Conflicts within the Coalition over climate policy have made it difficult for civil servants to give honest advice about preparing for worsening extreme weather such as floods and fires, according to sworn testimony of a senior bureaucrat.
- The government has withheld a number of “war game” climate scenarios from the public, claiming the topic was “sensitive”
- A senior bureaucrat said that the government’s struggle to tackle climate change made it difficult for civil servants to do their jobs
- One expert said the testimony was evidence that “public services have become highly politicized”
The comments came in July last year during the Coalition’s legal efforts to maintain secrecy over a “war game” climate scenario by some of the country’s top bureaucrats.
Under “Project Climate Ready”, scenarios were mapped out in 2018 in anticipation of the type of major disruption expected from climate change, by a now-defunct group called the Secretary’s Group on Climate Risk.
In 2019, the ABC obtained several documents relating to the group’s activities, but details of the scenario were not released.
The ABC contested the decision to withhold documents at the Administrative Court of Appeals (AAT) but to no avail.
The ABC won’t appeal the decision in Federal Court, so it’s now publishing revelations from last year’s trial.
Internal conflicts make preparation for climate change difficult
In testimony before the AAT last year, the deputy secretary of the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, Jo Evans, said releasing the scenario would be against the public interest.
He said the policy area was so “contested”, that secrecy was necessary for the public service to do its job.
The topic of climate policy is so “sensitive,” he said, that “even the existence of the Secretary’s Group on Climate Risk has been sensitive for some time.”
Evans said the row between Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce over whether Australia should target net-zero emissions is an example of how the topic is debated.
Because of such conflicts, he said, it is not only difficult for the government to “grapple” with the problem, but it is also difficult for public services to do so.
“We are very carefully exploring a subject here that is difficult for the government to deal with, and also therefore difficult for the senior civil servants involved in it to deal with,” he said.
Evans argues that in order to continue to provide the fearless advice they provide, the public service needs to maintain the confidentiality of the scenario, which is part of the deliberation process.
In its ruling, the AAT agreed with Ms Evans, finding that release of documents “may hinder” [public service’s] ability to develop and advance policy proposals”.
‘Surprised’: Former senior defense official
In 2018, the Secretary’s Group on Climate Risk was notified in a “context paper” prepared by civil servants that extreme weather was already “overwhelming” the country’s ability to respond to climate events, minutes of the meeting obtained by ABC show.
That was before the 2019 and 2020 Black Summer bushfires or the various east coast floods this year.
In 2018, when the Secretary Group on Climate Risk was operating, Cheryl Durrant was the director of preparedness and mobilization at the Department of Defense.
He helped create the secret scenario used by the group.
“I don’t think there will be a problem if they are released,” said Durrant, who is now a member of the Climate Council.
He said he was not surprised by the testimony at the AAT, but he was “shocked” by the public service position he was given.
“The best tradition of public service is the ability to provide free, honest and transparent advice to the government,” he said.
“This … is yet another piece of evidence showing that the public service has become highly politicized and thus unable to do its job of providing honest and fearless advice to governments.”
Australia ‘overwhelmed’ scenario by extreme weather
Joelle Gergis, a climate scientist at ANU, says not much creativity is needed to guess what kind of scenario the group might pull off.
“We don’t really need to use our imaginations to think about this. I think we have two very clear and vivid examples just in the last few years,” said Dr Gergis, pointing to the Black Summer wildfires and the 2022 floods.
He said the conditions that caused the Black Summer wildfires would be average conditions by 2040, and 20 years later they would be colder than average.
“It’s like a scary glimpse into the future of what we’re going to see when we talk about increasing global warming.”
Dr Gergis said he was saddened to hear that the contested nature of climate policy made it difficult for public servants to address the issue.
“I think it’s very concerning and I think at the end of the day, physics doesn’t really care about political cycles or political infighting,” he said.
The scenarios have been classified, but in commissioning them, documents show the group said they “could include modeling springs at 10 degrees (Celsius) above average” and “associating with concurrent extreme weather events, legal liability, national security or health.” . “.
They said the exercise would involve scenario planning over a “15 to 20 year” period.
The group noted Project Climate Ready should help governments “identify action and encourage discussion about what decisions need to be made to build resilience to climate change, by whom, and when.”
Release important document for democracy, say expert
In addition to the direct physical risks that impact national health and security, the group also considers the legal risks that climate change can pose to governments.
Ms Durrant said releasing the document was essential for democracy.
“Isn’t that the essence of democracy, that there should be an open and honest public debate on issues relevant to Australia?”
In 2019, a spokesperson for the Department of the Environment told the ABC that the work of the Secretary Group is now being carried out by a group headed by a more junior undersecretary, called the “Climate and Disaster Resilience Reference Group”.
A spokesman for the Morrison government said the Coalition’s position on climate change was “clear with a strong commitment to achieving zero by 2050”.
“The Morrison government has been working closely with the department in formulating and implementing the strategy,” the spokesman said.
The Department of Water and the Agricultural Environment was also contacted by the ABC.