Esteemed scientist Sue Barrell calls on peers to seize chance to influence Australia’s climate policy

Australia’s climate experts need to hone their understanding of how Australia’s decision makers craft the policies that are taken to climate conferences abroad, and drive investment and the national agenda at home.

So said the recently retired former chief scientist of the Bureau of Meteorology, Sue Barrell, in her opening address to the Australian Meteorological and Atmospheric Sciences (AMOS) conference this week in Adelaide.

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“It would be great to see a think tank with government, industry, researchers like CSIRO, and universities, at a very practical level … providing a way forward. If we could do that and show other countries how Australia can do it, than maybe we can actually lead by example, instead of being a pariah.”

Barrell emphasised the importance of climate and oceans experts amid what’s been described as ‘the Critical Decade’.

That phrase refers to this decade, where the world will need to substantially reduce its carbon output – primarily from the burning of fossil fuels for energy – by 2030 to avoid exceeding a 1.5-degree increase in average global temperatures.

Not meeting that target will put the world on a path towards dangerous changes in the planet’s climate.  

‘Get their attention’

One of Australia’s foremost scientists, Barrell was recently named laureate of the IMO Prize by the World Meteorological Organization (the pinnacle honour of the planet’s top atmospheric science body). Born in England, raised and educated in New Zealand where she studied physics at the University of Canterbury, she crossed the ditch to Australia where she earned her doctorate in astronomy at the Australian National University.

It was a “social epiphany” that moved her away from a career in astronomical research and towards the study of atmospheres closer to home.

Following her graduation in 1980, she became a trainee meteorologist at the Bureau where she started a career that would see her become the organisation’s chief scientist, and a highly regarded expert in both domestic and international circles, advising Australia’s delegations to global climate conferences and engaging with a then-in-its-infancy Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In her plenary address, Barrell urged some 300 scientists from both Australian and international institutions to put their knowledge and experience to work informing policy makers and public climate discourse.

Harnessing their passion for science, she says, is the first step towards building awareness and understanding among those who vote for, or implement, climate policies. Science professionals can then use that along with their expertise, to guide leaders at all levels of government and industry to make informed, evidence-based decisions.

“Getting their long-term attention, and putting climate and climate change into a context they can genuinely relate to is difficult,” Barrell tells Cosmos.

“It’s not an easy conversation to have, but you will never get there just by putting the evidence in front of them.”

While the evidence for humanity’s influence on the climate has grown for decades, action to address it has been slow in Australia.

For 15 years, various policies have been platformed, implemented, mothballed and replaced – from emissions trading schemes and taxations, to so-called ‘direct action plans’, technological investment and, now, legislated carbon reduction targets.

Despite the frustrations for climate experts at the glacial pace of decarbonisation policy implementation, Barrell says they have a crucial role to play in guiding any science-informed discourse, both in the public eye and behind policy doors.

Superstars of STEM: Cosmos features Sue Barrell

They key is understanding how the political and policy processes work.

“There are so many things that governments are trying to balance all at the same time, and keep everyone happy,” she says.

“So the only way we’re really going to get scientists to seriously engage and get their attention is to say, ‘How can we be part of your conversation, what do you need, what are the problems and what are your priorities?’”

Sue barrell
Sue Barrell / Credit: Matthew Agius, Cosmos

“There is a tendency for a lot of scientists to be, ‘well here’s the evidence, you’ve got to follow the evidence. I think where they [scientists] miss out is understanding how to have that conversation, and I think that’s an area that we need to be working on more.

“Bureaucrats and politicians together develop policy and they base that on all sorts of things … nowadays increasingly short term things are at the top of their agenda, sometimes they are climate related, like floods, fires and things like that, but their focus is very much on recovery.”

Research-industry-policy connection a golden opportunity for Australia

Since leaving the Bureau, Barrell has become a respected advisor giving her expertise across a range of industry and research bodies, including the RV Investigator, University of Technology Sydney and the Australian Research Data Commons. She chairs the Stawell Underground Physics Laboratory – Australia’s dark matter research lab – bringing her back into contact with the space research she pursued at university.

Connecting science and industry is where she sees her ‘value add’ in retirement, and a particularly important link for the future of Australia’s climate response.

Other senior leaders Cosmos spoke to at AMOS all want to see greater industry investment in research and development within Australia, whether through better funding or tax incentives. This week, the federal science and industry minister Ed Husic told the National Press Club he wants to bankroll research and industry investment into a range of areas, including clean energy generation and storage.

That statement has some promise for the scientific community, particularly in the wake of an improved ‘performance’ on the climate negotiation stage this year (COP27 marked the first time in a decade Australia wasn’t criticised by civil society observers).

Investment to optimise research application in the real world is an opportunity Barrell believes Australia should be pursuing, and a move that would help change global perspectives on Australia as being wedded to declining industries that are the primary contributors to global warming.

“There’s an opportunity for Australia to demonstrate how government, industry, environment can work together,” Barrell says.

“We can actually put in place solutions that can reduce emissions, that can deliver people with the energy they need, without increase or decrease in cost.”

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