Bjorn Lomborg's WSJ Response to Nixing of Australian Project

Bjorn Lomborg has written an Op Ed in the Wall Street Journal lamenting the decision of the University of Western Australia (UWA) to nix previously developed plans to accept a $4 million dollar payment from the conservative Australian government, to be matched by university money, to implement a version of Lomborg’s Copenhagen Institute there, to be known as Australia Consensus.

See: Bjorn Lomborg Is Wrong About Bangladesh And Sea Level Rise

See: Bjørn Lomborg WSJ Op Ed Is Stunningly Wrong

See: Are electric cars any good? Lomborg says no, but he’s wrong.

Lomborg’s scholarship in the area of climate and energy related policy has been repeatedly criticized and often described as far less than adequate. A typical Bjorn Lomborg missive on climate or energy policy seems to include instance after instance of inaccuracies, often taking the form of a statement of fact with a citation, where that fact or assertion is not to be found in the citation. Many regard his policies as “luke warm.” From the highly regarded Sketpical Science web site:

…examples of Luckwarmers include Matt Ridley, Nic Lewis, and Bjorn Lomborg. The University of Western Australia has been caught up in a major Luckwarmer controversy, having taken federal funds to set up a center from which Lomborg was expected to argue that the government’s money would be better spent on issues other than curbing global warming. In a sign that even Stage 3 climate denial is starting to become untenable, the resulting uproar forced the university to cancel plans for the center.

The UWA project received a great deal of critisim, and was seen by many as a move by Big Fossil to water down academic and government response to the critical issue of climate change. Graham Readfearn, writing for The Guardian, notes:

Danish political scientist and climate change contrarian Bjørn Lomborg says the poorest countries in the world need coal and climate change just isn’t as big a problem as some people make out.

Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott says “coal is good for humanity” and there are more pressing problems in the world than climate change, which he once described as “crap” but now says he accepts.

So it’s not surprising then that the latter should furnish the former with $4 million of taxpayer funds to start an Australian arm of Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus Centre (CCC) at the University of Western Australia’s business school.

The Australian project was shut down after severe criticism from the global academic community as well as students and faculty within UWA. Predictably, Lombog had characterized this as an attack on free debate. From the Op Ed, “Opponents of free debate are celebrating. Last week…the University of Western Australia canceled its contract to host a planned research center, Australia Consensus, intended to apply economic cost-benefit analysis to development projects—giving policy makers a tool to ensure their aid budgets are spent wisely.

While Lomborg blames “activists” for shutting down the center, it is more widely believed that the project was criticized because, based on prior work done by Lomborg, any ensuing “cost-benefit analyses” would be academically weak and policy-irrelevant.

Central to the difference in overall approach (aside from allegations of poor scholarship) between Lomborg and many others is how poor or developing nations should proceed over coming decades. Lomborg seems to advocate that these nations go through the same economic and technological evolution as developed nations, building an energy infrastructure based mainly on fossil fuels, in order to industrialize and reach the standard of living presumed desired by those who live in those nations. The alternative, of course, is that development in these regions be done with lessons learned from the industrialized and developed world. We don’t ask rural Kenyans to install a wire-based analog phone system before using modern digital cell phone systems. With respect to energy, developing regions should implement clean energy with smart distribution rather than building hulking coal plants and committing for centuries to come to expensive and extensive electric grid systems that are now generally regarded as outdated.

Lomborg says enough about mitigating climate change effects, and developing green energy technologies, to be able to suggest that he supports these ideas when he is pushed up against the wall, as with the nixing of the Australian project. But his regular statements on specific policy points, frequent and well documented, tell a different story.

Lomborg claims that much of the policy development of the Copenhagen Institute is not even about climate change. To the extent that this is true, it may be part of the problem. As development occurs, energy is key. With development of energy technologies, climate change is key. Lomborg’s approach that the Copenhagen projects are mostly not about climate change is not an argument that he is doing something right. It is evidence that he is doing something wrong, and at the same time, is apparently unaware of this.

It is very important to remember, as this conversation unfolds, that the objections to Lomborg’s work, and to spending vast sums of money to support it, are only partly because of differences in approach. These objections also come from two other things. One is a sense that Lomborg is detached from scholarship and good analysis.

Graham Readfearn has documented academic response to Lomborg’s work. Here is one example:

Dr Frank Jotzo, director of the Centre for Climate Ecnomics and Policy at the Australian National University, was once invited to write a paper for Lomborg’s centre in 2008, which was sharply critical of how the cost of the impacts of climate change were treated.

