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Australia’s spy agency predicted the climate crisis 40 years ago – and fretted about coal exports | Climate crisis
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Australia’s spy agency predicted the climate crisis 40 years ago – and fretted about coal exports | Climate crisis

Graeme Pearman, a former CSIRO scientist who was doing work to measure CO2 in the early 1970s.


The report was stamped CONFIDENTIAL twice on each page, with the customary warning it should “not be released to any other government except Britain, Canada, NZ and US”.

About 40 years ago this week, the spooks at Australia’s intelligence agency, the Office of National Assessments (ONA), delivered the 17-page report to prime minister Malcolm Fraser.

The subject? “Fossil Fuels and the Greenhouse Effect”.

Michael Cook, the agency’s director general, wrote in an introduction how his team had looked at the implications of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere “with special reference to Australia as a producer and exporter of coal”.

Cook wrote: “Scientists now agree that if such emissions continue it will some time in the next century lead to a discernible ‘greenhouse effect’ whereby the Earth’s atmosphere becomes measurably warmer with related climatic changes.”

Graeme Pearman, a former CSIRO scientist who was doing work to measure CO2 in the early 1970s.
Graeme Pearman is a former scientist from CSIRO who was involved in measuring CO2 in the 1970s.Photograph: Supplied

The agency had several warnings for the Fraser government, but central to the concerns was the potential for the country’s coal exports to be affected.

These concerns from high government officials show that the country saw the climate change issue from the beginning. prism of its fossil fuels.

There were “potentially adverse implications” for the “security of Australia’s export markets for coal beyond the end of the century”.

The Kyoto Protocol to limit greenhouse gas emissions was signed by the Howard government 16 years after the ONA Report.

John Howard was treasurer at the time that the ONA report was published. later refused to ratify that Kyoto deal, saying it would damage the country’s industries, including coal.

1981 was the year that ONA predicted tensions. Sooner or later the “carbon dioxide problem” would “arouse public concerns and so engage the attention of governments”.

If there wasn’t cost-effective technology “to reduce the carbon dioxide problem” by the end of that century, then concerns could “culminate in pressure for action to restrict fossil fuel usage”.

There was no “anti-fossil fuel lobby” yet that could be compared to “anti-nuclear groups” but some environmental organisations were starting to express concern.

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Public attention was only going to increase as more scientific results were published “and are sensationalised by the press and others”.

But in a concluding sentence that could be commenting on the Morrison government’s current defence of fossil fuels from a distance of four decades, the report says: “Australia could well find its export market particularly vulnerable to international policies aimed at limiting the use of coal.”

Dr Robert Glasser, head of the climate and security policy centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said: “It’s the job of intelligence agencies to anticipate these long-term threats and then alert the government.

“In that respect, they were doing their job.”

Former Australian prime minister John Howard.
John Howard, former prime minister of Australia refused to ratify Kyoto.Photograph by Mark Baker/REUTERS

The existence of the ONA report – sent to Fraser on 25 November 1981 – is still not widely known.

Scientists at the time working on the issue claimed that they had never seen it before the Guardian sent them a copy. Australia’s longest-serving science minister, Barry Jones, who took up his ministerial role in 1983, also said he had no recall of it.

Glasser says those who have followed the science over decades might not be surprised that Australia’s intelligence was exercised by climate change 40 years ago.

“The science has been clear in terms of a general direction ever since the 1970s – a decade before this report. But we now know the impacts.”

But he says despite the country’s intelligence agency first engaging with the issue 40 years ago, Australia is still “way behind” on the security risks being posed by climate change.

“We are failing to assess the climate and security risks generally, not just in Australia where we can see these simultaneous record-setting compounding events, but even in the region it’s a major security issue.”

One of the first people outside government to see the document was likely Prof Clive Hamilton, who says he was handed it by a “senior public servant” while he was researching his 2007 book Scorcher on the “dirty politics of climate change”.

“The document was amazingly prescient and remains accurate in its essentials,” said Hamilton

“It was one of those extraordinary things a researcher occasionally stumbles upon. It was almost unnoticed by anyone. It was just gathering dust on a shelf somewhere.”

As well as forecasting problems for the country’s coal industry, the ONA report included qualified forecasts of the potential impacts on the climate.

As the tropics grow, so could the area where cyclones might hit. Sea levels could rise, plants could grow faster, and the polar areas would heat up much quicker.

