This story was first published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
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 reportPrime 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.”
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 was signed by the Howard government to limit greenhouse gas emissions 16 years after the ONA Report was released. John Howard was treasurer when 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 organizations were starting to express concern. Public attention was only going to increase as more scientific results were published “and are sensationalized by the press and others.”
But in a concluding sentence that could be commenting on the Morrison government’s current defense 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.”
The existence of the ONA report—sent to Fraser on 25 November 1981—is still not widely known. Scientists involved in the issue at the time stated that they had never seen it before the. GuardianThey were sent 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.”
“The document was amazingly prescient and remains accurate in its essentials,” said Hamilton. 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.”
“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. The potential area where cyclones might strike could increase as the tropics expand. Sea levels could rise, plants may grow faster, and the polar regions might heat up much faster.
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 could lose permafrost, which could lead to more agricultural land. Permafrost is melting now, raising concerns about the sustainability of the country’s agricultural land. release of large amounts of greenhouse gases This could increase temperatures.
The ONA suggested that an increase in CO2 levels could lead to warming of between 2C and 3C if they double the atmospheric level. That estimate—from 40 years ago—is within the range of the UN’s latest assessment.
Science is the key 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 and remembers speaking to ONA staff back then.
“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 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 about the CO2 measurements taken continuously in Hawaii since 1958 by pioneering climate scientists. Charles David KeelingScripps 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 1976 Report of a Committee on Climatic change was published by the Australian Academy of Science. It mainly dealt with natural variations of the 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.”
Four years later, and one year before the ONA report, Pearman edited a book—Climate and Carbon Dioxide: Australian ResearchThat was a summary of the work that was being done in Australia. How was CO2 affecting the environment? What does this mean for rainfall? What would happen to plants?
“The potential significance of a CO2-induced climatic change is large,” wrote Pearman, but so too were the uncertainties. There was still much to do.
“It is fascinatingIt was amazing to see how this was 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 the Saving of 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.
In the early 1980s, Prof. Ian Lowe was lecturing students about the future energy supply at Griffith University. He also hadn’t seen the ONA report before. “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.”