JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Merrill House Programs. Today our guest speaker is Bjørn Lomborg, and he will be discussing his book, which is an edited volume actually, Global Crises, Global Solutions, and it will be available for you to purchase at the end of the program today.
As citizens of the world, we face a number of daunting challenges. For starters, there are approximately 800 million people living at the starvation level, 2.5 billion people who suffer from illness because they have no access to sanitation, 1.1 billion people who still have no clean drinking water, and countless others who have been affected by dramatic climate changes.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where resources, funds, and political will to solve many of these problems are severely limited. Deciding just which problem to address first can be quite tricky. To solve this dilemma our guest this morning believes that if we rationally set hierarchical priorities it will be easier to focus our immediate attention on the most serious of global needs.
Weighing the costs versus the benefits for international action on any one issue is a difficult task, and attempting to impose a common cost-benefit framework so that one issue can be compared with another is an ambitious exercise, often leading to disagreement. Even so, in May 2004, Bjørn Lomborg, as head of Denmark's Environmental Assessment Institute, in conjunction with the British magazine The Economist, gathered together some of the world's leading economic thinkers, including several Nobel Laureates, in an effort to redirect global priorities and help to meet the world's most pressing problems.
Given the reality that resources are limited, they asked: What problems should be looked at first? Where among all the projects that governments might undertake to make the world a better place are the net returns to their efforts likely to be the greatest? In other words, with all the threats confronting humanity, where would a reasonable amount of effort be likely to achieve the most good? Those that participated in the Copenhagen Consensus Project used their knowledge and insight in a very positive and constructive way, and the results of the contributors' proposals for action on the top ten global crises are to be found in the volume Global Crises, Global Solutions.
Our speaker today is an Associate Professor of Statistics in the Department of Political Science at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. In 1998 Professor Lomborg published four lengthy articles about the state of our environment in a leading Danish newspaper. This led to a worldwide debate, one that resulted in over 400 articles being written in major metropolitan newspapers, and was followed by the publication of A Skeptical Environmentalist. This important book on public policy has now been translated and published in over ten countries.
While some have found Professor Lomborg's work to be controversial, others have applauded his efforts. He has been recognized by the World Economic Forum as a Global Leader for Tomorrow. In February 2002 he was named Director of Denmark's National Environmental Assessment Institute. Later that year Business Week recognized him as one of the "Fifty Stars of Europe," and in April 2004 Time magazine named him one of the "World's 100 Most Influential People."
There is no question that the Copenhagen Consensus has already started an important global debate on the idea of economic prioritizing of resources, and it is a debate which will most likely continue for many years ahead. Please join me in giving a warm welcome to our guest this morning, Bjørn Lomborg. Thank you for coming.
BJØRN LOMBORG: Thank you very much. Thank you, Joanne. You almost gave the whole thing away. But it's actually a good thing, because the real point of the Copenhagen Consensus is very, very simple. It's really a very basic idea, and in some ways you might ask why it hasn't been done before. I'll try to get back to some of the reasons why it was a little harder than that.
I should also tell you that you can see a lot at our home page, at http://www.copenhagenconsensus.com/
What I'd like to do is try to give you a sense of why is it we needed to do this, what are the problems, what are the issues; also, what are the confrontations, what are the things that people disagree on; and then at the end of the talk, of course, I will also give you a sense of what actually came out of this. So I'm going to give away the ending of this book, which is published by Cambridge University Press.
As Joanne rightly said, there are a lot of problems confronting humanity, and we have a tendency just to focus on one of these at any one time. Perhaps most clearly right now we are focused enormously on the risk and the problems of tsunami, and of course that's one of the problems. But the issue is to realize that there are a very large number of different things confronting us: 800 million people starving, 1 billion people lacking clean drinking water, and several billions of people who will be affected by global warming.
So the issue here is to say: if we can't do it all, what should we do first? Of course, in principle, we should be doing everything; we should be solving all the problems of the world. But clearly we are not; and if we're not doing that, at least we should start asking ourselves which of these many problems can we most profitably do something about first. Where can we do the most good if we start at some of these places and don't try to do everything at first?
And so our focal question was: If the world decided to spend another, say, $50 billion over the next four years, where should that extra money be spent? What could we do to do extra good? So we did not go out and list all the things that perhaps we should be cutting, or talk about all the things that we shouldn't be doing. We just said: Where should we focus extra effort?
Of course prioritization is unpleasant, because as everyone knows, it means not only putting things up on top but it also means putting things further down the list.
You might ask: Why has this not been done before? Apart from this being a hard thing to do, it's also because obviously nobody wants to be at the bottom of the list. Probably every agency would love to be at the top of the list. But since there are many more no-top than top numbers on any one list, that simply means that it's good logic for most agencies to be a little worried about putting in motion a process that will end up prioritizing where we should be spending our money.
But, the real issue is to say: Not prioritizing doesn't make prioritization go away; it doesn't mean we don't do it. It simply means we put it back in the shade, that we don't talk about how we spend our money most wisely, and that means that we end up doing less good than we could otherwise have done.
