The Australian government’s science agency, the CSIRO, has paid tens of thousands of dollars to peak mining lobby group the Minerals Council of Australia, which fights against government action on climate change.
The CSIRO has been listed as an “associate member” of the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) since at least 2004 and new documents obtained by the Australian Institute, under freedom of information laws, show that in 2017 the “annual subscription” for membership was just under $10,000.
The mining lobby plays a vocal role in Australian climate change policy debates and the positions it takes are on the extreme end of the spectrum and include pushing for more coal power stations to be built.
The CSIRO continues to be a member of the MCA despite even Australia’s biggest climate polluter, AGL, publicly parting ways with the Minerals Council of Australia in 2016, saying it did so because of the positions the MCA took on climate change.
“AGL’s positions on climate change and renewable energy differed from those held by the Minerals Council of Australia … and AGL has elected not to renew its membership,” the company said in its 2016 sustainability report.
CSIRO declined to answer specific questions about how long it had been a member, what the cost had been and what the CSIRO got in return for membership. A CSIRO spokesman instead gave a statement, published in full below.
The executive director of the Australia Institute, Ben Oquist, said: “The Minerals Council has been on the fringe of the climate and energy debate in Australia, opposing policies that would tackle emissions effectively.
“It defies commonsense that the CSIRO, an organisation that researches climate change and develops renewable technology, gives money to a lobby group that campaigns against effective climate policy and against policies that would increase renewable energy.”
CSIRO has come under fire in recent years for a perception it has not been giving fearless advice to the public and to government on climate-related issues. At the same time, the organisation has cracked down on employees who themselves seek to speak publicly on policy issues.
Internal CSIRO emails leaked earlier this year show significant internal unrest over CSIRO’s failure to make a submission to the government’s consultation on greenhouse gas emissions targets in 2009. In one email, a CSIRO executive said it didn’t provide a submission because the “questions posed in the discussion paper are very policy-focused”. She said CSIRO would engage government agencies behind closed doors.
But Oquist said one of MCA’s main functions is to lobby to change government policy. “In its 2013 annual report the MCA boasts it ‘was at the forefront of the debates over the carbon and mining taxes; and their abolition (expected after July 2014) will be in no small part due to the council’s determined advocacy on both issues’,” Oquist said.
“While the commonwealth’s key scientific research organisation effectively funds political advocacy for the coal industry, it works to prohibit its own staff from commenting on national science policy.”
John Church, a world-leading climate scientist who was made redundant in the organisation’s 2016 job cuts and who was one of the disgruntled employees in the leaked emails, told the Guardian CSIRO’s membership of the MCA was in contradiction to its refusal to engage in policy debates.
“I would definitely say there was a conflict,” Church said. “CSIRO is putting itself in a position where it is implicitly supporting particular policy positions by being a member of the Minerals Council.
“They should not only be independent but be seen to be independent.”
A senior climate scientist still at the CSIRO told the Guardian that currently it is almost impossible for climate scientists there to speak publicly about policy.
David Karoly, a climate scientist from the University of Melbourne and a former member of the government’s Climate Change Authority, said: “It’s a small amount of money but it is odd in my view that they are spending this level of funding on an organisation that is arguing against the conclusions the CSIRO has made about the science of climate change.”
When asked about AGL’s move to quit the MCA, Tim Nelson, AGL’s head of economics, policy and sustainability, told the Guardian: “We think there’s a strong opportunity for all corporates and industry associations to document a very scientific approach to how they see the consistency of their industry and their business with the 2C goal that Australia has signed up to.”
The Minerals Council of Australia website says “full membership” is given to companies “directly involved in mining, prospecting or contracting activities relating to the obtaining, concentrating, smelting ore refining of minerals.”
They say “associate membership”, such as that held by the CSIRO, “is open to companies which carry on as their principal business the supply of equipment, materials, services or capital to a company eligible for full membership.”
Other public organisations with associate membership of MCA include ANSTO Minerals and the University of Western Australia.
A CSIRO spokesman gave the following statement:
CSIRO has a long history collaborating with professional societies and bodies including industry associations. Memberships are an important part of our dialogue with a wide range of stakeholders by allowing us to build networks, share research results, collaborate on research projects, and generally help ensure the relevance and uptake of our research.
No organisation we are a member of has authority to speak or act on behalf of CSIRO. Further, as standard practice CSIRO officers must work within relevant policies to ensure our independence and impartially. For example, they cannot comment on policies of the government, opposition or any other political parties; or outside of their areas of expertise in their interactions with any industry body.
An MCA spokesman said: “The MCA represents Australia’s mining industry as part of its contribution to sustainable development, economic growth and social and community affairs.
“As outlined on our website, full membership of the MCA is available to businesses involved in mining, prospecting or contracting activities while associate membership is open to groups providing equipment, materials, services or capital to mining companies.”
ANSTO Minerals, part of the government-owned Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation is also an associate member of the Minerals Council and a spokesman said ANSTO was a member of the Uranium Forum of the MCA and also sits on the radiation protection working group.
“These are forums through which we provide advice on all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle including safety, compliance, radiation management, efficiency, and international best practice,” the spokesman said.