One of the world's most prominent climate contrarians will address Australian diplomats and aid staff on Monday – an invitation that has rankled the opposition and environmental activists.
While climate change is definitely an issue, it is certainly not one of the biggest challenges faced by the Pacific Islands, when you ask the citizens themselves.
The Abbott government asked Danish researcher Bjorn Lomborg to help launch the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's development innovation hub, which minister Julie Bishop says will find better ways to help poorer countries.
Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop inspects Australian aid supplies on board a C17 bound for Vanuatu. Photo: Andrew Meares
Ms Bishop, who is in Vanuatu inspecting the aftermath of tropical cyclone Pam, said on Sunday Dr Lomborg was "a leading economist and a creative thinker and will add to the international input for our exciting new innovation initiative for the delivery of aid".
Dr Lomborg is best known for his books The Skeptical Environmentalist and its follow-up volume Cool it, which were criticised by climate scientists for underplaying the rate of global warming. Last month, he accused "climate-change alarmists" of focusing on worst-case scenariosand ignoring more positive data.
He told Fairfax Media he was a "climate policy sceptic" who believed global warming needed to be addressed, though he doubted the effectiveness of current efforts.
The Copenhagen Consensus Centre, which he founded, existed to "find the most efficient solutions to the world's big problems", such as child malnutrition, preventable diseases and access to cheap energy.
However, Labor's foreign affairs spokeswoman, Tanya Plibersek, questioned Dr Lomborg's involvement.
"It's up to Julie Bishop to explain why she made this choice," she said.
"In particular, what kind of message does it send to our Pacific Island neighbours, who say dealing with the effects of climate change are some of the biggest challenges they face?"
Ms Plibersek also criticised the decision to set up the innovation hub given the government now presided over the "weakest, most-depleted overseas aid program in Australian history".
"No amount of innovation will reverse the hurt done to some of the world's poorest countries by Julie Bishop's $11 billion in cuts to Australia's aid program," Ms Plibersek said.
Dr Lomborg said his organisation could help identify where Australian aid dollars would be of most benefit. "I'm sure this is a goal we all share," he said on Sunday.
"While climate change is definitely an issue, it is certainly not one of the biggest challenges faced by the Pacific Islands, when you ask the citizens themselves.
"Last year, the UN asked, and found that climate comes 10th of 16 challenges, after education, jobs, health, corruption, crime, nutrition, clean water, gender equality and forests."
Dr Lomborg said aid funds should be spent where they were most effective, not necessarily where there was "most visibility", such as responding to catastrophies.
He gave the example of the much-publicised Ebola pandemic in Western Africa, saying it should have been a lower priority than other, more-neglected diseases.
"It's important that somebody points out that, even under the worst-case scenarios for Ebola, if we had done nothing, it would still have killed far fewer people than were killed in 2014 from tuberculosis alone, or from malaria alone, or from HIV alone ..." Dr Lomborg said.
"We're simply trying to point out where you can do a lot of good. This is not saying that there are not places where climate mitigation is a really good investment – it probably is somewhere – but globally and overall there are much better investments."
Climate Council chief executive Amanda McKenzie also opposed the government's decision to invite Dr Lomborg, saying he had "a history of downplaying the consequences of climate change and also of cherry-picking data".