So our argument was to say: No matter how unpleasant this is, if we take this discussion and say, "Should we be saving so many lives here, should we be doing so much more good here, should we be helping more people getting schooling, should we be doing something about global warming?"
We need to take up all these issues and ask ourselves: What should we be doing in 2005 with the knowledge that we have right now? So one of the key words from the Copenhagen Consensus was prioritization.
The other key word is rationality. It's about saying, "We know a lot of things. There's also a lot of things we don't know;" and I'll get back to that. But we know a lot of things. We know how to deal with many of the world's problems and we need to get that information out there, to ask: how can we do it very well; and also, in some of the areas, how don't we know how to do things well?
So what we wanted to do was to get an accessible way of telling everybody what we actually know about how we can deal with all these different problems in the world and then rank them according to their costs and benefits. Basically the idea was to say: If we try to get everyone onboard to write about all the things that we do know, and the estimates of the costs and benefits, and then bring together some people who can give us a cross-sectional view of all these issue areas, maybe we will be able to identify places where we can do a lot of good for less money and where we can only do less good for a lot of money.
So those were the ideas, to get rationality and prioritization onboard. What we then tried to do was to identify the major challenge areas in the world. Again, you can look at this in the book. We tried to look at all the major UN publications from the last four years, saying basically if there is a big problem out there, it has probably been described by the UN.
We identified thirty-two big problems. We had to whittle this down to ten problems, ten of the world's top challenges. It's not as problematic as it may sound because it's basically only about making sure that we at least have the top problems in there. The ten challenges were, in alphabetical order: climate change, communicable diseases, conflicts, education, financial instability, governance and corruption, malnutrition and hunger, population migration, sanitation and water, and subsidies and trade barriers.
I think most people tend to believe that this is not a full account of the world's problems. Typically, they say, "Yeah, all that and the stuff that I work on." But, in general at least, it really does cover very well the major problems and the major challenges that the world focuses on.
Next we wanted ten of the world's top economists to look at each of these challenges, to come up with the best opportunities to deal with them and to come up with the best model estimates of how much will it cost to do something about it and how much good will it do.
We also wanted to make sure that whenever we got one expert on this area that they weren't just veering off on a tangent, and so we also had twenty other "opponents," as we call them, two for each of the challenges, to make sure that they kept people in check and that they were also saying, "Oh yeah, but you forgot this model, you forgot that." For instance, for climate change we got William Cline, who is a world-recognized economist on climate change policies and economics, but we also got two other experts, [Alan] Manne and [Robert O.] Mendelsohn, and likewise for communicable diseases and so on.
Then we had the "dream team," of eight experts, as Cambridge University Press called them. They actually called them "the Real Madrid of economics." That didn't go down very well in the United States, but it works very well in Europe. In any event, we got some of the top economists in the world together.[Editor's note: Economist Jagdish Bhawati is on the "dream team." See link in left-hand column to a speech he gave at the Council.]
Their obligation was not to any particular area ? because obviously the climate change guys, all other things equally, will tend to think that climate change is incredibly important, the communicable disease guys are going to think that that is incredibly important ? but we needed some people who were above the individual frays of those areas and who were able, with their vast economic knowledge, to look over all these areas and say, "Well, of all these different things, what do we believe are the correct or the best estimates of the costs and benefits of these individual efforts in these individual areas?"
The eight experts met in Copenhagen in May last year. There were three Nobel Laureates among them, and if you look at the list I think you will agree that these are indeed some of the world's top economists. So we got thirty-eight top economists meeting in Denmark, and we had them write some top-notch papers on each of these challenges. That's the major part of this book.
We had them all meet for five days in Copenhagen, so for instance one morning it would perhaps be climate change, one afternoon it would be communicable diseases. They would come in and tell their points—of course, they had all been read beforehand—and then the "dream team" of experts would quiz them, and at the end of the five days they came out with a prioritized list based on the economics of the costs and the benefits of these individual proposals. I will get back to that prioritized list at the end.
I'd like just to mention briefly three of the top objections that people have come out with. We were actually fortunate enough to have had a counter-meeting already organized at the same time, where the head of the UN Environmental Protection Agency came to talk, the Commissioner for the Environment of the EU, and many other people came to talk. We've also had some discussions, especially with Jeffrey Sachs, who was invited to come but ultimately decided not to come, and have also received some criticisms.
The main ideas in the criticisms:
- The first one is: Why only economists? The answer is, "Well, everyone else is represented in the sense that all the models are of course based on natural science models. That would not be possible without the input of the natural science people." Of course you can't talk about global warming without actually talking about how much warming are we actually going to experience if we keep putting out more and more carbon.
But the other point is that the economists are the only ones who can make the tradeoffs between all these different things, can actually do the prioritization. Now, if you ask a climatologist, you are likely to be able to be told a lot about how the climate works and what we can do to avoid climate change. And if you talk to a malaria expert, you will also learn a lot about what malaria will do and how you can deal with malaria.
But it's unlikely that you can ask either a climatologist or a malaria expert to come up with deciding, "So which of the two is the more important one? Which one should we deal with first?" That is not what experts in individual areas do, but that is of course what economists can actually do, to put prices and costs and benefits on each of these different areas and go in and say, "If we can't do it all, which of the many things should we be doing first?"
