In a period of so-called “budget emergency” when deep funding cuts are being imposed on universities and scientific research, the federal government has managed to find $4 million for a “consensus centre” headed by advocate for climate inaction Bjørn Lomborg.
The $13 million centre will form part of the University of Western Australia’s (UWA) business school, with the Commonwealth contributing $4 million over four years.
The controversial centre was originally established in Denmark in 2004 but it was defunded by a new centre-left government in 2012. Lomberg will co-chair the centre with the university’s vice chancellor, Paul Johnson, and take up a position as an adjunct professor.
Lomborg is best known for his 2002 book The Skeptical Environmentalist, which was the subject of complaints to the Danish Committee of Scientific Dishonesty. In 2009 he was named one of Business Insider’s top 10 most respected global warming sceptics.
But Lomborg says he is not a climate sceptic or a climate denier. Like 97% of the world’s scientists he accepts that human actions are having an impact on the Earth’s climate and that impact will likely be devastating for much of the planet. Where he differs from most scientists is that he says that climate change is not a top priority problem.
Lomborg’s controversial view is that the seriousness of climate change has been overstated, that subsidies for renewable energy make no economic sense, that we should stop spending foreign aid on climate projects and that poor countries need continued access to cheap fossil fuels.
These views are not a million miles away from those of Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
In fact, Abbott quoted Lomborg in his 2009 book, Battlelines: “It doesn’t make sense, though, to impose certain and substantial costs on the economy now in order to avoid unknown and perhaps even benign changes in the future. As Bjørn Lomborg has said: ‘Natural science has undeniably shown us that global warming is manmade and real. But just as undeniable is the economic science which makes it clear that a narrow focus on reducing carbon emissions could leave future generations with major costs, without major cuts to temperatures.’”
So it came as no surprise when Fairfax Media revealed that, despite Abbott’s claims that the establishment of the centre was "based on a proposal put forward by the University and the Lomborg organisation”, in fact UWA was approached by the federal government to host the centre.
Fairfax Media also reported that leaked documents show that despite federal education minister Christopher Pyne’s claims that UWA would also contribute to the centre and that the government is contributing only a third of its estimated cost, UWA does not plan to spend any money on the centre and it believes government funding will largely cover the centre’s cost.
The establishment of the centre comes as UWA has moved to axe other research facilities and sack academic staff in the sciences. In March, the university axed its world-renowned Centre for Water Research led by Jorg Imberger, winner of the most prestigious award in his field, the Stockholm Water Prize, on the grounds that the centre was running at a loss.
UWA staff were naturally concerned that they had not been consulted about the establishment of the consensus centre and that the university’s reputation would be tarnished by association with an advocate for climate inaction.
On April 24 the UWA Academic Staff Association called a meeting with vice chancellor Johnson to address their concerns. At the standing room only meeting. Professor Sarah Dunlop, head of the school of animal biology, and James O’Shea, branch president of the National Tertiary Education Union, demanded that the university break its agreement to establish the centre. Media reports say the demand was met by “riotous applause” from the staff present.
Outside the meeting, staff criticised Johnson’s response to their concerns to the waiting media, saying he did not accept suggestions the funding was politically motivated and did not think the university’s international reputation would be damaged.
Dr Eric Feinblatt, an honorary research fellow with the department of engineering, said as he left the meeting: “The only reason [the centre] is happening in Australia is because the policy of the Abbott government makes it a favourable environment.
“This is just a proxy for the Abbott government. And for the administration of the university not to admit that, to deny that, is ridiculous.”
Johnson also spoke to media after the meeting, saying it was standard practice for decisions such as the establishment of a new research centre to be made without consulting the university senate.
Johnson said the university would listen to the views of staff but would not abandon its plans for the consensus centre.
He said the response from staff and students had been “passionate” but added “one of the things that we should always avoid in universities is being forced to resile from our commitment to academic freedom”.
Students expressed their “passion” in a meeting on April 20 where Johnson addressed the student body. At the meeting the UWA student guild called on Johnson to reject the “politically motivated“ federal funds for the centre.
Lizzy O’Shea, president of the UWA student guild, told the Guardian after the meeting that students were concerned that the university’s association with Lomborg would diminish the value of their degree.
Staff had already reported that it had damaged their relationships with research partners and donors.
Several alumni who regularly donated to the university had contacted O’Shea to say they were considering pulling their donations in light of Lomborg’s appointment.
“You sort of think, when the amount of donations to be withdrawn exceeds $4 million, do you pull out?” she said.
“If I was the VC I would be concerned about Year 12 leavers who are picking their uni around this time of year. If you’re looking to do a degree in climate science, do you come to UWA now?”