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Australian university pulls plug on climate skeptic’s center
Emil Jupin/Wikimedia Commons

Australian university pulls plug on climate skeptic’s center

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—The Australian government’s controversial move to host a think tank headed by noted global warming skeptic Bjørn Lomborg has unraveled—for now. But Australia’s education minister has vowed to find a new home for the center at a willing institution.

Last month, the University of Western Australia (UWA) in Perth announced plans to set up an Australian Consensus Centre (ACC), chaired by Lomborg, that would conduct policy research on overseas aid, Australian prosperity, agriculture, and regional issues. UWA announced that the federal government would contribute roughly one-third of ACC’s operating costs. The rest of the budget would come from corporate sponsors and government grants.  

Scientists were outraged, especially when UWA revealed on 20 April that the government had already contributed AU$4 million to launch the think tank. That’s a hefty sum to a scientific community that has had to tighten its belt in recent months. The 2014 budgets for five major R&D agencies endured a combined cut of more than AU$420 million; the lead R&D agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, has had to close labs and facilities and is slated to have eliminated almost 1300 jobs by the end of next month, representing a 20% cut to its workforce.

Given such shaky support for science, ACC’s establishment “is an insult to Australia’s scientific community,” says mammalogist Tim Flannery, a founder of the nonprofit Climate Council. He and others contend ACC is politically motivated: Since coming into power in September 2013, the conservative government has scrapped Australia’s Clean Energy Act and the government’s Climate Change Authority and shuttered the independent Climate Change Commission, claiming its AU$1.5 million annual operating costs were too expensive.

Outrage grew after Fairfax Media newspapers revealed on 23 April that the push for ACC came from Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a Lomborg admirer who quoted the Danish researcher favorably in his 2009 book Battlelines. Although Lomborg has said he accepts that the climate is changing, he has downplayed global warming’s contribution in two popular books, The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It, and in reports from his Copenhagen Consensus Centre, a network registered as a U.S. nonprofit. Lomborg argues that money spent cutting greenhouse gas emissions would be better spent on climate change adaptation or tackling poverty. In March, Abbott invited Lomborg to launch the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Innovation Hub and Lomborg now sits on a government-appointed panel advising Australia's foreign aid programs.

Lomborg’s influence in Australia irks researchers like Matt England, a climate scientist at University of New South Wales. “Lomborg has been discredited over the years with some bizarre statements about climate physics,” England asserts. “He just doesn’t get it.”

In a letter to UWA’s head of corporate and governance affairs, obtained by Fairfax Media, neuroscientist Sarah Dunlop, head of the university’s School of Animal Biology, claimed that Lomborg lacks the academic track record to justify his appointment as an adjunct professor. At a packed meeting of the university academic council on 24 April, she called on UWA to cut its relationship with Lomborg.

With “great regret and disappointment,” UWA Vice-Chancellor Paul Johnson announced on 8 May that he had advised the federal government that the university would cancel the contract to set up ACC and return the money. But the saga is not over, Minister for Education and Training Christopher Pyne assured supporters via Twitter the next day. “Don't worry, I'm certain we'll find a new home for the Australian Consensus Centre,” he tweeted. Lomborg told The Guardian on 8 May that he is committed to ACC because his research  is “far too important to let fall victim to toxic politics” and “grossly misinformed attacks.”