According to the report, there would be global winners as well as losers. Canada’s wheat-growing belt could grow, gaining area from the USA as the climate shifted. Canada and the USSR may lose permafrost. This could result in more agricultural land. There are concerns about the melting of permafrost and the possibility of a loss. release of large amounts of greenhouse gases This could lead to higher temperatures.

The ONA suggested that an increase in CO2 levels could cause warming of between 2C and 3. That estimate – from 40 years ago – is within the range of the UN’s latest assessment.

Emerging science

But the science and the concerns among Australia’s top scientists had been building well before the ONA report dropped on Fraser’s desk.

The report includes data that was derived from Dr Graeme Pearman’s research and those of colleagues at CSIRO. Pearman, a pioneering climate scientist, began working on the issue in early 1970s. He remembers speaking with ONA staff then.

Graeme Pearman in Melbourne last week
‘I knew they were aware of the issues’: Graeme Pearman in Melbourne last week.Photograph by Darrian Traynor

“I knew they were aware of the issues but I didn’t know how they would play that game,” says Pearman, who is now aged 80 but who saw the report for the first time this week.

“The report does reflect pretty well the state of our scientific understanding at that time. Where it perhaps falls down is that there seems to be no real attempt to evaluate the risks associated with what may unfold.”

In 1971, the CSIRO started measuring CO2 levels by using instruments in a Rutherglen, Victoria wheat field.

The following year, Pearman and colleagues had put air-sampling equipment on planes – some commercial and some government-owned. Over 3,500 samples were collected.

Pearman was curious to know more about the CO2 measurements that were taken in Hawaii every day since 1958 by a pioneering climate scientist. Charles David Keeling, of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, California.

To Pearman’s amazement, the amounts of CO2 in the air above the wheat field and from the aircraft instruments were almost identical to Keeling’s findings from Hawaii

In 1974, Pearman took the Australian air samples in six steel flasks across the world, visiting Keeling’s laboratory in California as well as other scientists doing CO2 measurements in Sweden, Canada, American Samoa and New Zealand.

The Report of a Committee on Climate Change was published by the Australian Academy of Science in 1976. It mostly addressed natural variations in climate.

But that report included a chapter on “man’s impact on climate”. All past climate changes had been due to natural events “on an astronomic or global scale,” the report said. But then came this sentence: “Human activities are now developing in ways that could have an appreciable effect on the climate within decades.”

Graeme Pearman with a book about climate change that he edited in 1988.
Graeme Pearman in 1988 with a book about climate changes that he edited.Photograph by Darrian Traynor

Four years later, and one year before the ONA report, Pearman edited a book – Carbon Dioxide and Climate: Australian Research that summarised the work going on in Australia. How did CO2 levels change? What does this mean for rainfall? What would the response be for plants?

“The potential significance of a CO2-induced climatic change is large,” wrote Pearman, but so too were the uncertainties. There is still much more to be done.

Prescient or very ordinary?

“It is fascinating and remarkable to read how this was being viewed [by the intelligence agency] only 10 years after we started our CO2 and climate work at CSIRO,” says Pearman.

Australia’s longest-serving science minister from 1983 to 1990, Barry Jones, could not recall ever seeing the ONA report, but he wasn’t particularly impressed.

“I think it’s pretty ordinary,” says Jones, whose latest book is called What Is to be Done: Political Engagement and Saving the Planet.

“They imposed on themselves a very narrow terms of reference,” he said, and was puzzled why the report mentions other greenhouse gases but ignored methane.

Professor Ian Lowe was lecturing students at Griffith University about the future of energy supply in the early 1980s. He also hadn’t seen the ONA report before.

A Queensland coal-fired power station during construction, circa 1980
A Queensland coal-fired electricity station was constructed in 1980. Australia has been worried about climate change’s implications for fossil fuels for decades. Photograph: Peter Righteous/Alamy

“It’s stamped confidential top to bottom. I was surprised how accurate it was though,” he said.

“The spy agency thought it was important enough to draw it to the attention of our political leadership largely because of what they saw as the commerce implications for the Australian export markets for coal.

“But what’s politically interesting is there was absolutely no response to this warning, even though the expansion of fossil fuels was tragically compromised.”

AuthorDr. Jeremy Walker is an academic from UTS in Sydney who is researching the history climate science and energy policy. He’s been reviewing the ONA report as part of a wider project.

“What’s interesting to me is that this was being considered at the highest levels of government, but the security issue is being interpreted in terms of the profitability of the fossil fuel industry. The fossil fuel industry is central to the government’s response – then and now.”


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