We have just ten years to avert a major catastrophe that could send our entire planet into a tail-spin of epic destruction involving extreme weather, floods, droughts, epidemics and killer heat waves beyond anything we have ever experienced.
-- Al Gore
Yes, global warming is real. It's often vastly exaggerated, which is why we need smarter solutions. Let's pick those smarter solutions on [priority] #14 rather than #30. Let's pick them smart, rather than stupidly. And then also let's remember that there are many other problems in this world that we can fix so much cheaper and do so much more good.
So if this is really a question about saying let's do good in the world, well, then let's do real good and not just make ourselves feel good about what we do.
-- Bjørn Lomborg
I've mentioned Bjørn Lomborg before -- I find him to be the most clear-thinking, easily understandable and rational thinker on the subject of global warming and environmentalism I have encountered. In particular, he is extremely rare in being someone who simultaneously believes we are experiencing human-caused warming and that we should look to make reasonable cost-effective efforts to improve the world (and some of the best things we could do to improve the world, believe it or not, might not be "fighting" global warming...). People accuse him of not presenting real science; not only do I think that charge is false, but much more importantly, Lomborg exposes the fact that almost no one else is presenting real economics and rational choices.
I should mention, as is the case with most people whose views I put forward around here, I don't agree with Lomborg on everything. He's very far left politically compared to me, putting much more faith in socialism (or things that sound like socialism) as an answer to achieving equality within a society. But he puts his politics aside when looking to solve problems; he's more interested in measurable reality than ideology. This is an admirable trait that I would like to claim I share, but which I fail to achieve all too often.
Lomborg recently did a presentation for and an interview with Reason about his most recent book, Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming. He's always a good speaker, but I found his presentation to be perhaps one of his better summaries of his book and his general philosophy, so here it is:
And here are excepts from the interview, done by Ronald Bailey. These only scratch the surface; definitely read the interview itself (especially if you want to get a sense of his politics, and some of the history of him being accused of "scientific dishonesty").
reason: How did you come up with the idea of the Copenhagen Consensus?
Bjørn Lomborg: It really started with my discussion of global warming. The advantages of doing the Kyoto Protocol are fairly small, but the cost of doing Kyoto for just one year is about what it would cost to give clean drinking water and sanitation to everyone.
We did some searches. I was sure somebody had done global priority setting before. We do it implicitly by the way we spend money, but apparently nobody's ever thought about it formally.
...About half the proposals are kind of obvious. Yes, it's good to do malaria. Yes, it's good to do HIV/AIDS. But I think most of them are impressive because we don't usually think of them. One of the great examples from this session is heart medicine for the Third World. When we think about the Third World, we think about malnourished black children with incredibly distended bellies who we see with flies all over them. We think about malaria and AIDS, those kinds of problems. Those are important, but the death toll from malaria, TB, and HIV, even in the most stricken countries, is still less than the death toll from heart disease. And we have very cheap aspirins, statins, for dealing with heart disease that work very well. Spending $200 million a year could probably save about 300,000 people dying each year in the developing world, causing a benefit of $25 for every dollar spent.
Now, that's not a sexy proposal. It's not one that you usually hear, but isn't it something we ought to hear? The Copenhagen Consensus is not just about what's fashionable. It's not just about what looks good on TV. It's also about making sure we reveal lots of hidden, reclusive, not very publicized issues that we should also be listening to. Perhaps it's about being a little more rational.
reason: Are there any things you've changed your mind about since you wrote The Skeptical Environmentalist?
Lomborg: I think the main point of that book was to challenge our notion that everything is going down the drain, and I don't see any reason to revise that. We are in general moving in the right direction, and it's important to say mankind solves a lot of problems. We also create new problems in the process of solving old problems, but typically they're smaller than the old ones we fix, which is why we move ahead on virtually all material indicators. My second point with the book was to say this means we need to start prioritizing; we need to be smart about the kinds of problems that we worry about.
People in the U.S. will worry about pesticides, which kill probably about 20 people a year, but care very little about particulate air pollution, which kills 110,000 people in the U.S. every year. We could probably do something dramatic about particulates at a much lower cost than the pesticides. It's much more about getting those orders of magnitude right, and that's, of course, what the Copenhagen Consensus is about.
reason: Has the Copenhagen Consensus had an effect on public policy? I know the Danish prime minister mentioned that his government shifted development aid to AIDS medicines in developing countries.
Lomborg: I was told by some of the people at the [U.S.] National Security Council that one of the reasons why President Bush gave $1.2 billion to malaria was because of the Copenhagen Consensus result.
Of course, it's always going to be very hard to say what specific outcome was caused by this list. I would argue that the much stronger benefit of the Copenhagen Consensus is that it pushes policy makers and philanthropists way before anything is ever decided. When the first committee meets in the bowels of a big organization to talk about what should be our next big push, somebody's going to have more likelihood of saying, "Why are we talking about No. 17 instead of No. 3 on the list of Copenhagen Consensus priorities?"
I just realized that Bjørn and I have something in common...somewhere around twenty years ago I started thinking of doing a book called "What Really Matters?" that would prioritize the things we should actually be worried about rather than the silly things we fool ourselves into worrying about.
I guess the minor difference between Bjørn and I is that he actually did it...