11 May 2015
The decision by the University of Western Australia (UWA) to pull out of the Australian Consensus Centre, and hand back $4 million in government funding, has drawn the ire of the usual suspects. In particular, The Australian has been positively wetting itself. It says, in its front page news story in its edition of 11 May, that the decision has “drawn criticism from some academics” and, to prove its point, cites a retired former associate professor, who was apparently outraged at it all. Killer stuff. It also features two opinion pieces and an editorial:
…..so far the decision has only shown that the intellectual and political bullying against dissenting views might be even worse in this country than we had imagined.
You might might think that Julie Hare, the estimable editor of the The Oz’s Higher Education supplement, might have something to say about “bullying against dissenting views” but Julie and her team are staying pretty quiet – the reporting and comment is coming from others within The Oz. And what of Peter van Onselen, who is not only a contributing editor to The Oz (and one of the better commentators generally in today’s media) but a Winthrop Professor at UWA? A couple of weeks ago, he adopted a “so what?” attitude, the whole controversey being something of a beat-up, but has not bought into the The Oz’s current outrage (as yet).
But this really isn’t about “free speech” and “divesrse views” and all the rest The Oz is banging on about: as van Onselen observes, “Lomborg has points worth making”, which is a valid point. What it is about, in part, is process (such as the government attempting to pass it off as something other than it was), in part it’s about optics (the government stumping up even $4 million for this Centre at a time when it has substantially cut research funding and wants to cut it more) but mainly it’s about Lomborg and his credentials. He has a colourful past, some murky associations and he’s not always straight forward in his presentation in the way you would expect an academic to be. Neither is Lomborg a “professor” as The Oz now styles him: he’s an adjunct professor (at a reputable institution, mind you) and, in Australia at least, such a position does not carry the every day title of “professor”.
Here’s some background on Lomborg from Wikipedia which hasn’t been refuted, as far as we can tell.
The Centre was originally formed in 2006 in Copenhagen, funded by the Danish government, with Lomborg as director. This came two years after Lomborg’s first Copenhagen Consensus conference in 2004. The Center was tasked with organizing future conferences, and with expanding on the mandate of the Environmental Assessment Institute, a research body for environmental impact assessment under the Danish Ministry of the Environment, of which Lomborg had been director since its inception in 2002, until his resignation in 2004. Government funding of £1m annually was reported as the primary income, with some private funding from benefactors that included the Carlsberg Group and the EU. In 2012, Denmark withdrew its funding, and the Center faced imminent closure. Lomborg left the country and reconstituted the Center as a US non-profit organization, based in Lowell, Massachusetts.
The Environmental Assessment Institute (EAI) (Danish: Institut for Miljøvurdering) was an independent body under the Danish Ministry of the Environment. It was established in February 2002 by the Liberal/Conservative Danish Government with the task of making environmental and economic cost/benefit analyses. The EAI’s first Director was political scientist Bjørn Lomborg.
The EAI was seen by some as a vehicle created for Lomborg, whose book The Skeptical Environmentalist argues that many perceived environmental problems are vastly exaggerated by environmental lobby and that policy responses based on such exaggerated claims are often misguided. The Government appointed Ole P. Kristensen, an ex-professor at the institute where Lomborg worked, as the first Director of the Board. His job was to find the director and the other board members. Lomborg was soon announced as the director.
The EAI began operating on June 1, 2002.
The EAI published a series of reports on environmental issues, from the value of a deposit/return system for drink cans to global warming. Most of them are in Danish. A report from October 2002 made an economic cost-benefit analysis of deposits on disposable bottles and cans. It concluded that it would be better to abandon the deposit system and to let the bottles and cans be burned together with other household garbage. However, it turned out afterwards that many of the Danish incineration plants operate at temperatures at which aluminum cans will not burn, but only melt, and that the cans would pose a great economic problem for them.
A committee was formed in March 2003 to evaluate the reports issued by the EAI during the second half of 2002. This committee was composed of one Danish member and four experts from Sweden and Norway. The committee adjudged the first three reports published in 2002 as superficial attempts to focus attention on the EAI. The other reports were adjudged appealing to the public, but the committee was not confident in the conclusions of two reports and in general criticized the cost-benefit analyses.
In November 2003, five out of the seven board members resigned on the same day. Three of them did so because of disagreement about the Institute’s involvement in the Copenhagen Consensus project, the others did so because of lack of time and conflicts of interest.
In mid-June 2004, there was some stir in the Danish printed media because it was revealed that criticism of Lomborg´s book from Danish climate experts had been repressed for years by the head of the EAI (Lomborg). Lomborg resigned as director on August 1, 2004.