So I believe there is a very strong argument for saying we also need to have the input of economists. It's not just about economics, but it's an input also from economics so as to say, "What can we actually do and what will the costs and benefits of doing several different things in these areas be?"
- The second challenge, and I find it a little amusing, is: Why only $50 billion? The whole counter-conference in Copenhagen actually ended up being about who can name the highest number. People said, "Why not $100 billion?" "Why not the whole world military budget?" "Why not $1,000 billion a year?"
And of course we said, "Hey, cool. If you guys can come up with that money, we'd be all happy for it." But even if we had more money, that doesn't actually mean that we still don't need the list, because obviously if we have the list ? this is the best, this is the second-best, and so on ? it's really just a question of how much money do you have. If you only have a little money, you can only go a little down the list; if you have a lot of money, you can go far down the list.
We would be all for having much more money than $50 billion. We actually said $50 billion over the next four years because we thought that was at least a realistic, optimistic example. If we could get $200 billion, we'd be all happy about that. But it would still mean the list would remain. So the idea is no matter how much money we come up with, it's unlikely that we'll have so much money that we don't have to talk about prioritization; and if we do have to talk about prioritization, well then, here it is.
- The third one is: "But you're comparing apples and oranges." That's exactly true. Of course we are. We are saying: "How much should we do about sanitation, how much should we do about climate change, how much should we do about malaria, how much should we do about things that are vastly different?"
But that's no different from the decision process that we have in our national policies when we talk about how much should we give to the arts, how much should we give to hospitals, how much should we give to build traffic circles, and how much should we perhaps spend on the military budget? We make comparisons between apples and oranges all the time.
And economists would tend to say, "That's exactly what you do in a supermarket. You do compare not only apples and oranges but also ready-made TV dinners and all kinds of other things that you make decisions on, saying, 'Well, if I buy more of this, then eventually I'll have to buy less of something else.'"
So those are the decisions that we make every day. What we tried to do here is to put them in a comparable view so that we can actually make these tradeoffs, because we can't do everything. We really have to get this list out there, even though it does mean comparing very, very different things. Those are the fact points of making any kind of policy.
I think the objections are real in the sense that much of what the Copenhagen Consensus tries to do runs counter to the way we tend to think about problems, but it really is an important issue to try to get it out there, because unless we have such a list, we actually still prioritize but we just do it on a less-informed basis.
I'd like to quote one of the professors from the "dream team," who actually said in a public meeting, "It's a crazy project, but it's even more crazy not to do it." I think that summarizes the Copenhagen Consensus very well. It is difficult in many ways, but not to do it doesn't make the problems go away.
So what I'd like to do is just briefly give you a sense of what is in some of these chapters in the book. Of course, I won't be able to do any justice to it, but I can give you a sense of why it is that things come out in the way they do, and then give you a sense of what actually came out of the meeting.
For instance on climate change, we asked one of the world's leading economic experts to write a challenge paper on climate change. Basically the point is, of course, climate change is happening. If we take the best knowledge that we have from the UN Climate Panel, there will be an increase of somewhere between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Centigrade temperature by 2100. Therefore most of these problems will happen in the distant future, fifty to a hundred years from now. The discussion then is how much is this going to cost to do something about it, and how much good will this do?
What Kline, who wrote the paper, came up with was three opportunities: Kyoto, which is the political deal at the table, basically cutting carbon emissions from developed countries; carbon taxes, which most economists would probably tend to think of as a better way; and a precautionary approach, which is much stricter, namely cutting an enormous amount of carbon right now.
What the issue really hinges on is: how much does it cost and how much good is it going to do? The problem is that while most of the cost is now, most of the benefit from cutting will be far in the future. So it very, very much relies on a discussion of what the economists call the "discount rate." How much are we going to value the future compared to how much are we going to value what happens right now?
Most of you probably can't even see this but this line [on the screen] would be the summary of the output, the costs and benefits measured in trillions of U.S. dollars, depending on the discount rate. As you see, the discount rate, or what you could call the interest rate of society, basically determines the outcome. If the discount rate is low, it actually pays off to do climate change, although not dramatically so. If the discount rate is somewhat higher—it's still fairly low at 3.5 percent—then it does not pay to do climate change in all of these outcomes.
So this was the evidence that the expert panel was faced with. Of course, one of the problems that they were faced with was they were basically saying, "Well, how much should we care about now compared to the future?" This of course goes into all of the discussions, not just climate change, but also for HIV-AIDS, for malaria, for free trade, for all the other issues that we also need to face. I'll get back to that.
But this was the kind of evidence that was presented. They had a long discussion about that, and I'll show you what came out of that.
Likewise with communicable diseases, we had Anne Mills from the London School of Hygiene, a world leader in health economics, write the chapter on communicable diseases. Ninety percent of all avoidable deaths in the world are actually caused by communicable diseases, so that is definitely a central issue. What she came up with was basically three strategies to deal with this problem: control malaria; control HIV/AIDS; and strengthen basic healthcare services.
