The view from Billinudgel

Consensus reality
What’s behind Bjorn Lomborg’s job at the University of WA?

The adjunct professor–designate of the new “consensus centre” at the University of Western Australia, Bjorn Lomborg, is not a climatologist.

His training was in the oxymoronic field of political science, and his initial work was in statistics and systems of proportional representation. Later, he developed a layman’s interest in environmental issues, and as a result published his manifesto The Skeptical Environmentalist in 2001.

His thesis was that the dangers of global warming are real, but that they are greatly exaggerated and attempts to reverse them are both futile and economically inefficient. Instead, the threat, if any, should be alleviated through technological innovation and welfare measures. His ideas have long been rejected by the vast majority of climate scientists and most economists.

However, in 2002 the Danish government proceeded to set up an Environmental Assessment Institute to provide a platform for his views, which he has since promulgated at repetitive and often tiresome length, somewhat in the manner of our own Gerard Henderson. In the normal manner of things he would have been dismissed as no more than a loose thread in life’s rich tapestry, but from time to time he gains a place in the mainstream, as he has now with his gig in Perth.

When the appointment was announced, his prospective colleagues were outraged; several held a protest meeting to confront the University’s vice-chancellor, Paul Johnson, and demand that the appointment be reconsidered. The institution’s spokesman on climate change for the last seven years, Professor Ray Wills, said the appointment tarnished the reputation of the university and compared it with putting the disgraced former state premier, Brian Burke, in charge of economics.

Johnson replied that Lomborg was a member of Greenpeace, which hardly reassured critics. But he stood firm, welcoming what he called passionate debate, and insisting that Lomborg’s contract would stand.

But this was more than just a spat between academics; it was then revealed that the funding for the centre had included $4 million from the allegedly cash-strapped federal government, and that the whole project had been driven by the prime minister’s office. Moreover, it was reported that Tony Abbott, in cahoots of course with Peta Credlin, had specifically nominated Lomborg, whom Abbott had praised before, to run the UWA centre.

Another controversial and divisive captain’s pick. Neither the environment minister, Greg Hunt, nor the education minister, Christopher Pyne, were even informed, let alone consulted, but they are the ones left to clear up the mess.

It has not been as big a fiasco as Abbott’s last captain’s pick – the knighthood for Prince Philip – and has not produced a similar backlash. Indeed, many of Abbott’s supporters would have applauded the promotion of a climate sceptic, regretting only that they could not have an outright denialist. And Lomborg is favourite of the Australian: enough said.

But there will still be alarm and dismay at another unilateral, reckless and arrogant call from the all-powerful duumvirate, especially in the lead up to the crucial 2015 budget. Dissenters have not forgotten that Abbott remains on notice as party leader, with the putative June deadline fast approaching. The turmoil has subsided, but the clock is still ticking.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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