Environment commissioner Kate Auty quits, drops bucket
March 6, 2014
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Environment editor, The Age
Victoria’s environment commissioner has quit and hit out at the Napthine government’s attitude on climate change, saying bureaucrats told her they were directed to refrain from even using the term.
Professor Kate Auty, the Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability since 2008, said the government’s lack of leadership on the issue was illustrated by the phrase ”climate variability” often being used when climate change was meant.
Climate change refers to warming of the planet by human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases. ”Climate variability” commonly describes natural fluctuations.
Professor Auty said public servants had told her about directions to them that they should refer to ”climate variability”, not climate change. And state government documents she saw included material headed ”climate variability” when it was clearly about the impacts of climate change, she said.
”The reason for my concerns is that as long as we keep telling people it is about natural variability we allay their desire to act themselves or want their elected representatives to do something about climate change,” she said.
”We need leadership on this issue, we need it now. It is urgent.”
In response, a spokeswoman for Environment Minister Ryan Smith accused Professor Auty – who was appointed by Labor – of a lack of independence for ”’tweeting the opposition”.
She said it was ”misleading” to suggest Mr Smith has instructed alternative terms to climate change be used. She referred to two policy documents – a response to a review of state climate laws and an adaptation plan – which included the term repeatedly.
But separate questions to Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh – who also has oversight of the Department of Environment and Primary Industries – about any language instructions he had made were redirected to Mr Smith’s office.
Professor Auty said despite the government indifference, she had seen a surge of public interest in climate change and the environment as she travelled around the state for meetings.
”People are out there saying we care about these issues, and we are doing something about it,” she said.
A lawyer and academic, Professor Auty’s term as commissioner was due to expire in June, but this week she told the government she would stand down on March 31, having achieved all she wanted.
The independent commissioner’s main obligation is to produce a major five-yearly state of the environment report. Her report was published last year and detailed worsening trends in key areas.
Professor Auty said during a meeting with Mr Smith in February 2012 to discuss a climate change paper she was preparing, the minister asked ”what can I do if I don’t like it”.
She told him there was nothing he could do – and the report would be scientifically accurate. She said Mr Smith did not ask her to refer to climate variability in the report, but she left feeling ”there was an issue about it being a climate change paper and it being published and produced. We produced it.”
Mr Smith’s spokeswoman said it was standard practice to engage officials and ask about ”response process”.
The spokeswoman said Professor Auty had run up a deficit of $550,000 in her office. Professor Auty said she had warned the government her budget was too small to fulfil the commissioner’s legislated obligations.
Mr Smith’s spokeswoman said an acting commissioner would now be appointed, who will review the value of the position.