A former chief executive of the Bureau of Meteorology says the 67-year-old law that underpins Australia’s weather agency needs to be updated to bring it in line with the modern-day climate crisis.
Dr Rob Vertessy, who left the bureau in 2016 after five years in charge, said the Meteorology Act 1955 should be revised to give the bureau “a broader environmental intelligence remit”.
“I do think [the act] is of an age that it isn’t really relevant to the challenges of a planetary crisis,” Vertessy said.
“The public interest would be better served if we mandated an agency to have a broader remit. Given what the country is facing, there should be more of an emphasis on that.”
Last week the bureau came under fire from former staff and scientists who claimed it had been “cowering in the corner” on the climate crisis – an allegation the agency rejected.
Former bureau scientists told Guardian Australia that almost a decade of Coalition governments had meant climate change had become politically sensitive within the organisation.
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Vertessy led the agency through the government of Tony Abbott – a known climate change sceptic who once described climate science as “absolute crap”.
Vertessy told Guardian Australia there was a “baked-in cautiousness” in the BoM that was established in all government agencies under conservative governments.
This had reinforced a “policy paralysis problem” in responding to the climate crisis because the dominant public narrative “underrates both the urgency to act and the extent of change needed”.
“The consequence of this is that the public get a muted view of the climate situation from government agencies,” he said. “It is more grim and dangerous than most people realise and that’s problematic.”
Vertessy told Guardian Australia he had never been directed by a minister to “refrain from public commentary on climate change or even tone down my style” but there were “various cues that you get to calibrate your approach”.
“Nonetheless you do come to understand you can’t just go out there and keep creating heat in the media environment for the government, because that backfires on your agency,” he said.
“The best-case scenario then is you are frozen out and not consulted. The worst case is you are punished by being overlooked in future budgets. It is all very unspoken and, dare I say it, grey and shadowy.”
He said public servants “understand and accept that it is verboten [forbidden] to criticise government policies” but at the science-policy interface “there is some grey area when it comes to public comment”.
Reporting scientific facts was uncontentious, he said, but if doing that “invokes media and public criticism of government policies” then friction arises “and this is certainly common in the area of climate change”.
The Meteorology Act established the role of the bureau and its director but it predates concerns about climate change.
“It’s uncontentious that weather and forecasts is core business,” Vertessy said. “But there’s less formal direction when it comes to climate. When it comes to climate change, a mandate for being the voice for it is not reflected in the 1955 act.”
Instead, Vertessy said, governments, ministers and the bureau’s director of meteorology (which is the title of the chief executive) “have had degrees of discretion about whether [the bureau] is in that game or not”.
Vertessy said there had “probably been a greater appetite for senior officials to hold forth on climate change with progressive governments than conservative ones”.
“My sense is that the current government is more welcoming of expert opinion on climate change matters as it seeks to build community support for policy action,” he said.