Ten problems for the world - but which one to fix first?

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SO BJORN Lomborg has done it again.

Lomborg pulled off his biggest coup in Copenhagen last week. He assembled a jury of eight world-renowned economists who spent five days trying to prioritise the world’s biggest problems - HIV, hunger, education and so on. Their verdict was damning for the environmentalists. Money spent on global warming, the panel declared, is "a bad use of our finite resources", compared to solving the planet’s other woes. It takes enormous expenditure to achieve very small reductions in greenhouse gases, with uncertain results. Funding to fight, say, malnutrition with iodine pills and vitamin A is a much better use of the limited finance the world makes available for such causes.

The Greens, predictably, were outraged. Protestors in Denmark, a country where five million angst-ridden northern Europeans are struggling to decide their place in the modern world - if that sounds at all familiar - staged endless public demonstrations. They included a 20-ft tall dinosaur "to remind Lomborg of what happens to species who ignore climate change", as one environmentalist ominously intoned.

A Danish MP hijacked Lomborg’s press briefing on the final day of the event. This gathering of economists, he roared, is intellectually empty. It has achieved nothing but damaging the environmental movement without anything constructive to offer in its place.

But Lomborg’s "Copenhagen Consensus", as the economists’ verdict was labelled, is worth exploring. The chart on the right shows the priority list devised by the eight-strong panel - three of them Nobel prize winners. The members were asked a simple question: if you had US$50 billion to solve the world’s biggest problems, where would you spend the money?

The economists started with a short-list of about 40 opportunities, drawn from the ten broad categories listed across the top of this page. With money from Carlsberg, probably Denmark’s biggest company, and the Danish government, which recently chopped its environment budget, Lomborg paid for acknowledged experts in each field to travel to Copenhagen to present evidence in favour of their causes.

Professor Anne Mills, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, argued for funding to fight HIV and malaria and investment in developing world health systems. Barry Eichengreen, the American economist, proposed a $500 million World Bank project to reduce currency and bond price collapses in emerging markets. About 30 such luminaries were in attendance.

The jury of economists compiled its ranking with two things in mind. First, where do you get the most bang for your buck? The experts prepared cost-benefit ratios for each opportunity, to help the panel make comparisons.

Second, where is the money most likely to meet success? Every $1m spent fighting malaria is more likely to achieve results than $1m targeted at global warming - given the huge complications involved in the latter. Again the experts provided evidence.

A list of 13 opportunities eventually emerged. The top spot went to HIV/AIDS, where an estimated $40 of benefit (personal and economic) was expected for every $1 invested. The chances of success were rated as extremely high. Opportunities to reduce malnutrition and malaria and improve water access and sanitation ranked near the top.

Four opportunities were explicitly rejected by the jury as "bad" investments. Three of them were options to tackle climate change. The Kyoto Protocol, for example, was calculated to require $94 trillion of expenditure for $166tn of benefits. At a cost-benefit ratio of $1:$1.77, it looked a poor choice compared to the $1:$40 achievable for the same money spent on HIV and AIDS. It was also far less certain, the panel said, to produce results.

Lomborg admitted that the whole project, which was no more than an academic exercise, suffered from a number of flaws. The idea of a world ranking assumes, after all, that these problems are tackled globally rather than locally. As David Evans, a director at the World Health Organisation, pointed out: "If you’re asking me for my ranking, I’ll ask you which country you’re talking about. If it’s Nigeria, my priorities will be very different from Botswana. The costs and the benefits vary immensely."

But the panel, to be fair, was aware of these dangers. As was Lomborg, who spent most of last week defending himself against such criticisms. His hope, he said, was simply that it raised the debate about how policymakers prioritise their resources. And it should - because a startling conclusion emerged from Lomborg’s Copenhagen project. It is an uphill battle, familiar to environmentalists and educators alike, that politicians, conscious of voters, are more aware of urgent needs than long-term gains and focus too much on the present at the expense of the future. The moral claims of starving children are felt more acutely than those of the world population 200 years from today.

What the Copenhagen project proved, the panel of economists said, is the difficulty for those who champion long-term issues to push their causes to the top of the political list. More interesting than what the Copenhagen jury chose as its top priorities is what it refused to rank at all.

Lomborg presented the panel with a short-list of about 40 opportunities. The panel members rated 13 as "good" and four as "bad". But they refused, flat out, to say anything about the other 15 or so they were asked to consider. Among this list were all of the opportunities to improve education and financial instability and most of the proposals to reduce trade barriers and government corruption. All of these unranked options were the kind of problems that require years of attention to solve.

How did this come about? The panel insisted it had nothing to do with a preference for urgent needs. It was simply a lack of information on how the world can remedy these problems, and how likely such projects are to succeed.

It is very difficult to know how to improve world education, or reduce financial instability, or root out government corruption. Nobel prize winner Douglass North put it like this: "We’ve thrown more money at education around the world than anything else. Yet still we’ve got kids coming out of several years of schooling unable to read or write."

Jury member Thomas Schelling, a US economist who cut his teeth on the Marshall Plan 50 years ago, was even more candid.

"My first thought was to put gender issues at the very top of the list,"he said. "But then I thought ‘what are the chances of us changing the culture in India or Brazil or wherever?’ We’ve no idea how we even begin to do that. So women’s inequality didn’t even make it into my top ten."

This, perhaps, is the real lesson from Lomborg’s latest project. Not that fighting climate change is a total waste of money, but that those who argue for more attention to these long-term problems have yet to show policymakers - or Nobel-prize winning economists - how to solve them, or the benefits of trying.

In the meantime, there remain plenty of urgent problems for the world to address. Like the 75 deaths from malaria that occurred in the 20 minutes time it took to read this article.

• The evidence presented to the panel of economists, and biographies of the panel, can be downloaded from www.copenhagenconsensus.com