We need real consensus, not Bjorn Lomborg’s illusion of it

It takes time, but this is how a real consensus is built. EPA/NIELS AHLMANN OLESEN/AAP

The Australian government’s intent to create a “Consensus Centre” to work on the big issues facing the nation signals a welcome revival in interest in using research to inform policy, if it can be taken at face value. But it needs to be done right, and if it is, universities can readily help.

The University of Western Australia’s recent decision to decline the A$4 million offered by the Abbott government, having originally agreed to host Bjorn Lomborg’s proposed “Australian Consensus Centre”, came after an outcry from faculty and students who were concerned that Lomborg’s views on climate change and other environmental issues were not based on the level of objective analysis expected of universities.

Lomborg is well known as a cornucopian, in the tradition of the US economist Julian Simon. Both have argued that environmental problems are not especially serious, and that the conventional economic growth model can continue indefinitely, even on a planet that is clearly finite.

Lomborg is not active as an academic (with a relatively low h-index of 3) and has forged his reputation largely by publishing non-peer-reviewed books, with environmental verdicts that have been eagerly embraced by many at the conservative end of the political spectrum.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with bringing a point of view to an issue and sparking debate. But what is problematic about the proposed Australian Consensus Centre (and the original one in Copenhagen) is the blatant misuse of the term “consensus”.

What Lomborg means by “consensus” is getting a small group of big-name economists into a room for a week to independently rank hypothetical spending – for example on foreign aid – against a list of predetermined problems. But the approach ignores the interdependencies between problems, dismisses everything that is not highly ranked, and then labels the average rankings as the “consensus”. One of us (Jotzo) participated in one of these exercises and can attest to the fact that the discussions were limited, and public communication of the results ignored the complexities and the alternative perspectives.

In reality, the desirable course of action for most complex problems involves a mix of many options. Dealing with climate change, for example, requires reducing emissions now, investing in research and development for the future, and preparing to adapt to the impacts. It’s not a matter of choosing one of these and ditching the others. This is true for just about any complex problem, and serious analyses invariably reflect this.

We need real consensus

The reality is that we desperately need to build real consensus in both the scientific community and the general public if we are to solve the complex and interconnected set of environmental, social and economic problems we currently face. Building this real consensus requires deep involvement, and genuinely open dialogue and discussion with a broad range of stakeholders, with reference to the best available scientific evidence. This is, at heart, what the scientific enterprise is all about.

For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been painstakingly building consensus about climate change over several decades. Creating real consensus on complex issues takes more than a week-long workshop with 20 participants and the trumpeting of priority lists.

Why then, has the real consensus on climate change been ignored by some? Part of the reason is that we are embedded in what sociolinguist Deborah Tannen calls “the argument culture”, in which even the most complex problems are cast as a duel between polar opposites. Much of the media, the law, politics, and academia are caught in this trap of viewing all discussion as a competition between two extremes, with no common ground, with one side right and the other wrong.

The argument culture has a pervasive influence on our lives, and the climate “debate” is a perfect example. Sections of the media still habitually pit scientists against deniers, and as a result many citizens see themselves as either “believers” or “non-believers” in the science of climate change. To scientists this is like asking people whether they “believe” in gravity.

The argument culture extends deep into questions of policy, to the extent that choosing an economic instrument becomes an exercise in ideology. For example, years of acrimonious political debate have created pervasive negative images around a “carbon tax”, even though the economics of it are compelling.

A complex world needs a complex approach

The complex problems that the world and Australia face require a multifaceted, complex approach – one that encourages real dialogue, which embraces social and ethical considerations as well as economic analysis, and that does not cast every discussion as a zero-sum, win-lose, either-or, you-or-me dichotomy.

To get beyond the argument culture and build real consensus is going to take creativity, diligence, openness, and honest and ongoing engagement with both the facts and the full range of stakeholders.

Australia’s universities are well placed to help society and governments work towards genuine consensus in this way. Most academics love nothing more than engagement in a broad public discussion about the big issues that face the nation and the world. It happens every day, including here on The Conversation, in journals like Solutions, in the policy forum of the Asia Pacific Policy Society, and in specialist centres such as the Development Policy Centre that provides in-depth analysis on aid effectiveness – not to mention the countless workshops, conferences, papers and direct interactions between researchers and the policy community. The Australian Academy of Science recently ran a two-day workshop at which around 50 leading Australians were encouraged to listen to and understand one another’s thoughts about alternative futures rather than rush to conclusions and decisions.

If governments want so see progress towards real consensus on specific, important questions that face the nation, then universities can readily help. But Lomborg’s illusion of consensus only feeds the argument culture. Instead, governments that focus on making it easier for academics to participate meaningfully in these processes – and which actually listen to the findings – will find they get much more bang for their buck.