He told me:

Within the research community, particularly within the economics community, the Bjorn Lomborg enterprise has no academic credibility. It is seen as an outreach activity that is driven by specific set of objectives in terms of bringing particular messages into the public debate and in some cases making relatively extreme positions seem more acceptable in the public debate.

And, regarding energy policy vis-a-vis the Big Fossil,

…we had a look at Lomborg’s claims that the world’s poorest were crying out for more fossil fuels which, Lomborg argued, were the only real way they could drag themselves out of poverty…the positions Lomborg takes on these issues are underpinned by a nasty habit of picking the lowest available estimates of the costs of climate change impacts.

Last year, when Lomborg spoke to a coal company-sponsored event in Brisbane in the shadow of the G20 talks, Lomborg suggested that because the International Energy Agency (IEA) had developed one future scenario that saw growth in the burning of coal in poor countries, in particular in sub-Saharan Africa, that this somehow meant that fossil fuels were just what they needed.

Yet Lomborg ignored an important rejoinder to that assessment, which had come from the IEA itself, and which I pointed out at the time.

The IEA said its assessment for Africa was consistent with global warming of between 3C and 6C for the continent by the end of this century.

Lomborg’s prior written works could be, and actually have been (I am told), used in coursework on analytical approaches to policy as bad, not good, examples. And, although Lomborg often associates himself with Nobel Prize Winners (and rarely fails to note that) he is not known as a high powered, influential scholar in his area. A recent citation analysis of Lomborg’s work backs up that concern:

…I combed through his Google Scholar entries and dumped all the duplicates, I ignored all the magazine and newspaper articles (e.g., you can’t count opinion editorials in The Wall Street Journal as evidence of an academic track record), I cut out all non-articles (things Lomborg hadn’t actually written), omitted any website diatribes (e.g., blog posts and the like) and calculated his citation profile.

Based on my analysis, Lomborg’s Google Scholar h-index is 4 for his peer-reviewed articles. If I was being particularly generous and included all of Lomborg’s books, which have by far the most citations, then his h-index climbs to 9. However, none of his books is peer-reviewed, and in the case of his most infamous book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, it has been entirely discredited. As such, any reasonable academic selection committee would omit any metrics based on opinion-based books.

So, the best-case scenario is that Lomborg’s h-index is no more than 4. Given his appointment to Level D (Associate Professor) at a world-class university, the suggestion that he earned it on academic merit is not only laughable, it’s completely fraudulent. There is no way that his academic credentials had anything to do with the appointment.

Even a fresh-out-of-the-PhD postdoc with an h-index of only 3 or 4 would have trouble finding a job. As a rule of thumb, the h-index of a Level D appointment should be in the 20–30 range (this would vary among disciplines). Despite this variation, Lomborg’s h-index is so far off the mark that even accounting for uncertainty and difference of opinion, it’s nowhere near a senior academic appointment.

The other problem people see with Lomborg’s efforts is the sense that the Copenhagen Institute is a bit of a sham, and that Lomborg is not selling informed expertise, but rather, snake oil. From a recent analysis of the status of the Copenhagen Consensus Center:

Copenhagen Consensus Center is a textbook example of what the IRS calls a “foreign conduit” and it frowns strongly on such things. It may also frown on governance and money flows like this…


...more than 60% went directly to Lomborg, travel and $853K promotion of his movie. According to Wikipedia it grossed $63K…

Even in a simple US charity, poor governance and obvious conflicts of interest are troublesome, but the foreign element invokes stringent extra rules. Legitimate US charities can send money to foreign charities, but from personal experience, even clearly reasonable cases like foreign universities require careful handling. It is unclear that Lomborg himself is a legitimate charity anywhere, but most of the money seems under his control. One might also wonder where income taxes are paid.

CCC seems to break many rules. Foreign citizen Lomborg is simultaneously CCC founder, president, and highest-paid employee. Most people are a little more subtle when trying to create conduits…

This is apparently the Copenhagen Consensus Center, Copenhagen Consensus Center USA, 262 Middlesex St, Lowell MA . This is apparently the Copenhagen Consensus Center, Copenhagen Consensus Center USA, 262 Middlesex St, Lowell MA .

Both the flow of money and sources matter when thinking about a non profit research or policy institution. From DeSmog Blog:

A billionaire “vulture capitalist” and major backer of the US Republican Party is a major funder of the think tank of Danish climate science contrarian and fossil fuels advocate Bjørn Lomborg, DeSmogBlog has found.

New York-based hedge fund manager Paul Singer’s charitable foundation gave $200,000 to Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus Center (CCC) in 2013, latest US tax disclosures reveal.

