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Why UWA was right to reject the $4m Lomborg bribe

15 May 2015

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The spectacularly misnamed Australian Consensus Centre (as High Wired has appropriately called it) has been mired in controversey from start to its (apparent). Not a skerrick of consensus to be found anywhere.  Critics of the decision by the University of Western Australia to walk away from it decry the decision as “soft censorship”, a denial of academic freedom, suppression of free speech.  Well, it’s none of those things: universities are full of “contrarians” such as Bjorn Lomborg, in every field that you could name, and they’re of all persuasions. The objection here is not  about Lomborg’s views (although plenty of people inside and outside universities do object), it’s about how he forms his views and how he chooses to portray them (and, to some extent, it’s about the company he keeps).  Tristan Edis, the environment writer for Business  Spectator, points to the logical flaws in his argument that there are higher priorities for public expenditure that dealing with climate change.  Monash University academic Michael Brown says his conclusions aren’t the outcome of robust academic endeavour.

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Lomborg’s false choices

quote marksIf we want advice on how we should best prioritise resources for the greatest good, there are better people to get it from than Bjorn Lomborg. Oh and by the way, they’ll provide this advice without a $4 million price tag.

Lomborg creates a process and set of artificial and arbitrary constraints that drive those involved (including economics Nobel laureates) towards prioritising between a range of things that are all extremely important while ignoring the need to question a far broader array of far less worthwhile and often downright wasteful things.

He is a man who has developed a routine, an act which the media find useful as a contrarian voice to achieve “balanced” reporting. So when a range of scientists and political leaders suggest global warming is a really serious problem, Lomborg jumps in front of the cameras and says something utterly unremarkable and well understood by development economists which seeks to downplay the problem by highlighting another serious problem like, for example, indoor air pollution.

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Climate inaction, the one point of consensus

 quote marksLomborg’s approach lacks the academic rigour we expect from our top universities.

Lomborg’s Consensus Centre at UWA has been controversial, and many have welcomed the announcement that UWA will not be the centre’s host. While some political warriors are claiming this is a defeat for academic freedom, this is unjustified and overlooks Lomborg’s history.

Lomborg consistently misinterprets and makes selective use of scientific studies, to portray an overly optimistic view of climate change and its costs. The Copenhagen Consensus Centre process includes unrealistic assumptions that, by design, lead to arguments against immediate action on climate change.    Lomborg’s approach lacks the academic rigour we expect from our top universities. Despite this, Lomborg is an effective lobbyist and popular with some politicians, so he will continue to have a significant media profile, even without the Australian Consensus Centre.

In a time of tight government spending, one has to wonder if federal dollars for Lomborg’s Australian Consensus Centre were intended to fund rigorous academic activity, or provide intellectual cover for the government’s inadequate climate change policies.

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