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.
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…
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.