Covert negotiations, whispered announcements and an awkward about-face reveal a political agenda behind reaching consensus. By Mike Seccombe.

Why the Abbott government wants Bjørn Lomborg’s Consenus Centre

Bjørn Lomborg
Bjørn Lomborg
Credit: AFP

Tim Mazzarol, Winthrop professor in the business school of the University of Western Australia, is reciting the long list of hoops a proponent must jump through to gain approval for a research centre at the university.

“Normally they have to demonstrate they will contribute to research output of the university and the reputation of the university,” he says. “They must have at least six full-time equivalent academic staff engaged in research at the university, a viable plan for the growth of the centre, the capacity to be self-sustaining. They must have an academic and a business plan, a clear indication of the resources, facilities, funding, negotiated targets for research, training, publication volume, output quality and how that will all be measured.”

He continues, citing the criteria listed on the UWA website: “It must also have the approval of the academic council, normally has to have an interdisciplinary role, and to have demonstrated consultation with other parts of the faculty that might be involved.”

The list of requirements and processes is detailed, but Mazzarol’s point is simple. “This one didn’t go through any of those steps.”

He is referring to an entity proposed by Danish climate change contrarian Bjørn Lomborg, ironically named the Australia Consensus Centre (ACC), whose establishment was secretively negotiated over six months, quietly revealed six weeks ago, and then abandoned after an ugly collision between academe and politics.

In the wake of that crash, only two things are clear. One is that Lomborg, academic darling of the political right for his views on climate change, will not get his “consensus” centre at UWA. The other: Mazzarol’s critique of the way by which the university’s executive went about approving the centre is quite right. It was a travesty of normal process, as even the university’s senior management has acknowledged.

Much else, however, remains unsettled. The affair raises questions about how far cash-strapped universities should go in accepting funds from sources with agendas that go beyond the purely academic, about the potentially corrupting influence of politics, about the rigour of methods and about amorphous notions of academic reputation.

Above all is the question implicit in UWA vice-chancellor Paul Johnson’s rather embittered statement announcing his university’s abandonment of the project. He referred to the “duty” of tertiary institutions in “actively encouraging the exploration of new ideas, challenging established thinking and posing the difficult ‘what if’ questions”.

He cited UWA’s commitment to “the open exchange of ideas and thought; and fostering the values of openness, honesty, tolerance, fairness, trust and responsibility”.

What does the Lomborg affair say about those? It’s not nearly as clear-cut as the subsequent celebration on the political left and gnashing of the political right might indicate. The reason it is not so clear-cut really comes back to Lomborg himself.

1 . Lomborg's agenda

Bjørn Lomborg is not a climate change denier. He accepts the overwhelming scientific consensus that it is happening and that human activity is responsible. His argument is that there are other more pressing issues facing humanity. And this is what makes him useful to the political right.

Simple denialism is not politically tenable anymore. But Lomborg provides cover for those reluctant to take strong action to limit the emission of greenhouse gases, by suggesting we should work on other things first, and that stronger action on climate change might actually impede those other endeavours.

His method is to apply economic cost-benefit analysis to these various problems, to try to determine priorities. His results tend to give comfort to conservatives in general and climate change do-nothing-ists in particular.

By his formulation, for example, freer global trade returns a benefit of $2011 for every dollar spent, making it 45 times more worthwhile than reducing child malnutrition. Cutting people’s salt intake is deemed roughly 10 times as financially beneficial as spending more on health for the world’s 2.5 billion poorest people. It’s a sort of grand cost-benefit theory of everything.

So when Tony Abbott says coal is good for humanity, it is defensible on Lomborg numbers, which hold that bringing electricity to everyone in the world returns $5 for every dollar spent, while limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees returns a benefit of less than $1.

To say his methods are unorthodox and controversial is to be very understated indeed. Lomborg himself is neither a climate scientist nor an economist. His qualifications are in political science. Rather than rely on primary research, his theories are based on meta-analysis – that is, the harvesting of data produced by others, which is then weighted and modelled to determine relative values.

