Bureau of Meteorology was ‘cowering in the corner’ on climate crisis, former staff claim
Exclusive: Allegations that discussing climate change at BoM is basically banned come after accusations of a toxic workplace culture T he Bureau of Meteorology has been accused of cowering in the corner on the climate crisis, with current and former staff describing a conservative culture that left the Australian public poorly informed. Talking proactively on climate change was seen as a risk for the bureau, staff said, and scientists within the bureau were frustrated at the agencys position. The bureau this week backtracked on a request it no longer be referred to as the BoM after a rebuke from the environment minister, Tanya Plibersek. Employees said the furore over the rebranding had made an allegedly toxic work culture worse , with Guardian Australia revealing staff and their union had contacted federal government ministers documenting complaints. Plibersek said she has now received a brief on a range of issues at the BoM including cultural issues and Ill be considering that carefully. Two former staff members have now told the Guardian of an exodus of communications personnel in the last two years, alleging a horrendous culture with staff mentally broken and distraught. Prof Scott Power, a climate scientist who left the BoM in 2020 after more than 25 years, said under the leadership of the chief executive, Andrew Johnson, the agency was trying to keep the lowest profile it can get away with on climate change. As a result, the Australia public has been far less informed on climate change than they should have been. It is a leading technical agency in the country and it has been cowering in the corner when it comes to climate change. Johnson was appointed in 2016 under the Turnbull government. Prof David Karoly, a veteran climate scientist who has collaborated with many BoM researchers over many years, said talking about climate change is basically banned, but they are not allowed to talk about that ban. I think its a leadership direction and Andrew Johnson has been principally responsible for that. Its coming from the top. The BoM has been reluctant and still is to talk about future climate change. They are not even allowed to talk about some of their [own] peer reviewed papers. Climate change is likely making extreme rainfall events worse. But they dont want to say it. I dont know why. Karoly said several BoM staff had expressed frustrations to him about the bureaus muted climate change communications. This obviously has major impacts on the publics understanding, he said. Sign up for our free morning newsletter and afternoon email to get your daily news roundup One current staff member who works with scientists, but who asked not to be named, said staff were frustrated and often referred to an episode of 1970s British sitcom Fawlty Towers that popularised the term Dont mention the war but the war is climate change. Emails released under freedom of information rules and previously reported by Michael West Media reveal discussions on the preparation of a video in November 2019 on the causes of extreme hot and dry conditions that sparked the Black Summer bushfires. The video did not mention climate change. A public affairs manager wrote this video is low risk and does not conflict with the CEOs view the Bureau should not be proactively discussing climate context (given all our efforts are/should be directed towards the operational response to these events). A video team member, asking permission to release the video, wrote: I realise there are sensitivities around whether we discuss the climate in relation to recent weather conditions. A BoM statement said the email quote does not reflect the view of the CEO, who supported regular and high-profile public communication of climate change status and trends, consistent with Bureau role and capability, adding there is evidently no virtual or actual ban on communicating peer-reviewed climate change status and trends, consistent with Bureau role and capability. The BoM devotes significant effort to observing and publicly reporting climate change, the statement said, listing the biennial State of the Climate report alongside several other projects that gave Australians and decision makers an authoritative source of information on the observed changes in Australias climate. Sign up to Afternoon Update Our Australian afternoon update breaks down the key stories of the day, telling you whats happening and why it matters after newsletter promotion The bureau does not have a role or capability devoted to analysis or formulation of impacts of or responses to climate change, which are the purview of other agencies. This distinction can frustrate those who seek an end to end role in climate change. Neil Plummer, who left the bureau in 2018 after 33 years working on climate and forecasting, said the agency had become cautious and risk averse over climate change during successive Coalition governments. He said during unfolding extreme weather events, the bureau did an excellent job of informing the public on risks. It should be the same with climate change. The risks are just as great. We can expect greater climate action from communities and businesses when they know the impacts they are experiencing are being exacerbated by climate change. Two former staff members who left in 2021 spoke to the Guardian. One said on climate change, there was a pathological fear of anyone saying anything off script, but it was never clear what that script should be. Staff were incredibly envious of national weather agencies in the UK and US that seemed able to present the science relatively unfettered with little evidence of it being presented through a political filter. On why they left the bureau, they said: Because I was mentally destroyed. They claimed so many people have been damaged by the last two years of working there, and that it was a horrendous workplace and no one who was there ... in that media team was unharmed by it. It was consistent negativity and being told ... they were doing the wrong thing without being told what the right thing was. A second former staff member said: I saw so many of my colleagues fall apart. It was incredibly distressing. It was all about managing the message. I had the opportunity to get out and I took it. A bureau statement said staff movements in the media team have been driven by individual decisions/resignations or in accordance with Bureaus HR policies and procedures. The media team has undergone significant re-organisation and change over the last 18 months and attrition can occur with workplace change. Some workers adapt to the change whilst others find change to be a catalyst to review their career goals and pursue other opportunities. The statement said the communications group needs to be agile to respond to the organisations changing needs and strategic direction and operate in a faced pace [sic] and consistently changing environment. A small number of staff have not welcomed the changes to operating model for the communications program. One staff member had raised concerns about constant criticisms before leaving, but the bureau hasnt subsequently seen any evidence of staff members feeling as if they were consistently criticised, the statement said.