My request three years ago to obtain temperature data from the Bureau of Meteorology should have been a straightforward process, but what I encountered was a determination to obstruct and obfuscate.
The recent saga – sparked by that Freedom of Information request and Graham Lloyd’s report in The Australian last month – illustrates deficiencies in the system. In practice, it is easy for government agencies to prevent the release of documents, and entities such as the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner often are not effective in assisting the public if a government agency is determined to prevent access.
Arguably I am in a better position than most to traverse roadblocks in the FOI system. I have qualifications in science and law, and I have published in academic journals about accessing climate information through FOI. But even with these advantages it has taken three years to obtain any records.
The saga involved a request for daily maximum and minimum temperature measurements at several sites in Australia. The request was for parallel temperature data, where measurements were taken using older liquid-in-glass thermometers and more modern automated platinum resistance probes introduced in the past 30 years. It is important to know the measurements using these different types of equipment if reliable continuous records are to be constructed for each site so recent temperature changes can be accurately compared with records extending back to the start of the industrial era.
Small differences in temperature measurement between the two types of equipment, perhaps 0.2C to 0.5C, are not negligible in the context of global warming when the public is told a rise of 1.5C above pre-industrial era will have dire consequences.
The original FOI request for parallel data for Brisbane airport was made in December 2019, as well as other sites at later stages.
One tactic used is to allege that the documents requested do not exist. They did exist, as they were referred to in BOM reports that list the sites at which parallel temperatures have been collected and the periods. The proof is that we have finally received parallel temperature for Brisbane, showing claims to the contrary were nonsense.
Another tactic is to erect cost barriers. This was the case with the BOM. The agency involved is entitled to calculate an approximate processing cost in providing the documents requested under FOI.
However, FOI legislation allows an applicant to request a fee waiver on grounds of hardship or public interest. The BOM rejected my waiver request on public interest grounds. It said the data sought was of only personal interest to me and I stood to gain financially because I could use this information in the course of my employment. It is astonishing that the BOM could take the position that accurate quantification of atmospheric temperature changes across the past century has little or no public interest when the public is told there will be drastic consequences for the planet if a 1.5C atmospheric temperature increase is exceeded.
An applicant is permitted to request a review by the OAIC if unsatisfied with decisions made by a government agency regarding accessing documents under FOI. In July 2020 I requested a review by the OAIC on two counts – existence of the documents requested and the issue of fee waiver on public interest grounds. The OAIC agreed with the BOM on the non-existence of the documents and so far has made no finding on the second count after nearly two years.
The UK Met Office has effectively enlisted the assistance of the public in digitising historical weather records. Recently it completed the digitisation of 1.8 million sub-daily and daily weather observations recorded in its daily weather reports from 1900 to 1910. The data was rescued from scanned images of original documents by 2148 volunteers. The BOM has historical parallel temperature data in written pages that require digitisation and analysis. If the BOM is incapable of achieving this internally it should encourage participation of citizens rather than obstruction.