What a bloody disgrace the academics and students at the University of Western Australia have shown themselves to be. Their baseless and unreasoned attack on Bjorn Lomborg and the proposed government-funded centre on climate economics he was to have run has tainted their integrity forever. Lomborg’s only sin is that he rejects the orthodox view on climate-change urgency and that he has proven virtually all mitigation action to date is ‘feel good’ rather than ‘do good’.
Lomborg has never denied global warming or humans’ contribution to this trend or the need for developing alternative energy. What he objects to is wasteful priority-setting which allows billions of dollars to be poured into emission-reduction schemes that will have no significant effect on temperature reduction.
Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus started by asking only one question: ‘Which of the alternative investments available will result in the greatest well-being of humankind?’ After establishing a large panel of Nobel Prize winners for advice, they concluded that spending on food production, water supplies and disease control would produce benefits several orders of magnitude greater than investment in emissions reduction, even in the long term.
The returns in well-being in cents per dollar spent are presented in detail in Lomborg’s second book Cool It (2007), having laid out his general challenge to ineffective do-gooders in his first book The Skeptical Environmentalist (2001). He has no quarrel with Svante Arnhenius’ original 1896 theory that each doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide could increase ambient temperature by 5°C, nor does he question the Hawaiian Mauna Loa observatory’s carbon dioxide recordings since the mid 1950s. Lomborg’s challenge is purely economic and is partially based on his modelling of crop production in the temperate regions, where most of the world’s grains are produced and higher summer temperatures and longer growing seasons will increase food production significantly and reduce deaths from cold, which are seven times as high as deaths from heat, globally.
The sooner climate science is re-badged climate religion, the sooner we shall understand the puerile stance of the environmental lobby on global warming. Brendan O’Neill, writing in The Australian (2/5/15) beneath the headline The Black Heart of Green Thinking makes several pertinent observations on the present fact-free position of the true believers. He notes how the Greens in the UK have demanded that government get rid of any civil servants who don’t accept the scientific consensus on climate change. This demand for eco-orthodoxy is what stirs the inhabitants of UWA, student guild and academic association alike. The charge is not of being a denier, but a mere “contrarian”. He has a controversial track record, they cry. How does such schoolyard ganging-up infest an alleged seat of learning, one that purports to be devoted to reason, logic, tolerance and diversity of opinion? I fear the answer is quite simple: as the initiative came from the Abbott government, Lomborg had to be opposed as a matter of shrieking principal. The sequence seems to have been:
(i) Government likes the Copenhagen approach and offers funding of $4 million;
(ii) UWA governance office likes the idea and responds to an invitation to make a submission to government
(iii) government approves funding and terms of reference
(iv) snubbed academic staff accuse the university of dirty tricks, of ignoring how controversial Lomborg is, and that a competitive selection process should have been applied
(v) students get on the bandwagon and accuse the University of ratbaggery
(vi) media commentariat choose sides, with letters letters to the editor, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram users demonstrate the shallowness of the mob
What does this travesty say about our intelligentsia, other than highlighting that, like yappy little dogs, they bark and snarl the louder for hunting in a pack? It says that while the academy makes a self-congratulatory hullabaloo about peer-reviewing papers, its habitues are as guilty of hypocrisy as the deep greens, from whom they are very often indistinguishable. There’s no outcry about peer pressure and conforming with the ordained tenets of political correctness. Surely, accusing a fellow academic of ‘having a controversial track record’ and ‘being a contrarian’ is juxtaposed with what we thought our universities were all about: the grand contest of ideas.
Humans may well have reached plague proportions in some regions but putting biodiversity ahead of humanitarianism requires a considerably more nuanced debate than is coming from the narrow church of the true believers. The problem for believers is that funding depends on government priorities and governments tend to change every few years. During the Rudd-Gillard years, the Climate Council (under Tim Flannery) prospered; that ended when Abbott sacked the lot, or rather just de-funded them. Let’s look at the dynamics of climate political correctness.
While National Geographic was promoting a cover story on The War on Science, The Australian was ripping into the originator of the infamous 97% of Scientists Consensus‘. Debate on ‘the science is in’ claim on this matter has been raging for two decades or more, both sides more determined than ever to carry the day as the weight of public opinion moves and shifts.
Like few other issues, climate change has divided researchers, academics, politicians, communities and families. For many laypeople, the truth one way or the other is actually no big deal, this being due to very long time-frames and the individuals’ simple inability to live long enough to see or affect the outcome. Presented with an authoritative voice making dire predictions, all but zealots will feel some passing concern for the planet’s future, then return to more immediate preoccupations. The mass impact of those predictions, just by the way, diminishes with the escalating repetition of evermore fanciful claims and prophecies, many of them demonstrated to have been wild-eyed fabulism. Check your local dam levels and it will be very hard ever again to take Tim Flannery seriously.
Your researchers, academics and politicians are different. Their very reputations and careers (and mortgages) depend on being on the right side of popular perception, so controlling the pulpit in the Church of Climate Catastrophism is, professionally speaking, a matter of life and death.
The National Geographic article repeats a Pew Research Centre’s finding that only 40% of Americans ‘accept that human activity is the dominant cause of global warming’. Those who study what they call ‘the science-communication problem’, have provided considerable evidence of how people decide what to believe and why they often don’t accept the scientific consensus. Interestingly, a Yale survey of 1540 Americans suggested that more scientifically literate individuals hold stronger at both ends of the scale on the significance of climate change as a threat.
Real scientists never see contemporary knowledge as permanent or final; they change their stance as new evidence accumulates. They don’t — or shouldn’t — work by consensus, and they are wary of generalisations such as ‘the science is settled’.
The moral is that when true believers try too hard, even to the extent of misrepresenting the truth, they do their cause a disservice. When they go further and howl down all those who disagree, even those with whom, like Lomborg, the differences are merely prescriptive, they do everyone else a dis-service — not least, the once-proud name of the University of Western Australia.
Brian Roberts has been Adjunct Professor at James Cook University’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences and CSIRO Honorary Fellow