the errors it contains and the confused dating of information.

It was them that done it! 

The explanation from P. Fraser, a senior CSIRO scientist, reveals how a major document branded by the organisation was published and promoted. Apparently, the final draft “State of the Climate” report was not reviewed by CSIRO or BOM scientists themselves, and when it is questioned others are blamed for the errors it contains and the confused dating of information. 

It’s not as though nothing is at stake. Were the now delayed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme to be introduced, an estimated $14 billion over 10 years would be confiscated from the coal mining sector alone, simply on the basis that its allegedly rising fugitive methane emissions posed an unacceptable climatic threat. 

Australia’s was the only scheme in the world that was going to penalise coal mining in this way – and the proposal appeared to have CSIRO professional authority behind it. But rather than represent the data objectively – which is the CSIRO’s charter – we’ve been served up a significant distortion. If it’s not the scientists’ fault one wonders where the real accountability lies? 

To Fraser’s points: while the data may now be correct the choice of scale renders the presented result unintelligible. What remains unexplained is the omission of the methane measurements from Cape Grim showing the plateau in methane concentrations. 

Fraser makes the point that the CSIRO team were the first to report a rise in methane again towards the end of 2006 at the end of the omitted plateau. The work of the group in atmospheric measurements is first class and arguably occasionally better than some of their US colleagues but their over eager interpretation may lead them astray. The claim of rising methane is an example (Figure 1) as the latest published measurements[i] suggest otherwise with a decreasing trend. 

Figure 1: Recent measurements of atmospheric methane. Instantaneous growth rate for globally averaged atmospheric methane (solid line; dashed lines are ±1 standard deviation).

The IPCC does not understand or cannot explain the behaviour of atmospheric methane. The CSIRO has done no better. Only time for more measurements and a better understanding of the sources and sinks of methane will resolve this issue. The science is uncertain and not a basis for any policy making that has the potential to cripple a large part of the coal mining industry. 

More transparency and less selective presentation would help.



[i] E. J. Dlugokencky, L. Bruhwiler, J. W. C. White, L. K. Emmons, P. C. Novelli, S. A. Montzka, K. A. Masarie, P. M. Lang, A. M. Crotwell, J. B. Miller and L. V. Gatti, Observational constraints on recent increases in the atmospheric CH4 burden. Geophysical Research Letters, 36, L18803, 2009