Again, I'll just show you the brief outcome of this focus on costs and benefits and, therefore, net benefits. What you see here is for control of malaria. The cost is about $12 billion. The benefits are much higher, somewhere between two and five times higher; so we have a large net benefit here. Control of HIV/AIDS is actually cheaper and the total benefits are dramatically higher, which is one of the reasons why it came out on the top of the list.
However, strengthening basic health services, while it seems like an eminently good idea—and it still is; it actually has a dramatic net benefit—is also very costly.
One of the things that the expert panel cared about very dramatically was also the whole discussion of: "Well, but is it realistic? Can we actually do this?" And, of course, to the extent that we can't just do this, because there is going to be a lot of bureaucracy and a lot of corruption involved, they discounted for that, basically saying, "Well, maybe we shouldn't believe that the benefits are as high as we expect because some of this will actually not come through."
So again, these were some of the decisions that they made, and of course some of the discussions that they had when they intensively discussed this with the challenge paper author and the two opponents.
I'll jump to the other end of the spectrum, the very last challenge, just to give you a sense of the proportion of this: subsidies and trade barriers. Dealing with subsidies and trade barriers is very low-cost and the potential benefits could be extremely high. The global models tend to show that if we could totally abolish global trade barriers and subsidies, the benefits could be upwards of $2,400 billion a year, and they would fall equally ? that is, $1,200 billion a year ? to both the rich countries and to the poor countries.
But of course there's a lot of investment that would need to go into it, as well as political investment. And here it's important to say we had made a decision very early on to say this was not what the Copenhagen Consensus was going to be about. They were not going to talk about political investment.
So we simply say, "This is a list, to be used if the initial political position has already been taken." In other words, "This is what you would do if you had already made the decision politically; only the first-step decision, not all the other steps."
The point is that it's a very good investment to do subsidies and trade barriers. So let me give you a sense of the Copenhagen Consensus list, although I can't go through all of the items today.
We would really like the experts to have come up with actual numbers. They refused to do so at the meeting, and I think it's simply a question of needing to be able to prepare better. We are going to do this again in 2008. This time they only made ratio evaluations and basically costed them in four different ways, coming out with "bad," "fair," "good," and "very good" projects, giving broad outlines of what should we focus on and what should we should not focus on.
Surprisingly, the "bad" projects were all the climate change proposals. This, of course, was one of the things that caused great consternation, especially with the climate change community, of course. But again, the point is to say that when you make such a list there will be something at the bottom. This was not just the majority of the economists; it was actually all the economists who agreed that these were bad projects.
Basically what this tells us is that not that such projects wouldn't do any good; for example, if we were to spend money on doing Kyoto, it would do some good. But the point is that it would not do very much good, and it would do so only very far out into the future. What we are saying is that it is just a bad use of resources, in the sense that had we spent that same money elsewhere, we could have done a lot more good.
In an ideal world where we could do all things we should of course also do Kyoto. But in the real world where we don't do everything, Kyoto and the other issues surrounding it are simply not the first priority.
Second, the "fair" projects. These are projects that actually return their investment but not at a very stunning rate.
It is perhaps important to point out that communicable diseases and scaling up basic health services just make it across the border. The idea of setting up health clinics everywhere is one of those things that feel really good, but it's just not a very good investment, in the sense that it doesn't return on it very well. This is because there would be a lot of corruption and other problems involved in actually setting it up, so it does have a very high cost. Yes, it also has a very high benefit, but only at a ratio of perhaps 2:1 or something like that. In a world where we also have 40:1 projects, maybe we should do the 40:1 projects first.
One of the "good" projects is sanitation and water. As Joanne Myers mentioned very early on, there are still 2.5 billion people without adequate sanitation, and this causes a huge amount of human suffering. So I expected that this was one of the things which would come up very high up on the list. But sanitation and water is also one of those things that actually require enormous amounts of infrastructure investment. So yes, it is a "good" investment, but it's not a "very good" investment.
Before we get to the top four "very good" projects according to the Copenhagen Consensus,I'd like to just mention the fifth-best, which which is developing new agricultural techniques to overcome malnutrition. It tends to get a little underplayed because we focused mainly on the top four.
The fourth-best was control of malaria. Malaria is a devastating disease. There are several billion incidences of malaria. We could probably halve the incidence of malaria for the cost of about $13 billion, and the benefits would at least be five times the cost. That would be a very good investment. That $13 billion was part of the investment that the panel then endorsed, saying, "If we had another $50 billion, this is where we should be spending about $13 billion." That would do an enormous amount of good, not just for the people who have malaria, but also for all people in the affected countries in the sense that it would increase their economies, make them richer and make them better able to deal with all the other problems that they are also faced with.
The third-best project was to ensure free trade and reduction of subsidies. The costs would be very low and the benefits would be dramatic, as I already mentioned to you.