This has led to numerous complaints from other academics that their work has been either misinterpreted or misrepresented. The detail is too extensive and arcane to go into – suffice to say, books have been written and formal complaints made in his native Denmark and elsewhere.

His original Copenhagen Consensus Centre was funded by a conservative government, then defunded by a successor progressive government. After he set up in the United States, his critics complained that he took funds from right-wing climate change denialist organisations.

In fairness, it must be said that he has also harnessed some high-powered academics, including a number of Nobel prize-winning economists, to his cause, and his “ground-breaking” approach has been feted in various responsible media, including The Economist.

2 . How Lomborg came to UWA

The claims and counterclaims about his work are endless, but the key point is that he and his work are enormously controversial, which explains a lot about the circumstances of the UWA decision.

When the agreement to establish the centre was revealed on April 2, it was done with little fanfare. The university put up a statement on its website, which, as we say in journalism, rather buried the lede. You had to read more than 500 words before Lomborg’s name was mentioned.

Nor was it made clear how the centre came to be funded. The government at first suggested the idea had come from the university. It later became apparent that it had been pushed by the Abbott government.

Initially, Education Minister Christopher Pyne was blamed by opponents. But it wasn’t really his doing either. The idea reportedly came out of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Abbott’s office later said it was a whole-of-government decision.

Exactly what that means is unclear, but it is true that Lomborg has a number of fans in the senior ranks of the government. The prime minister himself cited Lomborg’s work in his book Battlelines.

Last November Trade Minister Andrew Robb tweeted that he had met Lomborg for a “good chat” about the role of free trade in eliminating poverty.

More recently, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop appointed him to a reference committee advising on aid priorities.

Despite the fact Tim Mazzarol is a senior member of the UWA business school, he and most of his colleagues remained unaware of the plan to impose the Lomborg centre on them until it was announced.

He has since spent a lot of time trying to put together a full picture of how it happened.

“I gather it came to UWA some time around September last year, apparently out of Abbott’s office,” he says. “It had nothing to do with the normal research funding process.”

The centre was reportedly first offered to the vice-chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, Greg Craven, but Mazzarol said he had been unable to corroborate that. Nor could The Saturday Paper – the ACU refused to confirm or deny the speculation.

“If so,” says Mazzarol, “why did they choose not to take the offer? And how many other universities were approached? Why did it come to UWA at all? Was Julie Bishop involved? From September on there was obviously a lot of work done. And, as I understand it, under a tight degree of confidentiality by the government.”

3 . Academic reaction

The reaction of the university’s staff, students and alumni, some of whom reportedly threatened to pull millions of dollars in bequests to UWA, suggests the reason for the secrecy before the contract was signed and announced.

Opposition was anticipated, although as Paul Johnson said in his statement last Friday: “The scale of the strong and passionate emotional reaction” was not predicted.

To his credit, Johnson did try hard to address the concerns of staff and students, holding a couple of all-comers’ meetings, and even allowing them to be recorded. He argued that the centre would not study climate change, that the university was not providing any direct funding, that Lomborg himself would not be involved in its day-to-day operations, and that it would commission work from reputable academics.

All to no avail. He was met with detailed counterarguments about Lomborg’s history, his methods, his low ranking as a researcher, the cloak-and-dagger process by which the centre was approved, and the likely reputational damage done if it went ahead.

Perhaps the most accurate summation of the whole thing, though, comes from Ray da Silva Rosa, member of the UWA senate and president of the staff association.

“My view is that in some ways the academic record of Bjørn Lomborg is a red herring. That’s because this is largely about politics. People saw this, I think accurately, as a way to lend academic support to political actions,” he said. “That’s why I opposed it. Not because I think his views are intellectually provocative. You want that. But it is not the role of universities to press a political agenda. That’s the role of think tanks, to take the work of universities and apply politics to it. Having what was essentially to be a think tank at UWA was wrong.”

The matter may not yet be over. Christopher Pyne reacted to the university’s change of mind by suggesting the government might take legal action for breach of contract. He also confidently declared that the centre would be established at an alternative location. The $4 million is still there, itemised in the budget, waiting to be spent.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 16, 2015 as "Lomborg reboot".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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