It would be impossible to ‘live’ at UWA these days and not be familiar with the Bjorn Lomborg saga.
In a nutshell, the federal government has provided funding of $4 million to UWA to establish the ‘Australian Consensus Centre’, to be based on the methodology of Bjorn Lomborg. Lomborg has been made an adjunct professor to the Centre, with the Centre run independently by a competitively selected Director. The Centre will use economic cost-benefit analysis to prioritise future UN development goals, using Lomborg’s framework although Lomborg will not be involved in the research itself. UWA will be required to provide in-kind support for the Centre, with external organisations providing additional funds of approximately $8 million.
Also, Bjorn Lomborg is known as one of the most controversial ‘academics’ to throw his hat into the environmental sciences ring. His previous books “The Skeptical Environmentalist” and “Cool It” both downplay the potential impacts of climate change. In particular, Lomborg’s analyses propose that climate markets will be excessively expensive and won’t substantially reduce emissions, preferring direct subsidisation and R&D in renewables, nuclear and clean coal. His previous publications have been widely ridiculed and he has been accused of wilfully misrepresenting statistics, cherry-picking data and ignoring attempts to correct his methodology. His supporters spend an equal amount of time refuting the word of his critics. His credibility has been questioned, but nothing ever sticks for his supporters (it’s a little like climate change in and of itself).
The University has united in its opposition to his appointment. The Australian and international media are paying attention to UWA like never before. And we are all asking each other, ‘what do you think?’ After today’s Academic Staff Association meeting, featuring UWA’s Vice-Chancellor Paul Johnson, it seems an appropriate time to reflect.
There are few who would refute the potential benefits of the Centre. Analysis on the UN Development goals is worthy work, and has the potential to increase UWA’s profile. However, there are many who question the need for Lomborg’s involvement. Johnson stated today that the work can only be done to a high standard with access to Lomborg’s significant connections in the economic world. But are these the networks that UWA wants to access? There was discussion of the credentials of previous academics working on Lomborg’s projects, with a noted lack of climate economists and a ‘dinosaur’ status for most involved. There have also been renowned academics world-wide contacting UWA staff to tell them of the damage that could be done to UWA’s reputation in adopting Lomborg and his methodology.
The complete lack of transparency around the appointment process, establishment of the Centre and acquisition of government funds has also been questioned. The federal government provided UWA with this funding without going to tender, apparently with the condition Lomborg was included, while stripping funding from other agencies with worthy science and communications roles. The acceptance of the funds and appointment of Lomborg happened largely behind closed doors. Academics in the Business School, which is to house him, didn’t know he was coming. It doesn’t appear his appointment to an Adjunct Professor position followed due process. And few people were informed of the Centre. How influential is the federal government going to be, considering they are holding the purse strings? And how influential have they already been? Johnson says they will have no power, but the staff aren’t so sure…
Lomborg has been aligned with conservative politics in Australia for over a decade, including interactions with various conservative think tanks and with recent connections with the Liberal party known. So we know that Lomborg is the Liberal party’s darling, but why must he be UWA’s? Is it because UWA is desperate for funding? Or does it have something to do with the Chancellor, Michael Chaney, who is also Chairman of fossil-fuel industry heavyweight Woodside.
Johnson today questioned whether Lomborg was really that bad. He is controversial and outspoken. And yet controversial and outspoken people have a place in academic debate. But Lomborg is not just controversial and outspoken, he has a track record of academic misconduct. His impartiality is questioned given his funding has been tied to fossil fuel interests.
Johnson indicated that Lomborg’s methodology was not to be confused with his views on climate change. ‘Science is science, and economics is economics’. This is a worrying statement from a Vice-Chancellor at a university that is apparently promoting cross-disciplinary research wherever possible. It is a particularly alarming statement when applied to prioritisation of the UN development goals, which are not economic matters so much as social and environmental ones. The UN Development goals could largely be referred to as a barrel of ‘wicked problems’. Impossible to solve completely, they cannot be clearly defined, and resist closed experimentation. For example, access to secure food resources is related to environmental limits of food production and global food networks that redistribute food from areas that need it to areas that don’t. It is a political and environmental problem as much as an economic problem. The same could be said for universal education, child mortality, gender equality, maternal health, disease prevention and environmental sustainability. And all, that’s right ALL, will be negatively impacted by climate change.
I can’t help but feel that the majority of concerns are related to a presupposition of outcomes, and that whether or not this is a mistake can’t be determined until the Centre has been allowed to do its thing. The proof will be in the pudding. We presume that Lomborg will influence findings. We presume that the Centre will come up with recommendations that support the Federal Government’s interests. We presume it will downplay the impacts of climate change. We presume it will negatively impact on UWA’s reputation.
The Australian Consensus Centre may yet surprise everyone. It may establish development goals that represent the best environmental and social accounting available. It may prioritise goals that are contrary to the interests of the Federal Government. It may prove to establish beneficial networks with international academics and promote UWA as a sound research institution.
Or it may do exactly what everyone fears – develop advice from flimsy economic analysis by economists who should be put out to pasture, downgrade activities that would harm fossil fuel companies, harm UWA’s reputation, whilst providing the Federal Government with its preferred talking points. It seems that the majority at UWA has made its own cost-benefit analysis and decided costs of the latter are not worth risking for benefits of the former. And I can’t help but agree with them, this is a pudding I’m just not Interested in…