Quite contrary
Why would the Coalition give Bjorn Lomborg four million dollars? It can already ignore his advice for free

The Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg has been described as many things these past weeks: a minimiser, a denier, a neo-Galileo whose pearls of insight have been scorned by the Academic Inquisition. But most often, he’s been described as a contrarian. In the parlance of our times, this means his ideas run counter to the ideas of many of his academic colleagues. At the Copenhagen Consensus Centre, he joined with experts, some of them Nobel laureates, in making cost-benefit assessments of different kinds of political action, and drew some unusual conclusions.

When the Abbott Government suggested Lomborg relocate the centre to the University of Western Australia, and added a $4 million sweetener, his peers-to-be revolted. The anger of his contemporaries means his Copenhagen Consensus Centre will no longer be moving to Perth, which is at least geographically consistent.

In all the culture war fun, another kind of contrarianism has gone unremarked. After all, Bjorn Lomborg’s advice runs counter not just to the thinking of many of his colleagues, but also to the actions of the prime minister seeking to sponsor him.

Here is Lomborg writing in the Wall Street Journal days after being run out of town, again offering his modest proposals for dealing with climate change:

 “Copenhagen Consensus research shows that policymakers considering climate change have practical solutions. Cutting fossil-fuel subsidies is a great idea … A dramatic increase in spending on green-energy R&D is needed, as innovation will drive down the price of green energy to the point that it can outcompete fossil fuels. A well-crafted carbon tax would help too.”

None of these ideas are contrarian. Some are decades old. In fact they’re well established: all were being implemented in Australia, until the Abbott government set out to destroy them.

An effective carbon tax? Dispensed with. When the G20 was held in Brisbane last year, it made a unanimous commitment to reduce fossil fuel subsidies. In the same city on the same day, the conference’s host, Coalition premier Campbell Newman, responded by offering the Indian coal company Adani $450 million in state funding. That was on top of existing subsidies of $8 billion in the previous six years, just for the coal industry, just in Queensland. He could have waited a week not to embarrass his guests, but that’s contrarians for you. There’s no stopping them.

Another point of contrast: Lomborg’s favourite idea is investing heavily in renewable energy research and development, while the Abbott government’s favourite idea is not doing this. Australia has a good record in renewable R&D through the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, a body the Coalition tried to close almost as soon as it formed government. It was the gut instincts of Motoring Enthusiast Party Senator Ricky Muir, not the against-the-grain insights of a plucky Danish economist, that convinced them otherwise. Not that they would have been swayed by Lomborg’s efficiency talk: scrapping the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which makes a profit of around $200 million a year for the government, was marked a “priority” by Tony Abbott himself.

And that’s the point. Bjorn Lomborg’s vision of a kind of Galactic Council of Elders, sifting econometric data for the most elegant solution to our problems, is so comically distant from how we do things that it’s hard to know where to start. It’s not just that our R&D spending ranks alongside that of Slovakia and Greece, or that we’re one of only two OECD countries not to have a science and tech strategy.  It’s that 2014 was a year in which Australia became the kind of place you find in jokes about Australia. Our renewable energy sector was single-handedly saved by a man most famous for doing ute circle-work. We entrusted the fate of our entire higher education sector to a former footballer called the Brick With Eyes. Watching Idiocracy would be more pertinent than going over graphs on marine cloud whitening technology.

It’s not entirely fair to say that conservatives, especially Australian conservatives, are uninterested in Bjorn Lomborg’s ideas. They are just very, very interested only in the first half of them. For those unfamiliar with its work, the Copenhagen Consensus Centre is based on a series of media-friendly “choose your own adventure” hypotheticals. (Or false dichotomies, if you prefer.) Should we spend money on climate change, or on malaria? Why act now when we can act later? Would you press a button to kill a stranger for a million dollars? But the LNP isn’t defunding climate initiatives to fund foreign aid instead, as Lomborg suggests. It’s defunding climate initiatives to defund foreign aid as well, because, you know, fuck you.

In 2013, the Copenhagen Consensus Centre highlighted micronutrient intervention as perhaps the highest priority for international aid efforts. Just a few billion dollars, Lomborg argued, could prevent hundreds of millions of children becoming malnourished. Australia carefully weighed his advice, slashed foreign aid funding, and used much of the remainder to invest heavily in off-shore detention centres. Perhaps we could serve micronutrients in them, but nutrition might act as a selling point for people smugglers, and we’re not running holiday camps.

Speaking of boat people, it’s hard to think of a better illustration of Australia’s priorities than Dr San Thang, a man who could have been invented by GetUp! A former Vietnamese refugee, Thang was made redundant from CSIRO the same month he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. His redundancy was a direct result of $115 million in funding cuts, that saw his not-so-esteemed colleagues forced to wash glassware and fill photocopiers. His own reward for the nomination was an unpaid honorary fellowship. Good job, San. You’re fired.

Under these circumstances, if an already beleaguered and humiliated education and science sector doesn’t exactly roll out the red carpet for a dilettante, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Perhaps the Abbott government could ask Lomborg himself to run a comparative cost-benefit analysis: pay the modest salary of a potential Nobel laureate, or spend $4 million on a think-tank whose bespoke findings are ignored, except when they rile the left?

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys US correspondent and contributing editor. 

@rgcooke

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