Meteorological services around the world have embraced climate attribution science, which ascertains the effect of climate change on extreme weather events. Not so Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, which is remarkably coy about its work in this field. Sandi Keane and Tasha May report.
One of the top 10 breakthrough technologies of 2020, according to the prestigious Massachusetts’s Institute of Technology Tech Review, was climate change attribution science.
Meteorological bureaus around the world have embraced the advancements in meteorological science. New Zealand’s MetService is developing a machine that will be able to determine, within a day or two of an extreme weather event having occurred, the role of climate change in the severity and frequency of the event. The UK’s Met Office has developed a state-of-the-art modelling system for event attribution.
Climate attribution involves understanding and quantifying “how much of the credit or risk for an event (or type of events) should go to global warming and how much should go to natural weather patterns or random climate variability”.
Burying the lead
In contrast to the trend globally towards climate attribution, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology seems to have gone to ground at any mention of climate change in connection with the words “unprecedented bushfires”.
And while BoM’s State of the Climate 2020 report notes the fact that “reducing emissions will lead to less warming and fewer impacts”, this only appears of the report’s final page. This fact is also not mentioned in the Key Points at the start of the report.
And, as Michael West Media has reported previously, the BoM’s explainer video “Bushfires and Exceptional heat: what’s driving our weather right now?” fails to mention climate change as a cause of the Black Summer bushfires. Our investigation revealed that this omission is in line with “CEO’s [Andrew Johnson] view the Bureau should not be proactively discussing climate context”.
Modelling greenhouse gas effects
As noted by the Massachusetts’s Institute of Technology’s Technology Review (March/April 2020 edition):
“Thanks to improved climate simulations, accumulating weather data, and more powerful computers, it’s now possible to model worlds with and without the greenhouse gases we’ve added to the atmosphere over the past 150 years.
And that lets researchers conclude that specific weather events, such as the devastating bushfires in Australia, were — within certain upper and lower bounds — more likely and more damaging thanks to global temperature increases.”
The Review’s senior energy editor James Temple acknowledged that previously, “the party line among meteorologists and climate scientists” was that “you can’t attribute any specific weather event to climate change”.
Is Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology leadership team still wedded to the old party line?
BoM is a publicly funded organisation, receiving $263.3 million in 2019-20 from taxpayers. It operates under the Meteorological Act 1955, which states that one of BoM’s key functions is:
- (g) the promotion of the advancement of meteorological science, by means of meteorological research and investigation or otherwise.
Given the increasing importance of Climate Attribution in meteorological science, it would appear the Bureau is legally bound to promote this science.
Yet CEO Andrew Johnson has stated that “the Bureau should not be proactively discussing climate context [of the Black Summer fires]”.
Health and safety issue
BoM’s Customer Service Charter states that it is “committed to the health and safety of our customers and our people, with a focus on contributing to zero lives lost from natural hazards”.
The 2019-2020 bushfires were directly responsible for the deaths of 33 individuals, according to the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements. Its Report also found that “extensive smoke coverage across much of eastern Australia may have caused many more deaths”.
A report from the World Weather Attribution into ‘Attribution of the Australian bushfire risk to anthropogenic climate change’ found that human-induced climate change altered the likelihood and intensity of fire weather risk in the 2019/2020 bushfires.
The World Health Organisation also states that climate change “is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress”.
Again, it appears the BoM’s inability to publicly acknowledge climate change and the scientific advances in climate attribution undermines this stated goal.
As noted earlier, meteorological services in other countries have recognised the importance of Climate Attribution.
New Zealand’s MetService (The Meteorological Service of New Zealand Limited) supports the consensus view of the World Meteorological Organisation that “long-term climate change is increasing the intensity and frequency of extreme weather and climate events and causing sea level rise and ocean acidification”.
MetService is partnering with Bodeker Scientific to develop an Extreme Weather Event Real-time Attribution Machine (EWERAM) whereby “scientifically defensible data will be available to inform quantitative statements about the role of climate change in both the severity and frequency of the event”.
Similarly, the UK Met Office’s EUCLEIA project aims to provide “critical information to policymakers, public authorities and citizens to guide climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies and to prepare for extreme weather”.
Canada’s Department of Natural Resources, in its 2019 Canada’s Changing Climate Report, acknowledges “attribution studies” as providing “quantitative assessments of the contribution of various climate drivers to observed warming over specified time periods.
“On the basis of such studies, it is extremely likely that human influences, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, have been the dominant cause of the observed global warming since the mid-20th century,” notes the report.
That which shall not be named
In response to a Freedom of Information request lodged by Michael West Media, the Bureau of Meteorology said it made its explainer video because:
“We’ve had some strong interest from the community on social media and media groups about what is currently influencing weather across the country.”
This video – “Bushfires and Exceptional heat: what’s driving our weather right now?” – does not mention climate change. And at the Senate Estimates hearing on March 2 last year, Dr Andrew Johnson, the BoM’s chief executive, seriously downplayed the impact of climate change on the summer’s bushfires when questioned.
In line with its own Charter, which mandates the promotion of the most advanced meteorological science, one would expect the Bureau of Meteorology to be including whatever climate attribution data is available in its answer to this query from the Australian community.
Questions asked of BoM
Michael West Media asked the Bureau of Meteorology the following questions:
- Would the BoM like to comment on whether there was any link between climate change and the Black Summer fires?
- Does the BoM consider climate change a political issue and is therefore unable to comment?
- Why did the BoM decline, twice. to be interviewed about its research on an Attribution Method for Extreme Events when asked about it by The Guardian?
- Could the BoM elaborate on what specific climate attribution research is being done and when it will be released to the Australian public?
The Bureau of Meteorology replied with the following statement:
The Bureau operates under the terms of the Meteorological Act 1955, which requires it to conduct research and provide advice on meteorological matters and serve the public interest by working with all sectors of the Australian community and economy.
Under the Act, the Bureau must also pay particular attention to the needs of the Defence Force, navigation, shipping and civil aviation sectors, as well as primary production, industry, trade and commerce.
The Australian Government Charging Framework requires the Bureau to receive fees for many of its services – these are received from participants across the Australian economy.
The Bureau publishes material that describes a wide range of meteorological phenomena. The Bureau’s latest climate science (including climate attribution work) has been published in State of the Climate 2020.
Special service fee?
In response to our investigation last month, some readers suggested that the millions of dollars BoM receives from oil and gas companies was a service fee for special weather monitoring services particular to their business needs.
Michael West Media again contacted BoM to ask how much of the money received from the oil and gas players was spent providing these meteorological services. It responded:
“The Bureau of Meteorology has previously sent you a media statement in answer to your questions. Please refer to that statement.”
MW's former editor, Sandi was also editor at Independent Australia.
Sandi has conducted corporate investigations, principally into the CSG and media sectors. Sandi holds a Masters degree in Journalism from the University of Melbourne.