When science and politics collide

Getting climate policy right is not straightforward, and there is a need for contestable policy research and advice

Ramesh Thakur

Environment & energy, Education | Australia

22 July 2015

When looking at the controversy over the proposed branch of Bjorn Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus Centre, it’s a question of perspective, Ramesh Thakur writes.

Recently the decision by the University of Western Australia (UWA) to accept a multi-million dollar grant from the Federal Government to establish a branch of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre – only to reject it after a backlash from its academic staff – attracted national attention. There are several issues involved in the controversy.

First, any government is entitled to fund applied research units in universities in order to tap into cutting edge scholarship for advice on national priorities in public and foreign policy. In most instances, this type of government funding of new centres is uncontroversial. Good examples include the decision by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard to fund the Australia India Institute at University of Melbourne, and former Treasurer Wayne Swan’s decision to provide several million dollars to the G20 Studies Centre at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Second, the decision on academic staff appointments, including the director, and the directions and substance of academic research, should be left to the autonomous processes of the institution. The basis on which Bjorn Lomborg was chosen and the terms of his appointment remain unclear: was he to be an honorary chair of the advisory board (acceptable) or an executive director (troubling if done without due academic selection process)?

Third, the revolt by UWA academics must be assessed against the science, policy and politics of climate change.

Science and scholarship can answer the factual and theoretical questions at the heart of the debate. Is the globe warming? Since when, by how much, at what rate, and with what consequences? How much of this is caused by human and social activity? How much adjustment is necessary to keep the eco balance this side of a tipping point? Despite some uncertainty, most scientists agree that we do confront a grave problem, whose causes lie in human activity, and efforts to resolve it must begin now in order to avoid irreparable harm. Those who focus on sceptics outside the mainstream climate change consensus, for example, would not necessarily seek alternatives to medical science when they require critical medical attention.

Lomborg’s articles in The Australian in the past four to five years show him to be a climate policy contrarian, but not a climate science denialist. The challenge of public policy is to make evidence-based, long-term strategic decisions in the public interest, against the wishes of vested interests with deep pockets. Policymakers must examine the different issues, the resources required to tackle them, the timescales involved, the opportunity costs of alternative allocation of resources, and the diminishing versus increasing marginal returns of allocating resources to the different problems.

This is true firstly with respect to alternative strategies for tackling an agreed goal, namely slowing climate change to within tolerable thresholds. What is the best mix of adaptation and mitigation? Should there be voluntary guidelines or binding emission targets and if so, uniformly for all countries or variable targets for different groups of countries? How do we choose between market mechanisms and fiscal policy instruments? Between investing in cleaner technology for existing fuel sources versus investing in alternative, renewable clean and green fuels? Should nuclear power be included in the mix of different energy sources?

Secondly, it is true regarding different goals: climate change, education, health, economic growth, poverty eradication, national security, and so on. Given Australia’s unique identity and geographical location, which are the better policies for us to prioritise for ourselves and in our technical assistance and overseas development assistance policies?

Third, the politics of climate change has a domestic and global dimension. In both domains, governments have to balance calculations of efficiency with considerations of equity. Generous subsidies to producers and consumers of renewable sources of energy, which often amount in practice to cross-subsidisation of the rich by the poor, owe more to politics than to efficiency and equity. In the United States, corn-based ethanol subsidies are politics-driven but economically irrational, pandering to the political power of the farm lobby for fuel that requires a lot of energy to produce and has the perverse effect of driving up world food prices.

Global politics is extremely complicated. How can people be persuaded to trim lifestyle choices and increase costs on trade competitiveness ahead of others, or in the absence of a global deal? Western countries point a collective finger at developing countries’ rejection of binding emission cuts; the latter blame the present crisis on the West’s past industrialisation. Developed countries talk of net national emissions, developing countries of per capita emissions.

Should Chinese, Indian and Africans accept permanently inferior lifestyles or should Westerners accept substantial cuts in living standards if Brazil, China and India reject binding emission targets?

The answers are not self-evident, there is a need for contestable policy research and advice, and Lomborg can provide a critically needed corrective to the single issue climate change activists.

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