The second-best project would be to provide micronutrients to deal with micronutrient deficiency. This is probably the most spectacular point of the Copenhagen Consensus, simply because it points out that there are very, very good things than can be done at very low cost. Many suffer from a lack of micronutrients, and most people don't seem to know this. When we talk about malnutrition, we generally tend to think of people not having enough calories; but the real problem, of course, is that very often we actually also lack very basic things, micronutrients like iron, zinc, iodine, vitamin A, and those are much cheaper to provide than actual calories. Half of the death toll for malnutrition actually stems from lack of micronutrients. At a cost of about $12 billion, we could make a severe dent in that problem.
The best project, the number one, was control of HIV/AIDS. For about $7 billion we could prevent more than 28 million cases by 2010. That would be the best investment that we could do for the world if we were to spend another $50 billion. So again, the idea is to say: We have identified things where we can do an enormous amount of good. It's not to say that we wouldn't like to do the whole list, but if we can only do some of this, we actually now know where we should spend the most money.
I'll sum up. Basically I'd like to just ask a few questions:
Is this list correct? Obviously that's a hard question, and a lot of people feel very uncomfortable about it. If you ask some of the world's best economists to sit down and do this—and of course, a lot of people feel skeptical about economists already—but if you asked the world's best economists, you're likely to ask old American white men. That's how it is. We had a Chinese, we had a European, we had a woman, but basically they were old white American men.
But we actually also asked some of the world's young, future upcoming people. We asked eighty young people from all over the world, representing 75 percent of all the world's population, from twenty-five different countries to come to Denmark. The only requirement was that they spoke English and that they were college students. They listened to all this exact same advice and they had the chance to quiz all the same experts and come up with their own evaluation of what was their list of priorities. We got someone from the Danish Development Environment, actually an opposition politician who would be likely to disagree with me strongly, to run this. So we were very sure that we had really distanced ourselves from this. We really wanted to hear what they would come out with.
The surprising thing—and you can also see the full list both in the book and on the website—is that they made a strikingly similar list. Communicable diseases and malnutrition were at the top; global warming was at the bottom of their list too. This was not just the developing world, who were of course the majority of the people there, but also the developed world, because when people sit down and look at the numbers and are confronted with the fact that you can't do everything, they suddenly start realizing, "Well, maybe we should do the best thing first."
A Danish newspaper which cooperates with The New York Times and with The Guardian in England, a slightly left-leaning paper if anything, assembled a Ugandan panel of experts to set up the very same priorities, and they came to the very same conclusion, strikingly similar both to the Copenhagen Consensus and the Copenhagen Consensus Youth Forum.
So there is a good sense that this is not a list that's totally off. And, of course, this should make us think about these issues.
I think what we would now like to do is to get people to think about this. This is why I am here today, this is why I am so happy that you are here today, and this of course is why we published the book, to get people to have this discussion, to think about what should we do.
We have many different things that are also at issue. I would just like to point out very briefly that there are some areas where we don't have enough information. On education conflicts and financial instability, the experts didn't feel that they had enough information to actually go in there and to know how do we could best deal with these issues. Of course that's exactly the point of saying that what we hope to do is to do this again in 2008, then in 2012. It will be a spur to make better available information to better understand, for instance, how do we deal with education, how do we deal with financial instability, so that we will be able to make an even better list of priorities.
But that doesn't mean that we don't have to start today. Of course this is not the perfect solution, but we have to make decisions in 2005 and 2006 on how should we spend our money. I would say this is our best bet as to what the list looks like right now. But we'd love to make a better list, and I'd love to take your questions now.
Basically the point here is to say this is about triage. It's about saying we shouldn't do things we don't know very much about, we shouldn't do things where we can do very little at a very high cost. What we should start with is doing those problems where we can do a lot of good at low cost and that we can do it now. That I think is what Copenhagen Consensus tried to focus on and gives us an ability to focus better on. Thank you.
Questions and Answers
QUESTION: Would you say something about Jeffrey Sachs's comments? And also, was there discussion about helping people to become economically self-sufficient through small projects, irrigation and fertilizer?
BJØRN LOMBORG: I incorporated Jeffrey Sachs's comments in here because he is clearly the guy who stood up and addressed these problems and to a certain extent I agree with him. We actually invited him, and I think he mulled it over and decided no, he was not going to do it.
But I think obviously the whole discussion also goes to the UN Millennium Development Goals, where we try to point out, firstly, there's not enough money for this, so there will have to be some sort of decision on what's the right thing to do.
And also, the Millennium Goals do have a tendency to be a little bit "we should do all good things," but they are not prioritizing. We really should ask ourselves which of these many goals should we then do first. And perhaps some of the goals that are not in there are perhaps some of the things that we should be doing even before that. So we need that discussion. That is, of course, a somewhat unpleasant discussion to open up.
About small-scale interventions, yes, for instance, the water and sanitation experts also discussed the possibility of making small-scale community-funded water projects. That was one of the things that we found to be a "fairly good" investment, but not in the top.
QUESTION: This is obviously very exciting and refreshing and it raises all kinds of questions. I have one sort of philosophical question, which is in a way about philosophers. Economists are very good at prioritizing, provided you've got things that you can quantify. But it seems to me that the question is: what value do you assign to the interests of future generations as against that of the present generation? I am not sure that economists are competent to answer that by themselves. I wonder whether you made any attempt to include philosophers, or even perhaps religious thinkers, in your panel in your discussions.
