Changing climates

Farewell to Lomborg – what did the episode teach us?

Mat McDermott

Bjorn Lomborg’s bid to find an Australian home has come to an abrupt end. The Turnbull government has withdrawn the promised A$4 million in funding that the former Abbott government committed to Lomborg’s proposed Australia Consensus Centre after Lomborg was unable to find an Australian university to host him.

Writing in The Australian two weeks ago, in a second defence of his proposed centre this year, Lomborg took issue with my previous article in The Conversation. In it, I pointed to an NTEU document introduced at a Flinders University Council meeting in August that alleged 14 out of 42 Australian universities had rejected hosting the controversial climate change inactivist. The most distinctive feature of Lomborg’s opinion piece is that he did not deny the fact that so many Australian universities had rejected his centre.

At Flinders, though, one deputy vice-chancellor had sought to keep the door open to Lomborg – right up to the last minute, by all accounts.

In Canberra, meanwhile, it is difficult to believe that former education minister Christopher Pyne had supposedly decided to pull the funding in the wake of Malcolm Turnbull’s ascension to the prime ministership, but left new minister Simon Birmingham to announce it during a Senate estimates hearing on Wednesday. Flinders’ vice-chancellor, Colin Stirling, only found out from Birmingham on Wednesday morning.

Stirling subsequently posted a statement on Flinders’ website. The statement said he was:

… disappointed that the federal government has chosen to withdraw funding for a possible high-level research collaboration with the Copenhagen Consensus Centre.

Reasserting that he was pleased with the principled stance that Flinders had taken, Stirling declared:

Universities should be places for contesting controversial issues without fear or favour – and Flinders has shown itself to be a champion of this notion, displaying fortitude, vision, and independence. We will continue to seek research opportunities that invite the robust, critical thinking for which we’re renowned.

Doubtless, Stirling and others at Flinders may have been impressed by the credentials that Lomborg promised to offer to an Australian university. While Lomborg has not operated a centre at a university for many years, he has offered the services of Nobel Prize-winning economists. As journalist Graham Readfearn has noted, practically every story penned about Lomborg’s proposed Australian centre has stressed how Lomborg works with “seven Nobel Laureates”. This includes Lomborg’s October 13 article in The Australian.

At least one of these laureates, Vernon Smith, has been funded by climate sceptic billionaires the Koch brothers. Only two have reportedly worked with Lomborg in recent times on “expert panels”. But there is one of these laureates that Flinders would never have been able to work with: Robert Fogel, who died more than two years ago.

Whether or not the Turnbull government had re-examined Lomborg’s past operations before pulling the funding is not known. But it is likely that the highly successful social media campaign against both Lomborg and Flinders management played a key role in the decision. The Australian Youth Climate Coalition had gathered more than 7000 signatures against the funding. Lomborg had also rapidly attracted a large amount of negative press in both mainstream and open web news sites.

While Liberal senator Cory Bernardi took to Twitter to condemn the decision as “a pathetic sop to leftist bullying”, the new Turnbull ministry is likely heeding the power of social media in a way that the Abbott government never did. Tony Abbott infamously referred to social media as “electronic graffiti”.

Turnbull, a successful Twitter user, understands the difference between a genuine community campaign conducted on social media and the operation of trolls who serve quite narrow interests on both the left and right of politics.

The community campaign was set to grow, too. Flinders students were using Thunderclap to amplify their reach and support for the Stop Lomborg campaign.

But the translation of what is essentially a single issue into a social movement would not have happened had Lomborg himself not represented something that draws such angry responses from people concerned about climate change.

Part of the problem for Lomborg is that he has become a victim of his own PR and an easy target for those feeling disempowered by climate change. When they hear Lomborg tell audiences that the net impact of global warming from 1900 to 2050 will be a positive one, without any regard for committing the next 2000 years to hell on earth, people get angry.

The abstractness and intangibility of the climate crisis, and the difficulty of knowing what actions can make a difference, is part of what makes climate change the greatest social problem of our time. For those who accept the science, now is the time to take action.

When Lomborg encourages us to “feel good” about delaying action on climate change, such as replacing today’s spending on renewable energy with renewable research, he is not going to win over those who have truly confronted the scale and immediacy of the climate crisis – which so many Australians now have.

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