Pelican speaks to the charismatic Copenhagener about his new role at UWA

Interview by Kat Gillespie

The announcement that UWA will use a $4 million federal grant to build an ‘Australian Consensus Centre’ has been met with dismay by students and faculty members. The Centre is based upon Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg’s ‘consensus methodology’ of cost benefit analysis, which makes economic proposals to address global issues. Lomborg is best known as a controversial climate contrarian, who has claimed that climate change is not among the world’s immediate social or economic priorities. UWA has however been quick to assert that the Centre is not focused on climate debate. With the #stoplomborg movement gathering widespread support, it seemed crucial to hear from the man himself. Mr Lomborg was eager to talk to us, and generous with his time.

You’ve stated that your Consensus Centre isn’t about science, so much as economics. What does that mean?

Well, of course it’s based on science. When we talk about how many people die from malaria, that’s based on medical knowledge… But the crucial bit that we bring to the conversation is the economics aspect. So it’s about saying how much can you avoid, for instance, malaria for $1000. How much good can you do if you focus on spending say, $1000 on getting better education. Or the many other things that you can focus on.

That’s what you call ‘consensus methodology’.

Yeah, so what we do is we work with some of the world’s top economists… to look across all these different areas, to get state of the art economics into the conversation about where should we spend money to do the most good. So this is not a question of saying is malaria happening or is global warming happening or is education a good thing, all of those things are true, it’s a question of saying how effective can we be with different issues.

It’s about prioritizing funding.

Exactly.

So in terms of prioritizing funds, you would have it that governments stop the funding of say, renewable energy subsidies, such as those for solar panels. Could you explain this position?

There are some things that sound really good, but turn out to be fairly poor investments. So, for instance, when you look at the target of trying to double renewable energy in the world, it sounds really good, and of course it has real benefits… The problem is that renewables are still fairly expensive. So there’s both a cost and a benefit. We estimate the total, and again these are some of the world’s top economists, estimate the total cost of increasing, doubling renewable energy would cost about $500 billion (USD) a year… so the benefit would be about 80c back in the dollar. So you would do some good, but not as much good as you could do elsewhere. That’s what we’re pointing out – this is not one of the best targets to engage in.

Surely the more solar panels we build the cheaper they’ll become, as more manufacturers compete to create cheaper innovations.

There’s a lot of people who obviously have a financial interest, but also an emotional interest in hoping that that will be the case. But if you look at the International Energy Agency (IEA), they estimate that by 2040…we will still be spending more money every year on subsidies on solar panels. Is this an economically smart way to help the world?

A recent study by the Australian National University says Australia could source 100% of its power from renewable resources by 2050 without negative economic repercussions. Aren’t there positive economic benefits to tackling climate change head-on?

There’s no doubt that there are benefits…there are both benefits and costs to any policy. I know that this study coming out of that university was actually co-sponsored with World Wildlife Fund, right? That’s the one that just came out.

That’s right.

I mean, I think I would probably prefer to believe the world’s biggest energy organization [the IEA]. Certainly if you ask any mainstream economist, there are definitely economic studies out there that prove that this is incredibly efficient and we should definitely do it. But again, we have been hearing that story…I could go back and show you quotes from the ‘70s that say solar panels are going to be economically efficient in ten years. But the serious models, and the IEA, and certainly most of the climate economic models show there is a significant cost to having these solar panels…the IEA are telling us that solar power is going to be very expensive in 2040.

What I’m trying to point out is that this is a Centre that is going to look at all the world’s big issues. And mostly those are not about climate. If you ask most people around the world what they think are the most important issues what they actually say is that it’s about food, it’s about jobs, it’s about uncorrupt governments.

So not about climate at all?

It doesn’t mean climate is not a problem. We can also think about how we deal with climate. But I think it is a little unfortunate that we are so focused on climate that we have a hard time seeing facts, for example that the world’s most important environmental problem isn’t global warming, it’s indoor air pollution. 4.3 million people die every year from indoor air pollution mainly because they are so poor that they have to cook with bad fuels….yes, global warming is one of the things we should talk about, but we need to make sure we talk about the stuff that actually matters to most people.