I have another question, which is sort of philosophical but perhaps also more operational. Yes, obviously you have to have priorities, but also you have to be aware that things are interconnected, and that if you put all your eggs in one basket and you ignore what is happening in another basket, your basket may be upset. One could give many examples of this. An extreme case perhaps might be climate change. I don't know, you could do all these good things, but if these benefits would be reversed within a generation or two in large parts of the world because of the effects of climate change, that would surely cast some doubt on your priorities.
On a smaller scale, take your point about how expensive it is to set up health systems. But many people say an AIDS prevention and treatment program will not work in a vacuum. You just can't go into a country which has no effective health system and hand out antiretrovirals and so on. Of course I absolutely agree with the priority given to AIDS.
That brings me to my last point, which was sort of raised indirectly already, which is—and you said something about it in your reply to the last question—how does this mesh with what we are already doing? You were a bit dismissive of the MDGs [Millennium Development Goals]and you said they're not prioritized. But you said you have ten. There are only eight MDGs, and one of those is really a means rather than an end, the global partnership, which of course includes the removal of trade barriers and the removal of subsidies, which must come with it. That's something which is very much on the books.
Now, you had your ten economists and experts, and Jeff [Sachs] has had several hundred working to produce this project, which has just been published, which has a great deal of detail about how the MDGs could be achieved. In fact the cost is not prohibitive. I don't think it comes to more than your $50 billion.
I agree, the question is always: do you actually want to do this? So we fall back on this wonderful phrase "political will," which often I think is a sort of cop-out for policy wonks. Political will is composed of the priorities of large numbers of individuals, and politicians who take decisions are responding to what they see as being the priorities of their constituents. So the challenge really for us, who think that the priorities are wrong—and I mean here I see you very much as an ally—is to influence that public opinion so that the politicians have to revise their priorities.
You said there are things that have got to be done today, even though you may in 2008 find new considerations and priorities. I would say there are things that had to be done yesterday and we're doing our best to get on with it, even if maybe not all of our priorities are right.
BJØRN LOMBORG: Thank you very much for that question. I will try to address all three points. On the first one about the discount rate and how do you value the future, that's entirely true. Economists are not philosophers. They are not able to say, "How should we ideally do things?" But they are able to say, "How do we actually do things?" and we do actually prioritize between today's generation and future generations, and do so very explicitly, because we typically don't care very much about long-term influences.
We do in some places, like for instance climate change, but there are lots of other issues. One of the points I find very stimulating is to realize that climate change models typically go a hundred years out. HIV/AIDS models never do. The intuitive argument there is, "Hey, we've gone ten years out and there are so many dead bodies we don't need to go any further." But actually if you thought about it, we should also have a model for what will happen a hundred years out if we don't do more for HIV/AIDS. That's one of the things we'd like to try to get experts to think about for 2008.
But what we did do in a sense was to say, "Well, given the way societies prioritize between now and the future right now, and the ways that governments invest in different areas, then economists can make those decisions."
We had Tom Schelling on the "dream team" who is in a sense also a philosopher, and he brought up a point that would be an incredibly good explanation for why they came out with this kind of prioritization. He said most economists, and certainly the UN Climate Panel, estimate that everybody will be much richer in 2100. The under-developed world will at least be as rich as we are today, and probably much richer than we are today. So when we worry about Bangladesh being partly flooded in 2100, we should be realizing that it's actually going to be a fairly rich Netherlands in 2100.
What he said was: Imagine that you were a rich Chinese or a rich Bolivian or a rich Congolese in 2100 and saying, "Thinking back in 2005, how odd that these people cared so much about me, investing fairly largely in doing something about climate change that helped me fairly little, me being so rich, but they cared so very little about my grandfather and my great-grandfather whom they could have helped much, much more at much lower cost."
That really I think summarizes the dilemma of saying: Should we help people a lot now, or should we help people a little far into the future? That is the discussion.
The other part you mentioned was the interconnectedness. I totally agree with you. If the Copenhagen Consensus was about recasting the whole environmental field, yes, then I would be worried. Then we really should talk about interconnectedness. But what we are talking about is marginal change. We are talking about how should we spend an extra $50 billion. So in that sense we're not laying all the eggs in one basket.
You mentioned climate change. The cheap comeback to that is to say: What if climate change is actually going to reverse some of these fortunes in fifty years? Of course, the opposing argument is: Well, if we don't do something about HIV/AIDS, people won't be there to experience that.
So in a sense it really is a question of saying: How should we deal with these issues? What I think the majority of the economists really tried to point out was to say that there is an enormous amount of good to be done right now which will make societies in many other ways—not just with climate change, also tsunamis, and also many other things—much more resilient to be able to deal with the problems that they will have to face no matter what we do in fifty or a hundred years.
You also mentioned more clearly the HIV antiviral discussion. Yes, it is actually one of the points. If you try to deal with treating people who already have HIV, it is actually necessary at least to have some sort of basic health system. But again, what the Copenhagen Consensus asked—and I think that's also one of the challenging things—was: To what extent should we worry about treatment; to what extent should we worry about prevention? What they tried to point out was: Well, prevention is five-to-ten times cheaper, so maybe we should worry more about prevention.
