Bjørn Lomborg: Climate Change Asylum Seeker

It has been stated that Bjørn Lomborga Danish economic analyst who has moonlighted as an environmentalist – the self-touted sceptical sort – may be one of the first climate change asylum seekers, a habitual castaway and ideological floater in need of mooring.  The mooring, however, is simply not coming.  “Lomborg has been rendered virtually ‘stateless’ as a political actor on climate since being defunded by the Danish government in 2012.”

Since then, Lomborg has landed at a rather unlikely place – a parcel service centre in Lowell, Massachusetts.  This did not prevent Lomborg from living in Prague at the same time, while also adding to his happy go lucky carbon footprint, travelling more than 200 days a year, and using $US775,000 of CCC funds in 2012 and $US200,484 in 2013.

Universities have tended to be reluctant to muck in; private funders, however, have provided funding to the Copenhagen Consensus Centre (CCC).  It took the Abbott government in Australia to try to break the trend – so far without success.

His consensus centre has certainly done much to generate some consensus among that most unlikely of irritable tribes – academics. Such a grouping tends to be frail, envious and amphibian in nature. But on the issue of allowing Lomborg and $4 million dollars of federal money to go hand in hand, a line has been drawn.

Already, back in Western Australia, it looked like an executive coup d’état was being inflicted with the promise to Lomborg that he would be able to house his centre at the University of Western Australia. The west coast academic fraternity baulked, and the project was killed with a thoroughness rarely expected from the academic fraternity.

Not even the Vice Chancellor could weasel his way out of the blunder, adding a few nods to the “credible and influential academic institution” that he had sworn to defend, only to then see dollar signs and publicity in the name of government apologetics.  Little wonder then that the furor took him, and university officialdom, by surprise.

Not that he could rubbish the initial decision to back the CCC.  It was still appropriate for UWA to house an institution “that will undertake economic cost benefit analysis to help governments to evaluate the most effective ways to address many of the world’s challenges”. In typically obtuse fashion, he wanted it both ways – the CCC to exist, with Lomborg to be an unremunerated adjunct, while still pacifying the protesters.  To that end, the centre had been placed “in an untenable position”.  We like you, Lomborg, but we can’t have you.  Just keep trying.

In May 2015, the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance weighed into the debate by suggesting that the cancellation of the original offer by the UWA Vice Chancellor had been an act of censorship. At a stretch, the alliance and the like-minded could see the sounding of the death knell for academic freedom, a fascinating line to take given the evident battle on the government’s part against the climate change fraternity.

The venue which would have given them scope to advertise their position was, unsurprisingly, one of the Murdoch channels.  The ATA got busy using the GoFundMe website with a target of $22,500 to gain space in The Australian.  There were the video stars of climate sceptics which featured in the campaign, including Lord Christopher Monckton, Marc Morano, Fred Singer, among others.

The tune that sounded in their support was the dogma of cost-benefit analysis rather than environmental soundness.  If there was one way the government needed an alibi for the consumption of coal and the minimising, if not unqualified ditching of renewables, Lomborg was their man.  “Rejecting cost-benefit analysis because of a vocal and unsubstantiated smear campaign cannot be tolerated.”

Behind their policy was a very obvious market, libertarian agenda, exemplified by the fact that the spearhead of the ATA, Tim Andrews, was himself a graduate of the US-based Koch Associate Program.  Where there is climate change scepticism, if not out right denial, you are bound to see a funding trail to the Kochs.

Andrews himself was touted as one of the cardinal figures behind the campaign against the carbon pricing scheme which was subsequently abolished under the Abbott government. While waxing on the subject, the Spectator did suggest that Andrews had added grist to the activism mill, a mill deemed rather centre-right “with the potential to revolutionise Australian politics the same way the Tea party has in the United States.”  That wasn’t enough for UWA to keel over.

Then wandering eyes fell on South Australia’s hapless Flinders University. Lomborg was still riding the Abbott wave of economic, rather than environmental rationalism, hoping that government buffoonery in science would catch. In fact, the Abbott program here was to hope for that grand academic tendency: capitulate and accept the status quo.  But what happened in UWA has been similarly replicated at Flinders.

Lomborg, it would seem, tends to command strong reaction. Memories of his fobbing off by the Danish government remain strong.  Since officials had a change of heart and stopped funding his centre, the skids have been placed under his institute.  Over the years, his environmental credentials have suffered something of a scrubbing, leaving behind that of the handy economist willing to offer his services to environmental “contrarians” who see bottom lines and balance sheets.

The moral with Lomborg seems to remain this: if you invite him into your house, expect it to be muddied, soiled and coaled.  Even Australian academics will not accede to that gesture, which says much.  Quality, even if not initially obvious, remains that tortoise that eventually wins the race.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.