That was about a third of the CCC’s donations for the year 2013.

Lomborg, who claims to not be a climate skeptic, is the author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist” and the book and movie “Cool It

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"Free debate," at four millions AU dollars? Hey, Lomborg: how about you earn your "free" AU$4m by being correct now and then?

By Desertphile (not verified) on 14 May 2015 #permalink

Okay, I have read Mr. Lomborg's complaint as published in The WSJ On-Line. Golly, where to even begin?! Notes to Mr. Lombrog:

#0: Playing the martyr is an excellent ploy when engaged in politics. In science, pretending to be Jesus does not work at all.

#1: The job of "economic cost-benefit analysis to development projects" has already been done, and has been on-going by many hundreds of actual experts for over 25 years. The details, the analyses, and the summations are all freely available to anyone and everyone who has Internet access. It does not require an additional A$4,000,000 to learn these things: it requires about 90 minutes of quality Internet time.

#2 There was already a debate on the subject, in the correct venues (i.e., science journals, and among the world's economic experts). We already know the problems. We already know the solutions. This work has already been done over the past few decades: where were you?

#3: Your detractors (i.e., your intellectual and ethical superiors) are overwhelmingly supporters and defenders of free debate: we are not "opponents." The problem is that you have been, and are, consistently wrong regarding human-caused climate change, its effects, and on how to mitigate and adapt to those effects. You lost the debate, yet you expect to be funded to "continue the debate" that you lost. That's how things work in the political world, but that is not how things work in science.

By Desertphile (not verified) on 14 May 2015 #permalink

Given his history this jaded old fart simply believes that Lomborg's true source of unhappiness with this news is that a new, probably significant, source of income has been closed off. Probably easy money too, since he appeared nowhere among lists of adjunct faculty despite being listed as such in their press release. I'm not sure what he would be doing then, since the Vice-Chairman's statement about the cancellation of the project includes this

...that Bjorn Lomborg would not be involved in its day-to-day operations (of the Centre).

So not listed in any department for classes, not involved in the Centre - other than getting money for his ideas, what would he have done?

"... other than getting money for his ideas, what would he have done?"

Perhaps the better question is, what would or will this "Australia Consensus" do that has not already been done many times already? "We" (as in the experts on policy-making) already know the problems, and the solutions, and the necessary policies for most countries, and in many cases also the region-specific policies necessary for many countries. What do to is not a mystery; how to do it is not a mystery. I would love to what what this "Australia Consensus" group thinks needs to be studied more.

By Desertphile (not verified) on 14 May 2015 #permalink

In reply to by dean (not verified)

What would they do? It isn't clear to me. The announcement of the thing was spectacularly nebulous in its description:

The new centre will focus on applying an economic lens to proposals to achieve good for Australia, the region and the world, prioritising those initiatives which produce the most social value per dollar spent.

The new Australia Consensus Centre will be based at UWA but have global reach. It will help frame the debate on aid, Australian prosperity, agriculture and regional issues and focus on smart, long-term priorities. The work of the ACC involves rigorous identification of issues and problems that require analysis, the generation of well-articulated solutions by key Australian and international economists, and assessment and ranking of the best solutions by an expert panel of economists including Nobel Laureates.


The advice is to be developed using the methodology developed by the Copenhagen Consensus Center.

Later in the announcement it is stated that Lomborg will spend time in Perth and across Australia to "encourage a conversation on priorities for aid and development and the future prosperity of Australia" and that he had been made an adjunct faculty member of the university, with no (college) affiliation given. (Perhaps, by implication, with their school of business, since the center would have been affiliated with it.)

Getting Lomborg to "advise" on energy policy would be a bit like getting Meryl Dorey to "advise" on health policy.

By Craig Thomas (not verified) on 14 May 2015 #permalink

Who's mugging whom?

Lomborg left out a few salient points. The objections to Lomborg were far from a "small but loud group of opponents". The criticisms came from an large group of academics, current students and alumni. Two large petitions were raised and the one on had over 6000 signatories to include current students and alumni. Only two academics at the university, out of staff of hundreds, Professor David Pannell and Emeritus Associate Professor Greenway went on record to support Lomborg. The staff fora which showed academic staff raising their concerns with the Vice Chancellor (VC) Johnson were not clandestine as claimed by Lomborg but were open sessions that were videoed and placed on the University's website.

