The Lomborg Ruse

No one in Australia has more relentlessly attacked environmentalists, climate science, carbon taxes and the aspirations of the United Nations than Murdoch columnist Andrew Bolt.

So what does it mean when Bolt sings the praises of a man who is a declared environmentalist, accepts the body of evidence for climate change, supports a carbon tax and is a strong supporter of the United Nations? Oh, and he’s also a gay vegetarian who’s never out of a trendy black T-shirt.

And what are we to make of it when Bolt, who has complained bitterly that the nation’s universities are stacked with leftists, is now up in arms because a man with admittedly left-leaning politics is sent packing from one of those universities.

I speak of course of Bjorn Lomborg and the University of Western Australia’s reversal of its decision to host his Consensus Centre and so reject the $4 million offered by the Federal Government.

Bolt is not Lomborg’s only unlikely defender. John Roskam of the Institute of Public Affairs writes that the opposition to Lomborg “demonstrates all that’s wrong with Australia’s universities”. The IPA, from the late 1990s the epicentre of the dissemination of climate science denial in Australia, now claims that the man who declares “I believe in global warming” has been “muzzled” and must be heard. (The IPA hosted a Lomborg visit to Australia in 2003, at the prompting of federal industry minister Ian Macfarlane.)

And the bastion of denial-promotion in the media, the Australian newspaper that has done more than any other to undermine the credibility of climate science and trash climate scientists, fell over itself to congratulate UWA on its bold appointment. (The paper has been publishing Lomborg’s opinions regularly since 2001.)

Bringing Lomborg’s work to Australia seems to have been the personal project of Prime Minister Tony Abbott who found $4 million in a budget that cannot afford to support other scientific work on climate change. Abbott is, of course, famous for dismissing climate science as “crap” and choosing as his chief business adviser a man, Maurice Newman, who believes climate science is being used by the UN to impose authoritarian rule over the world. In his book Battlelines Tony Abbott drafted Lomborg into his army.

The Prime Minister’s office attempted to distance him from Lomborg, claiming that the idea for the Centre came from UWA. And the billionaire Koch Brothers, who have replaced Exxon as the principal funder of climate denial in the United States, have also attempted to keep secret their funding of Lomborg’s work.

They understand that it is not helpful for Lomborg to be linked to deniers. Andrew Bolt, in his blundering way, did not get the memo headed “He’s our guy but keep it to yourself”.

All of this points to the fact that Bjorn Lomborg is not what he seems to be.

When the book that made him famous appeared in 2001 (disclosure: I was asked by Cambridge University Press to write a rejoinder to The Skeptical Environmentalist) he declared that climate change is not a serious problem – “On average, global warming is not going to harm the developing world”, he said. Later, he shifted to the view that it might be serious but other problems are more serious.

Soon he was arguing that, to the extent that global warming does deserve some response, it should be through adaptation or geoengineering rather than reducing carbon emissions. More recently he has argued that if carbon emissions must be reduced then we should invest in more R&D to develop more efficient means of doing so at some point in the future. All of this is music to the ears of the fossil fuel lobby.

The effect of these repeated shifts has been to keep Lomborg “respectable” in a way that fanatics like Bolt and Newman are not, and enable him to act as a continuing drag on action. That is why Mr Abbott wants to hand him an Australian megaphone.

When Lomborg presents himself as occupying the middle ground we have to ask what the “middle ground” is when the vast preponderance of scientific evidence tells us that the globe is warming and climate change presents a serious threat to the future. Which half of the scientific evidence must one discard in order to stand equidistant from the IPCC and Andrew Bolt?

So the Lomborg position is a ruse. Bolt gets it, Abbott gets it, the deniers at the Australian get it, the Koch Brothers get it. They understand that Lomborg is their guy. If you think Lomborg is not responsible for those who promote his work, look at who he hangs out with and from whom he accepts money.

Anyone who has followed the politics of climate change sees through the subterfuge, yet it seems that some university administrators don’t get it. And so UWA’s Vice Chancellor Paul Johnson was surprised at the reaction to his decision to invite Lomborg onto his campus.

Now education minister Christopher Pyne is seeking another university to host the Consensus Centre. But why would any agree? A university that accommodated the Centre would not be defending academic freedom but collaborating in a ruse; it would not be advancing free speech but facilitating duplicitous speech.

At UWA enough staff and students understood this, and it soon became clear to the Vice Chancellor that the Centre would be a magnet for rancorous protests. Young people feel passionately about the survival of their world, and while the do-nothing forces prevail their passion can only intensify.

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© Copyright Clive Hamilton