This makes people feel—it even makes me feel—a little cynical because, hey, why are we not going to help these people? But if the discussion is: If we spend that money on helping one person who already has HIV, it means that we could have helped ten people not getting HIV at the same time. It is a dilemma that we often need to face.
And so I think what they tried to point out here is that there are at least some very, very simple things that we can do now. I mean, no doubt, if people start picking up the Copenhagen Consensus, it will get progressively harder and harder because we'll get rid of the very, very low-hanging fruit and there will be much more of a discussion in 2012 and 2016. But right now we actually have some very, very good things to do.
That brings me back to the final question on the Millennium Development Goals. I didn't mean to be dismissive. I totally understand that we also had to do things yesterday. But what Jeff came out with was that is probably going to cost $40 billion a year. I would be very happy to see that coming out, but it doesn't seem to be just forthcoming.
And even if it was, I think we have to reopen that discussion, asking: To what extent are all these things the best things that we can do? I'm not sure that all of them are. So at least we have to have that discussion. I have no doubt that Jeff will have a lot more economists working on this, but the issue really is, to a much larger extent, what are the priorities? I think that's where you and I share an agenda, trying to make policymakers think about: You can't do everything, so what should you do first?
QUESTION:I was sorry when our President showed no interest in the Kyoto Protocols. One of your slides makes me wonder, though, about my reaction to that. I gather that using a discount rate of 3.5 percent a year, the overall present benefits of carbon taxes or Kyoto Protocol observances is negative. Everybody, I guess, would expect that you could invest money over a period of time and earn more than 3.5 percent in real return.
So are you the panel saying that if there's money to be spent on the Kyoto Protocols or the carbon taxes, instead of building the scrubbers and developing the hydrogen propulsion vehicles and so on, put that money in a trust fund, invest it in the markets where you'll earn more than 3.5 percent, and then use that money down the road to rectify the damage done by climate change—move people, compensate them for flooded land, and so on? In other words, why go to all the trouble? Is George Bush right about this?
BJØRN LOMBORG: You are right; there are two things. Essentially what you are describing is the cost/benefit of just doing climate change. It's basically about saying that there are some people who will lose, there are some people who will gain; there will be more losers than gainers from climate change per se, but of course there will also be losers in the economic sense, of people having to pay up right now. For instance, doing Kyoto, as many of the European are starting to realize, means that they'll actually have to pay to commit to the Kyoto Protocols in 2008.
There's nothing wrong with things costing money; all good things cost money. But the issue of course is to say: How much money are you going to spend on doing how much good? In that sense, you are right in saying that this argues for saying we shouldn't primarily be doing Kyoto. Of course this does not mean that George Bush is right, because first of all, I think he said no to Kyoto for the wrong reasons. But even to the extent that he said no for the right reasons, what I presume to a certain extent is being said is, "No, we shouldn't do Kyoto; we'd rather keep the money ourselves."
Whereas, of course, what we are talking about is: Should you spend money on trying to help especially the Third World, because they are going to be by far the most hard hit by global warming? Should we spend money on trying to help the Third World long term by investing in climate change—that is, basically helping Bangladeshans in 2100 a little bit—or should we try to help Bangladeshans now, who are much poorer, and perhaps deal with their arsenic pollution in their drinking water?
As long as George Bush seems to be saying, "No, we shouldn't do Kyoto; let's spend the money on ourselves in the United States," then that's not really the same kind of discussion. But yes, there is a grain of truth in saying: If you are going to do good, you will do a little good by investing in Kyoto, but you can do a lot more good, for instance, by investing in HIV/AIDS, micronutrients, free trade, and malaria protection.
QUESTION: I would like to know if you examined the cost/benefit analysis of politically incorrect solutions, specifically DDT to combat malaria? I understand Zambia is using it to great effect now.
BJØRN LOMBORG: What we did was, because obviously there's an infinite amount of possibilities for dealing with all of the other areas, we asked the individual challenge paper authors to come up first with what they thought were the most politically feasible solutions, also the best academic solutions, and we also asked them to come up with one wacky idea that's been out there that maybe we should be doing, that maybe we should be more concerned about. But we didn't ask them to evaluate everything.
So malaria treatment actually was primarily bed nets, insecticide spraying inside houses and information. Those were the issues that were brought up. That's also based on a package of what has been already studied. It was not about getting DDT back in the outdoors. I don't think anyone has been discussing that, although I think it is an interesting issue.
But you have to ask yourself: What are you going to do when you have these top experts, and you only have them for a week in Copenhagen? You've got to limit what they have to focus on. So we took fairly traditional discussions and fairly traditional perspectives. I think it's an important one to come up with, but it's also important to note that the Copenhagen Consensus is not about saying, "It's a 3.69 benefit ratio." It's the broad picture of "where do we get 40:1, where do we get less than 1:1?" That is, I think, the bottom-line picture.
QUESTION: Some of your ratings involved measuring the value of life, years of life and quality of life. How did your economists do this? And just to make an easy question a little harder, do you value a Danish life the same as a Ugandan life?
