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Changing climates

Academic freedom isn’t the issue with Lomborg’s consensus centre

Alan Porritt/AAP

Controversial campaigner for climate change trivialisation Bjorn Lomborg is getting closer to learning whether an Australian university will host him. A campaign to stop Lomborg finding a home at Flinders University is being played out on social media and within the university.

An open letter objecting to Lomborg’s proposed Australian Consensus Centre has attracted more than 7000 signatures. I reported in July that opposition to Lomborg had been solid among university staff. However, deputy vice-chancellor (DVC) Andrew Parkin is leading a proposal to take in Lomborg.

So far, no school has agreed to host Lomborg. Parkin identified the School of Social and Policy Studies as one of the most suitable. This school is the one to which Parkin is attached, and he will be returning there at the conclusion of his tenure as DVC.

But apart from Parkin, it is very hard to find anyone at Flinders – or any other Australian university – who is open to accepting Lomborg. A document introduced to Flinders Council at its August meeting, based on research by the National Tertiary Education Union, claims that 14 of 42 universities in Australia have rejected Lomborg’s centre.

These universities are: Australian Catholic University, Australian National University, Central Queensland University, Macquarie University, Monash University, University of Adelaide, University of Melbourne, University of New South Wales, University of Queensland, University of South Australia, University of Sydney, University of Western Australia (UWA) and La Trobe University.

One potential reason for the rejections is the way Lomborg had planned to spend his funding. According to FOI documents released to The Guardian, Lomborg wanted to spend up to A$800,000 of a proposed A$4 million budget on promotion and marketing.

Attempts to distance the centre from climate won’t be believed

In defence of Lomborg, he had pledged at University of Western Australia that his centre would deal with poverty, health and food security, which are areas he has prioritised in the past. It would be restricted to looking at economic modelling of the most cost-effective way to spend money on the developing world.

The proposed Australian Consensus Centre at UWA was to be modelled on his Copenhagen Consensus Centre in the US. But it is difficult to separate Lomborg’s views on climate with those on development. His standard technique is to use the latter to belittle the former.

Lomborg’s has claimed that the proposed Australian centre would not be making regular commentary on climate change. Given his track record commenting on climate at the US-based Copenhagen Consensus Centre – much to the delight of the fossil-fuel lobby in the US – this is difficult to believe.

As an occasional columnist for The Australian, Lomborg wrote a piece in 2013 – “The world is warming but there’s no need to panic” – in which he referred to the “Copenhagen Consensus for Climate”.

Readers should be under no illusion, then, that the Australian Consensus Centre will refrain from promoting inaction on climate change.

It’s not about academic freedom

Meanwhile, at Flinders, select members of senior management have been looking for a way to justify the proposed $4 million centre. Many staff are concerned that what Flinders will lose in research prestige will make the dalliance with Lomborg a mistake.

Vice-chancellor Colin Stirling is in a difficult position, wedged between two opposing power blocs. In one corner have been two successive federal education ministers from South Australia, and a DVC. In the other corner are Flinders University graduate, former staff member and Greens senator Rob Simms, the Stop Lomborg campaign, a 7000-strong petition, and worldwide condemnation of Lomborg as one of the most dangerous climate contrarians on the planet.

So, it is understandable that Stirling has sought to appeal to academics with an argument that pretty much defines the essence of academic identity – academic freedom.

This argument has been put to staff on the university website, but also at council in August. In the midst of the issue raging on ABC local radio Adelaide on Thursday, with Tim Flannery and Lomborg himself phoning in from New York, the discussion of Lomborg was held over at last week’s Flinders Council meeting.

Stirling demonstrated that he has consulted widely on the Lomborg affair, but will not block any academic wanting to collaborate with Lomborg.

The world, and indeed academia, is replete with outspoken contrarians and controversial figures. We can each form our own views of such individuals but must respect the rights of our colleagues to decide with whom they choose to collaborate. So, while preventing colleagues from collaborating with Bjorn Lomborg might prove popular with some, it would be wrong. Which other controversial thinker would be next to be added to the prohibited list? This is not how the academy works. The role of the academy is not to suppress or evade controversial issues; rather we must tackle them directly through critical analysis, rigorous debate and thought leadership.

These issues cut to the heart of the principle of academic freedom that is fundamental to the very nature of the academy and to what it means to be a university.

Interestingly, Stirling’s argument was echoed by new Education Minister Simon Birmingham. Asked whether he wanted Lomborg’s centre in South Australia, Birmingham said he stands for “academic freedom and autonomy of universities”.

The principles advanced by Stirling and Birmingham are compelling, but they’re not really at issue here. No-one is questioning whether academics at Flinders or any Australian university ought to be able to collaborate with Lomborg. Who cares? No-one would have any objection to this. The issue is whether Lomborg should receive $4 million of taxpayers’ money.

A second and related issue is a question of process: why should an individual who is not already an academic at an Australian university be handed $4 million to conduct “research” when every other academic has to submit themselves to a gruelling research funding process?

Finally, the question of academic freedom is not simply about collaboration with one individual but the privilege of setting up a centre that has the backing of a university’s crest and authority.

Some have sought to characterise the rejection of Lomborg as an instance of closed-mindedness, conformism to a majority viewpoint, even as a kind of religious intolerance.

Such commentators fail to recognise the difference between science and political opinion. Climate change has become so politicised in Australia that many have forgotten that it is actually based on science and evidence. Stirling, whose own prize-winning background is microbiology and genetics, should understand this distinction well.

Calls for “balance” and “freedom” are appropriate for politics, where even the most extreme or unorthodox opinions can be put forward. But if this logic is applied to science, when that science is settled, only a false balance will result.

There are already restrictions on who academics can work with

The easiest way to show this is to imagine that Lomborg was being offered $4 million to tell us that smoking was mildly concerning but, compared to other social problems, not really something to worry about – and that people may as well keep smoking, even though the science is settled in showing us how smoking causes lung cancer.

To agree with the science isn’t to be “conformist” or intolerant of “alternative views”. It is about having some basic empathy for human suffering today, and the suffering of future generations.

To return to the academic freedom question, Flinders already restricts the freedom of collaboration of its staff. A standing resolution from 1997 says the university will not accept research or consultancy funding from the tobacco industry. The Lomborg case is not that different.

This article has been amended since publication to correct a quote from Bjorn Lomborg’s October 2013 article in The Australian.

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