Bjorn Lomborg has been billed a ‘climate contrarian’ by most media since he hit the headlines on Friday, after it emerged taxpayers would be coughing up $4 million to help transplant his ‘Copenhagen Consensus’ think-tank to Australia.
It’s a politically correct way of saying he’s viewed with deep scepticism, even ridicule, by many scientists and policy makers. Indeed, air pollution from fossil fuels are what Australians, but developing nations in particular, would likely be coughing up if Lomborg got his way.
Now, thanks in part to the federal government’s support, Lomborg’s centre has a new home at the University of Western Australia, from which it will espouse its views on where the government should spend taxpayer money.
Like the Abbott government, Lomborg believes in climate change, but doesn’t think it’s as bad as the ‘alarmists’ say, or that we should be doing much to address it. In short, like Australia’s current climate policies, Lomborg’s views are ‘contrary’ to the overwhelming international consensus.
It will be useful for the government, though, to have a seemingly legitimate backer in Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus Centre (incidentally, another of the government’s ideological allies, the Institute of Public Affairs, welcomed Lomborg on a first name basis, saying “Bjorn, it’s great to have you!”).
For Professor Tim Flannery, the former head of the Australian Climate Commission which the Coalition scrapped, funding of the “Danish opinionist” must be grimly ironic.
“He has no real credibility, he’s got no credentials in either the economic area or the climate area,” Professor Flannery told New Matilda.
There are literally books devoted to debunking the smokescreen of academic references the political scientist and statistician deploys in his own writings.
“Basically he’s been telling the same story for 10 years,” Professor Flannery said, “which is using economics to look at comparative benefit of doing things in a social sense.”
“What he’s been saying consistently over time is ‘Don’t bother spending money on climate change mitigation, spend on research and development and spend on other social areas.’
“The whole idea is really bankrupt because if you use that approach and applied it to say cancer treatment or old age care, or whatever, you wouldn’t ever bother,” Professor Flannery said.
And not bothering is, by and large, what Lomborg advocates. In 2004 his think tank ranked climate change as the lowest priority in a list of international development initiatives, and that’s a line he’s largely held.
While accepting that climate change is real, and a problem, Lomborg argues that “the narrative that the world's climate is changing from bad to worse is unhelpful alarmism, which prevents us from focusing on smart solutions”.
“The UN-led policy solutions” – like the Kyoto carbon trading scheme which Abbott’s predecessor John Howard refused to sign – “are incredibly poor”.
Incidentally, the government appears to have abandoned Australia’s commitment to the United Nations goal of developing a climate pact in Paris this year, which would limit temperature rises to below two degrees.
Recently, it has taken to using modelling in government papers that would put the world on track to something more like a 3.6 degree temperature rise.
Notwithstanding the fact that poor nations will be hardest hit by such drastic temperature rises, Lomborg argues that “what those living in energy poverty need are reliable, low-cost fossil fuels”.
Of course, this primarily means coal, and those people are largely located in the developing Asian economies the coalition wants to continue to export fossil fuels to, so much so that it was recently revealed Tony Abbott was blocking US, UK and French efforts to end subsidies for the construction of new coal-fired power stations in the region.
Lomborg toes the ‘coal is good for humanity’ line only “until we can make a global transition to a greener energy future”. He’s just not particularly interested in proactive attempts, like subsidies for renewables, to hasten that transition.
Clearly, this is ‘good for the Abbott government’, which has spent the last year or so cannibalising the Renewable Energy Target.
One ‘green’ area the Dane does see as a key replacement for coal, though, is unconventional gas. He argues fracking technology should be spread around the world.
Last week, the Abbott government revealed a similarly market-driven support for the industry, with its ‘Domestic Gas Strategy’ hailing coal, tight seam and shale gas as the way to “cement our position as an energy superpower and remain competitive”.
Another snug coincidence is Lomborg’s opposition to foreign aid dollars being used for climate mitigation.
Remember when Tony Abbott described the UN Green Climate Fund, a scheme which involves rich, high-emitting nations, channelling aid money to less developed, low-emitting nations, as “a Bob Brown bank on an international scale”?
In the end, the government was forced into an embarrassing backdown at the Lima climate talks, but not before Andrew Robb, the Trade Minister Australia bizarrely spent to ‘chaperone’ Julie Bishop, “had a good chat with Bjorn Lomborg about the power of trade in eliminating poverty”.
Had a good chat with Bjorn Lomborg about the power of trade in eliminating poverty. pic.twitter.com/tM8g6ey12T
— Andrew Robb (@AndrewRobbMP) November 26, 2014
For actual scientists, like IPCC author Professor Colin Butler, funding Lomborg “in a time of scientific funding cutbacks and general belt tightening” is concerning, especially given that his “work has been very widely criticised by the mainstream scientific community as not science-based”.
In this context, Professor Tim Flannery is “rather surprised because the federal government sacked the Australian Climate Commission on the basis they didn’t have any funding available for us”.
“You know, we were a group that had some of Australia's most eminent economists and business leaders and climate scientists making sure the Australian public had access to objective information on climate change.”
The Shadow Environment Minister, Mark Butler has a theory about why it is that the government “has found millions of tax-payers’ dollars to fund [its]attack on renewable energy while at the same time gutting Australia’s science and university funding”.
“Tony Abbott has deputised one of the world’s most well-known renewable energy sceptics to continue his climate change denial,” Butler said.
To be fair, the $4 million committed to the Copenhagen Consensus Centre over the next four years is around $2 million less than the Australian Climate Commission would have costed.
That may be because it consisted of eminent climate scientists, the CEO of BP Australasia and the former secretary of the department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
“This decision deepens my concern that the Australian government is ‘shooting itself in the brain’, rejecting the best scientific advice, both globally and nationally, and instead funding people on the fringe of science whose position is ideologically closer to the government’s,” Professor Butler said.
“If we heeded that advice,” said Professor Flannery, “we’d end up in a 4 degree world.”
Incidentally, that’s roughly where the modelling used in the Coalition’s Energy White Paper and post-2020 emissions Issues Paper will land us, too.
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