BJØRN LOMBORG: Fairly early on they made a decision rating all developing country lives at the same rate, at about $100,000. I think it was a slightly bad decision, although it doesn't make a huge difference, because I agree that you do need to rate countries differently.
There is a very clear difference in how much we rate a developed country life, which is typically a rate of $4-7 million, and a developing country life. Now, a lot of people feel very, very uncomfortable about this. They feel that's not right. And of course that's true. In a sense all life should be valued equally. But then if you go along that line, of course in a sense all lives should be invaluable; we should do everything we can to save all lives.
But the fact is, of course, we don't. You can see this reflected in all kinds of government policies and also private enterprise investments and personal investments in how we deal with protecting lives. You know, in the United States if you can make a traffic circle for $10 million that will save one life, you might be likely to do that. You would never do that in a Third World country. There are just a lot of investments that you don't do in Third World countries, that even aid agencies don't do in Third World countries.
What the Copenhagen Consensus tried to do is to inform us what could happen if you change the world a little. Now, if you could imagine changing it a lot, we should probably deal with it differently. But if you change it a little, we should stay true to how we actually prioritize right now.
Most people don't seem to realize that saving a human life for one year in Africa costs $63. That's probably less than what most of us pay for jeans or something else. But we buy the jeans instead of saving a human life, right? So in practice, very often we care much more about ourselves than we care about Third World countries.
I think that is really what the Copenhagen Consensus reflects. It reflects how we actually invest right now, saying: "So, given the way we prioritize right now, given the way that we indicate our preferences right now, how can we do that investment somewhat better; how can we do a little bit better in the way of helping the world?"
QUESTION: I believe that a lot of what you have said comes under one heading, and that is public health. Harvard University has begun a big global health initiative. I think education is really one of the biggest parts of your problem. I think we need to educate students and young professors and professionals in all these countries to go back to their countries and be able to do what they have to do.
The problem is that public health, or any of these initiatives, don't produce a lot of money for the people who want to enter those fields. I think this is where we could be helpful, to raise money to take care of some of those that lack the funds.
BJØRN LOMBORG: I think you're right. One of the points that I think comes out of the Copenhagen Consensus is that it makes it easier for good arguments to come through. That's exactly how it should be. For instance, the problem of micrnutrient deficiencies has been slighted up to now, because there are more sexy problems out there that took all the attention. But I went to the World Bank recently, and they said that they're now rating all the people with micronutrient deficiencies according to what was said in the Copenhagen Consensus.
If the Copenhagen Consensus can give back some of the attention to the top problems and can make it a little harder for the bottom problems to make it, I would say we have helped the world. And again, people often somehow expect that the Copenhagen Consensus is going to get it all right, or that now we should change it totally. Of course that's not going to happen. That's not the goal either. The Copenhagen Consensus is not about doing the best that we possibly can; it's just about making sure that we are not more stupid than we have to be. So it's really about saying let's get it slightly more right. Let's be slightly more aware of what is the best investment that we can make.
QUESTION: Since the Copenhagen Consensus, the world has experienced a crisis case study, the tsunamis in South Asia. Many people have contributed, let's say, the average of $63 instead of going for jeans. And people have said that the priority should be on drinking water.
Here is a case study: an enormous outpouring of funds in order to help people. Have some of the relief efforts looked at the Copenhagen Consensus and said, "Yes, you are right, and this is what we should be doing to rectify the situation after the tsunami?"
BJØRN LOMBORG: I think it's a little too early still for that to happen. But I have been out trying to get a sense of what people want. One of the things they want is to build is a warning system. This is despite the fact that there is little infrastructure to deal with that, despite the fact that it's going to be somewhat costly and despite the fact that there will probably be a 98 percent failure rate.
You know, possibly that's what you should be doing, but of course you should think about the alternatives. I have tried to point out that three weeks of easily curable communicable diseases in Southeast Asia equals the total death toll from the tsunami, and that probably happens once every hundred years.
So maybe there are other things that we should be focusing on more. Maybe it's more about delivering clean drinking water and in general making sure that poor populations in these areas actually get the resilience to deal with these kinds of problems and get to deal with many other problems also from climate change, and from all kinds of other epidemics.
Those are the major points. I think it has been picked up a little. I've certainly written about it. I think people are being a little more aware of it. As soon as the relief effort period has stopped and you start thinking a little broader picture, I think it will come into effect more. I think the bottom line of the Copenhagen Consensus is that we have never actually had a list of what are the best investments to do. We have had a lot of things we would like to do, but we have never had this list before.
But once you have the list, it's hard to go back. It has this effect. You know, people will start thinking about it and say, "But wait a minute, that's only number seventeen, or that's only number ten. Maybe we should worry more about number one and number two first." And of course that puts it into perspective, to start making people think about: "Well, is this the right priority? Could we do even better?" And again, it's not about getting everything right, but it's about starting to get people to think a little more about, "If you can't do everything, let's do the best things first." Thank you.
JOANNE MYERS: It's not the Copenhagen Consensus, but the Carnegie consensus is to thank you very much for being with us this morning.