Liberals and Greens team up to back inquiry into axed Antarctic climate science projects

The Senate will investigate the Australian Antarctic Division’s plan to cut dozens of crucial climate science projects due to a budget crunch, as revealed by the Guardian earlier this month.

Leaked internal documents revealed the affected programs included studies of record low sea ice, rapidly declining penguin populations due to ecological change and a program that cleans up damage caused by human activity, including oil spills.

The Liberal senator Jonathon Duniam and Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson will refer the matter to the Senate’s environment and communications references committee for inquiry on Wednesday afternoon. The partnership ensures Labor does not have the votes required to block a referral.

Duniam said the inquiry would examine the full impact of the division being forced to find $25m of savings within one year, as outlined by the director in an email to staff late last month.

“That will specifically include investigation of how many of the 56 items on an internal list of projects, programs and research activities, as revealed by the Guardian, will be cut or terminated,” Duniam said.

The colour-coded internal document, dated 20 July, shows the list of projects the head of the division considers possible when considering budget constraints, logistics and operational challenges.

Whish-Wilson said he wanted the inquiry “to put politics aside” and “get to the bottom of the matter”.

“We want to get some kind of certainty for these programs,” he said. “We want to find out what the decision-making process was to determine what was critical and what would be canned and the opportunities to reassess the science programs that have been canned.

“It’s obviously a mess. There’s significant uncertainty in the division and low morale across the board. One of the cultural changes I would like to see is more emphasis on science, especially on climate science down there, and less prioritisation of infrastructure.”

According to the internal document, projects on the chopping block “due to budget restraints” also include an “airborne” survey of sea ice thickness and “observations of Antarctic land-fast sea ice”.

When contacted by Guardian Australia about the document’s recommendations, an Australian Antarctic Division spokesperson said the program “continues to prioritise critical science that supports understanding of climate, ecosystems and environmental stewardship”.

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“Australia’s climate science is globally important and the Australian Antarctic program will continue to deliver our priority science initiatives, such as the million-year ice core and the Denman terrestrial campaign,” a spokesperson said.

Last week, the environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, accused the former government of “irresponsibly managing Australia’s Antarctic program”.

“The sad truth is the former Liberal government was irresponsibly managing Australia’s Antarctic program. As a result, we’ve had to have two inquiries into the program in less than a year,” Plibersek said.

“I have been given clear assurances by the Australian Antarctic Division that there is no plan for redundancies, that a number of contractors are being transitioned into secure, permanent jobs and that critical science will continue.”

The terms of reference for the inquiry also include an examination of “the consequences of funding cuts to Australia’s Antarctic program for our country’s geopolitical and strategic international interests”.

Earlier this month, international lawyers and environmentalists warned Australia’s international reputation and diplomatic influence would be damaged unless the federal government intervened to ensure research in Antarctica is not cancelled.