A lot of UWA students are very concerned about global warming. You are of course going to be based at UWA.

Can I just say that we know that [UWA students] are not representative of what most people think about global warming… most people in the world worry about other things. I’m absolutely sure that a lot of people at UWA are very worried about global warming and I think that’s good…But [the biggest global problem] is by no means global warming, it is indoor air pollution. That’s what most people in the world are worried about.

Other than the fact that we are building you a 4 million dollar Consensus Centre, what is it that you like about UWA?

First of all, it’s a beautiful campus, and there are a lot of smart people there…There’s also a sense of connectedness to the whole region. I was in Indonesia just three weeks ago. It gave the understanding of being in a region where not everybody is as privileged as Australia. There’s that responsibility that we do good not just for Australians but for the world.

Do you have a relationship with the Australian government and the Federal cabinet?

No…I speak with a lot of people. I’ve probably met with as many opposition people in Canberra as I have with ministers. I’m trying to make sure that this is not a conversation about either right wing or left wing or whatever wing. This is a question about what are and aren’t smart policies…how to use Australia’s development aid better, do more good. Australia gives 5 billion dollars annually, personally I think that they should be giving more, but I’m not the President of Australia so that’s not up to me. America gives about 140 billion American dollars per year, imagine if we could get everyone to donate this kind of money and do so more effectively.

As you’ve just said the Australian government aren’t particularly enthusiastic about foreign aid, this is something they’ve actually de-funded in recent times… what’s your opinion on that?

Well, I don’t vote in Australia…[but] I would like governments in general to spend more rather than less on development. And we should be spending money the most effective way.

You suggest one way to spend money effectively is to provide those living in poverty with reliable, low cost fossil fuels. Recently the Australian government has been trying to block international efforts to end subsidies for coal development in the Asia Pacific region. Is it coincidence that your position and their policy align completely?

When Obama last year invited African leaders to Washington, they said “we need more power.” And most of that power is going to be fossil fuels. And we can either ignore that… or we can start focusing on how do we make sure in the long run that they will be using green energy. And that’s about investment in green energy and development. We need to get to a point where renewables are competitive with fossil fuels.

But you’re not doing that research or development yourself, and the government isn’t paying for that kind of research to be done.

I’m not vaccinating people, I’m not getting them treatment for malaria either. We’re a small centre. We are making the argument for where you should be spending public money…this is about making the academic argument – where can we do the most good?

It seems too coincidental that you and the Abbott government are interested in the same policy areas. Did the idea for the Australian Consensus Centre come straight from Tony Abbott’s office, or did you suggest it to the government?

My job as director of Copenhagen Consensus is to fundraise. Almost anyone I meet, I say, why don’t we do something? And I suggested this to UWA, I suggested it to many universities, I suggested it to politicians… and so that’s where the original idea came from. We have an enormous amount of impact across all areas not just in Australia but everywhere. And that’s why this is such an interesting academic outfit that so many of the world’s top academics want to work in.

But not many people did want to work with you. It seems like UWA is the last refuge for the Consensus Centre. You’ve floundered for two years now, you left Copenhagen in 2012, and it seems like now you’ve finally located a government in a wealthy nation who are willing to support you. I’m just really interested to know – you’re clearly a progressive academic, you’re clearly interested in planning for the future in a smart way – are you comfortable being part of a conservative government’s ideological agenda?

Look. I’m interested in being able to do the research that we can do at UWA. We can get the funding, which is what UWA and the Commonwealth was able to get, and that’s great. I really strongly object to the idea that this should be the last refuge. I’m invited to a lot of places. I’m at Harvard now, I was invited to their annual ministerial forum where they invite 15 finance ministers from Africa, I’ve given a lecture here. This is not a question of saying ‘a last refuge’. This really is a great opportunity both for the world, hopefully for UWA, to bring that conversation to Perth.

Well I look forward to seeing you around UWA. Thank you so much for speaking to Pelican.

Thank you!

 

Following a heated campaign led by student guild president Lizzy O’Shea, in the days subsequent to this interview the University of Western Australia announced that it would be terminating its contract with Mr Lomborg.