Heeding our Founding Vice-Chancellor’s Advice on Lomborg

Flinders University must always ‘experiment and experiment bravely’ – Professor Peter Karmel, Founding Vice-Chancellor of Flinders University

This article was intended for the original Flinders University blog post on the topic of the discussions surrounding the Bjorn Lomborg-backed Australian Consensus Centre but appears here instead with some adaptation.

I am unfortunately not surprised that I was the only person attempting to write in favour of the proposed Bjorn Lomborg-backed Australian Consensus Centre on the dedicated online blog. Such is the debilitating and permeating nature of groupthink based on misinformation and ideologically driven attacks. It is somewhat ironic and confounding then that Bjorn is not in fact a right-winger by any stretch of the imagination, but admittedly a left-wing, former Greenpeace member who simply holds different views to the mainstream, in regards to how to solve climate change. Typical of the scourge of groupthink, he is therefore deemed a climate heretic by those on the Left, and thus should be banished from the public debate.

In addressing some of the concerns raised on the online discussion board for Flinders students it must be stated that Lomborg is not in fact a supporter of the fossil fuel lobby; to the contrary, he actually advocates for global fossil fuel subsidies, which, according to the International Energy Agency are touted to be in the range of $550 billion, to be cut. This is not to say, however, that he doesn’t believe fossil fuels can play an important role in lifting many out of poverty, as India and China, for example, can certainly testify to. He furthermore calls for a massive boost to climate change research funding, a very un-right wing position to hold. The whole purpose of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre is to provide policy-makers with cost-benefit analyses of various development, aid, trade and climate funding. He is falsely claimed a climate sceptic or worse, a denier, despite him fully believing in anthropogenic climate change. His solution: adaptation in the short term, mitigation via radical new technologies in the long term. Sure, you can disagree with his position, but that is not to say his proposed solution won’t work, nor is it easily disproven.

As for his average H-index score, it completely overlooks the popularity of his best-selling books, some of which have been published by Cambridge University Press, one of the most prestigious publishing houses in the world. He has copped whatever criticisms have been made of him, as his research and that which his Centre produces is open and accountable. Some have questioned his academic credibility but it is true that his work has received intensely more scrutiny than most academics because of his position as a ‘climate contrarian’. Indeed many academics would be rightly jealous of the amount of scholarly attention given to Bjorn’s work. The most serious charge against his academic credibility came via a formal complaint to the Danish Committees for Scientific Dishonesty. Whilst they found some merit in the complaint, he was not considered to have purposely misled readers and, as he makes clear in The Skeptical Environmentalist’s preface, Lomborg is not an expert himself on environmental matters. So not only was he not found guilty of scientific dishonesty but upon appeal his case was actually overturned, with the overriding body levelling numerous criticisms at the Danish Committees, citing procedural errors and a lack of documentation of the apparent errors within the book. It is commonly said that everybody makes mistakes. Well, academics do too. If making mistakes were the basis for banishment from the academic community we would be doing an injustice to everyone, as a chilling effect would take hold and silence on controversial matters (perhaps the most important matters to have rigorous debate on) would surely follow.

Now, some might be screaming “How on earth can we trust an academic who claims to have no expertise on environmental matters to write a book on such things?!” Well indeed, Lomborg is a political scientist, not an economist or a scientist per se, however that is because much of his work at the Copenhagen Consensus Centre involves leading and editing the research of Nobel Laureates (of which a handful are involved at the CCC) and the world’s top economists. In the last 18 months this Centre has produced over 100+ peer-reviewed articles from 82 of these economists. Indeed our Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), at one of his many sessions attempting to dispel some of these same myths I am trying to here, has admitted that he is as academically experienced and decorated as half of Flinders’ academic staff are.

But this is all beside the point really, because those who have actually looked at the Centre’s research areas will find that its focus is not on climate change. Health, education and nutrition are the Centre’s specialties. But even if the Australian Consensus Centre did focus its research on climate change, so what? Subjecting funding directed at tackling climate change to cost-benefit analyses should be welcomed by all rational academics seeking ‘robust, evidence-based knowledge and advice’, as the University of Western Australia’s Vice-Chancellor believed.

Lastly, it is greatly disturbing and a hysterical overreaction to claim that Flinders University’s reputation will be damaged over the acceptance of some form of ACC that has Bjorn’s name attached to it. Shout-down campaigns against individuals do nothing to further debate; our collective efforts should be focussed on debating his conclusions, not his integrity. His work is valuable in teaching critical thinking and is employed by numerous academics at this very university. I suppose by the same logic, because those academics are associating themselves with his work, their reputation is also being tarnished and they also ought to be discredited. Equally nonsensical are the claims that the $4m proposed funding is ‘tainted’ or has ‘strings attached’. Greater respect ought to be given to our own academics as such a criticism unjustifiably casts a damaging shadow over their integrity. Universities receive funding from a range of sources and in no way should that source discredit the research produced out the other end. Seeing as though the federal government is already the primary funder of higher education, this criticism should be sidelined as a non-issue.

I implore a rational, fact-based debate on this matter, void of inflammatory untruths. The General Secretary of our Flinders University Student Association should therefore refrain from her scaremongering campaign based on deceit and a not-so-hidden Marxist agenda. Her comments (she labelled the proposal ‘right-wing pseudoscientific garbage’ designed to further the agenda of the federal government and fossil fuel industry), besides being obviously false—as I have hopefully made clear—are entirely unhelpful in furthering an adult, academic discussion over the issue. In the spirit of experimenting bravely, I commend the idea of an Australia Consensus Centre at Flinders University and conclude with this poignant quote from bioethicist Professor Alice Dreger:

‘If you must criticise scholars whose work challenges yours, do so on the evidence, not by poisoning the land on which we all live.’

Words by Jarryd Thiel (President of the Flinders University Liberal Club)