The concerns raised interestingly, did query Lomborg's scientific assertions but more of them centred on issues to do with party political interference in a publicly funded university, such as: 1. why a risk assessment had not been undertaken prior to the VC taking the money. 2. Why government funding could be found for this project when overall government funding to the university had been cut. 3. Highlighted that research cooperation with other universities would be placed in jeopardy. 4. Asked where the additional AUD$10m that would be necessary to run the ACC would be coming from and would this funding be transparent. 5. (As addressed above) How Lomborg could be considered for a Professorial level position at a Global 100 university without having an academic publication record. 6. Would such an appointment bring the university into disrepute and lower the universities highly prized global rankings. 7. Was there a possibility of the university setting up the centre without Lomborg as there were eminently qualified Professors already employed by the university well versed in Cost-Benefit analyses.

After the announcement that UWA's association with Lomborg and the ACC would cancelled, the "Australian Financial Review" revealed that several wealthy alumni had threatened to pull sizeable bequests to the university in the order of AUD$3m should Lomborg be appointed. And it was intimated that further bequests would be withheld.

Then at the end of last week the Australian government revealed that the foreign aid budget would be slashed by 25% to a sixty year low virtually cancelling all aid to African countries. Mitigating any need for Australia to appoint Lomborg. As there was no new funds to require assistance with allocation aid as the remaining budget is made up almost entirely of tied aid projects. This from a country with the second highest GDP per capita. So all pretence of the ACC being anything other than a political stunt was exposed.

Finally, in citing Tim Wilson, Lomborg reveals himself not to be a man committed to open debate. Wilson is an openly political appointee to the Australian Human Rights Commission who is on record attempting to change the law in order to prevent gutter journalists' being prosecuted for racially vilifying indigenous Australians. Wilson also failed to stand behind the President of the Australian Rights' Commission when she was being bullied by the government for her report on Australia's abysmal treatment of refugees. Eventually it was the ICC and UN who stepped in to support Prof Triggs.

So far from being an advocate for the poor and dispossessed, Lomborg stands fore square with one of the most morally and politically abject governments in the world. Small wonder that not a single university in the world will touch this man.

By Edwina Kelly (not verified) on 16 May 2015 #permalink

Apologies for the grammar and punctuation, Lomborg has me incandescent with rage!!!

By Edwina Kelly (not verified) on 16 May 2015 #permalink

Mr. Desertphile, sir, what is it that makes you the expert on "policy-making"? Why is it that the world at large must take your guidance as the last word on "what to do" and "how to do it"?
You and your cohort may have valid ideas, but to declare that you and your ideas are the final say in the matter and everyone else must just play along chills me to the bone.
I am open to any reasonable opinion, and you and others who declare "case closed" remind me too much of what I have read of Stalin and his ilk.

By B.C. McAllister (not verified) on 17 May 2015 #permalink

"Mr. Desertphile, sir, what is it that makes you the expert on policy-making?"

Have you stopped beating your dog?

By Desertphile (not verified) on 18 May 2015 #permalink

In reply to by B.C. McAllister (not verified)

" remind me too much of what I have read of Stalin and his ilk."

then you have not understand of anything you've read about stalin and his ilk. Perhaps all the big words confused you.

Mr McAllister sounds like someone who equates science with politics: "The correct answer" is whatever the current party in power dictates it to be.

Wake up people: Science is not politics and politics is not science. One does not dictate to Nature what its Truths are.

It is not arrogance to assert the truth of what science teaches us, but it is arrogance to assume that "everyone is entitled to their own truths". There lies the path to ruin... Beware.

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 18 May 2015 #permalink

@ ^ Brainstorms : Yep. To put it in Galileo’s words :

“Eppur si muove” (And yet it does move.)

- After recanting his belief in the Copernican theory on threat of torture according to legend.
- Page 334, Ben Bova, ‘The Story of Light’, Sourcebooks Inc., 2001.

By Astrostevo (not verified) on 19 May 2015 #permalink

@9. B.C. McAllister :

I am open to any reasonable opinion, ..

You are? I have my doubts on that somehow!

..and you and others who declare “case closed” remind me too much of what I have read of Stalin and his ilk.

So, do you think the case is closed on whether or not the world is flat or the value of pi is 3.1415926535? Do you doubt evolution or gravity or vaccines as well?

There are times and cases where scientific evidence is so overwhelming that you have to say, yeah, the case is really pretty much closed.

Unless you have extraordinary evidence to explain your extraordinary claim otherwise (Sagan's Law) in which case your extraordinary evidence would be ..?? OH & your explanation for why the experts in the field who have spent their lives studying climatology (say) haven't already realised your evidence shows X and beaten you to it is .. ???

By Astrostevo (not verified) on 19 May 2015 #permalink