01 November 2009

Australian Government Allegedly Interferes in Peer Review Process

According to an Australian economist, Clive Spash, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) has been attempting to prevent him from publishing a paper critical of carbon trading which had already been accepted for publication. Here is a news report:

THE nation's peak science agency has tried to gag the publication of a paper by one of its senior environmental economists attacking the Rudd government's climate change policies.

The paper, by the CSIRO's Clive Spash, argues the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme is an ineffective way to cut emissions, and instead direct legislation or a tax on carbon is needed.

The paper was accepted for publication by the journal New Political Economy after being internationally peer-reviewed.

But Dr Spash told the Australia New Zealand Society for Ecological Economics conference that the CSIRO had since June tried to block its publication.

In the paper, Dr Spash argues the economic theory underpinning emissions trading schemes is "far removed" from the reality of permit markets. "While carbon trading and offset schemes seem set to spread, they so far appear ineffective in terms of actually reducing GHGs (greenhouse gases)," he says. "Despite this apparent failure, ETS remain politically popular amongst the industrialised polluters.

"The public appearance is that action is being undertaken. The reality is that GHGs are increasing and society is avoiding the need for substantive proposals to address the problem of behavioural and structural change."

Dr Spash said trading schemes did not efficiently allocate emission cuts because their design was manipulated by vested interests. For example, in Australia, large polluters would be compensated with free permits while smaller, more competitive firms would have to buy theirs at auction. The schemes were also flawed because: global warming was caused by gases other than carbon; emissions were difficult to measure; carbon offsets bought from other countries were of dubious value; and the schemes "crowded out" voluntary action by individuals. He concludes that more direct measures, such as a carbon tax, regulations or new infrastructure would be simpler, more effective and less open to manipulation.

Apparently, Spash went public with his allegations at a conference of the Australia New Zealand Society of Ecological Economists last week:

. . . his presentation to the ANZSEE conference in Darwin last Wednesday stated: "The CSIRO is currently maintaining they have the right to ban the written version of this paper from publication by myself as a representative of the organisation and by myself as a private citizen."

Dr Spash said CSIRO managers had written to the journal's editor demanding the paper not be published.

A look at the ANZSEE website shows the following abstract for Spash's talk, which has the title "The Brave New World of Carbon Trading":
As human induced climate change has become a prominent political issue at the international level so the idea that emission trading can offer the solution has become more popular in government circles. Carbon permits are then fast becoming a serious financial instrument in markets turning over billons of dollars a year. In this paper, I show how the reality of market operation is far removed from the assumptions of economic theory and the promise of saving resources by efficiently allocating emission reductions. The pervasiveness of Greenhouse Gas emissions, strong uncertainty and complexity prevent economists from substantiating their theoretical claims. Corporate power is shown to be a major force affecting emissions market operation and design. The potential for manipulation to achieve financial gain, while showing little regard for environmental or social consequences, is evident as markets have extended internationally and via trading offsets. At the individual level, I explore the potential of emissions trading to have undesirable ethical and psychological impacts and to crowd out voluntary actions. I conclude that the focus on such markets is creating a distraction from the need for changing human behaviour, institutions and infrastructure.
For its part, CSIRO is quoted as defending its action as follows:

CSIRO spokesman Huw Morgan said the publication of Dr Spash's paper was an internal matter and was being reviewed by the chief executive's office.

However, he said that under the agency's charter scientists were forbidden from commenting on matters of government or opposition policy.

The CSIRO charter, introduced last year, was trumpeted by Science Minister Kim Carr as a way to guarantee freedom of expression for scientists.

Senator Carr said he was seeking a briefing from the CSIRO.

The CSIRO charter referred to by Huw Morgan can be found here in PDF. The charter states that:
. . . it is essential that those who have expertise in the areas under debate are able to communicate new ideas and to infuse public debate with the best reserch and new knowledge. . .

The Government and the public look to researchers to provide expert advice in their fields. Validation, particularly peer review, is essential to assuring the quality of research and should be the foundation for any public comment.

The Government and CSIRO recognise that there may be divergent views on both issues of public interest and the expert advice that is provided in relation to them. The parties agree that vigorous open debate of these views is important; as is the right of researchers to change their opinion in light of such debate or new findings from research.
The Charter does have the following somewhat ambiguous statement at the very end:
As CSIRO employees, they should not advocate, defend or publicly debate the merits of government or opposition policies (including policies of previous Commonwealth governments, or state or local or foreign governments).
This presumably is the clause referred to by Huw Morgan in the news story excerpted above. It could mean that CSIRO researchers should not refer to their policy views as theirs in an official capacity (i.e., this is the stance that NASA has taken with Jim Hansen). A stronger version would be to interpret this statement to mean that CSIRO researchers cannot discuss anything related to government policy. This latter interpretation seems absurd as economists such as Spash conduct reserch on matters related to policy.

I took a look at the CSIRO website and searched for "emissions trading" and came up with 69 results. (But you'd better check my numbers, as such searches can be difficult for me;-) I searched for "carbon pollution reduction scheme" (the Government's name for the Australian ETS) and came up with 31 hits. "Kyoto Protocol" resulted in 56 hits, including this bit of advocacy for the Kyoto Protocol in the form of a CSIRO press release:
The Kyoto Protocol should be considered just the first lap in a long race to reduce the environmental and economic risks associated with climate change, according to a climate risk analyst with CSIRO’s Energy Transformed Flagship, Dr Roger Jones.

7 May 2008

In a keynote address in Sydney today to the Kyoto Policy in Practice conference, Dr Jones says the Kyoto Protocol represents the starting line for a critical assessment of climate change from which the finishing line cannot be seen.

So the idea that CSIRO researchers do not comment on real-world policies is simply false. CSIRO even has a paper a paper on the CSIRO website by one of Spash's collaborators on carbon markets and their problematic implications for natural resource management.

Carbon trading is at the center of domestic debate about climate cahnge in Australia. It is understandable that the government would be sensitive to criticism at this time. How it responds to these allegations will likely shape the short-term debate about Australian climate policy, but as importantly, the longer-term issues of the ability of government researchers to freely express their views and their research. If CSIRO has indeed attempted to meddle in an international peer review process, then there could be significant fallout.