The Rational Environmentalist
Bjorn Lomborg on the priorities that should come before global warming
Where in the world can we do the most good? That is the basic question addressed by the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a think tank founded six years ago by the Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg. To answer the question, the center periodically convenes panels of leading economists, who weigh and prioritize the solutions experts have proposed to the world's biggest problems.
Lomborg, a boyish 43-year-old, first burst onto the intellectual scene in 2001 with his best-selling book The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World. There the former Greenpeace member argued persuasively that most of the planetary doom scenarios imagined by ideological environmentalists were contradicted by the available ecological and economic data. The book provoked a furious green backlash, the low point of which was a 2003 ruling by the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty that "the publication of the work under consideration is deemed to fall within the concept of scientific dishonesty." Lomborg was vindicated later that year when the Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation overturned the ruling, calling it "completely void of argumentation."
Lomborg's international reputation had already taken off by then, the odd activist cream pie to the face notwithstanding. In 2001 the World Economic Forum nominated him as one of the Global Leaders for Tomorrow; in 2004 Time named him one of the world's 100 most influential people; in 2005 Foreign Policy ranked him as the world's 14th most influential intellectual; and this year The Guardian dubbed him one of "50 people who could save the planet."
Saving the planet became a specific job description six years ago, when Lomborg was appointed director of the Danish National Environmental Assessment Institute, a group whose explicit aim is to "get the most environment for the money." In 2004, under Lomborg's guidance, the institute convened the first Copenhagen Consensus conference, in which eight leading economists, including four Nobel laureates, were asked to allocate a theoretical $50 billion to solve the world's biggest problems. The panel was presented with 30 proposals from other researchers for ranking and evaluation. The top four priorities left standing at the end of the conference were: controlling HIV/AIDS, providing micronutrients to children, liberalizing trade, and rolling back malaria. Addressing climate change ranked near the bottom. This infuriated many environmentalists, but overall the meeting garnered favorable attention around the world.
In 2007, following with the Copenhagen Consensus theme of sensible policy prioritization, Lomborg published Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming, in which he acknowledged that man-made global warming is a problem but challenged the notion that it is the biggest threat to human well-being. Instead of draconian and poverty-inducing cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, Lomborg argued, rich countries could more effectively tackle the problem through massive research and development into low-carbon energy technologies.
In May 2008, Lomborg convened the second Copenhagen Consensus Center conference. This time eight leading economists, including five Nobelists, considered how to allocate a theoretical $75 billion during the next four years to solve 10 of the world's largest problems. Would it be better, for example, to provide efficient stoves to poor people who are exposed to indoor cooking smoke, or supply middle-aged people in developing countries with cheap pills combining aspirin and cholesterol-reducing statins to prevent heart attacks? The panel's top four solutions: providing vitamin A and zinc supplements to poor children, liberalizing trade, fortifying salt and staple foods with the micronutrients iodine and iron, and expanding childhood immunization. Cutting greenhouse gases came in at the bottom, although another approach to global warming—R&D spending on low-carbon energy technologies—was a mid-list priority.
Ronald Bailey, reason's science correspondent, interviewed Lomborg in a gilt-edged room at the Moltkes Palace in Copenhagen during a lunch break at the 2008 Copenhagen Consensus Conference.
reason: How did you come up with the idea of the Copenhagen Consensus?
Bjorn 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.
reason: What's been the reaction to the Copenhagen Consensus process around the world?
Lomborg: Most people who have no sort of preconceived notions about one thing or another think it's eminently sensible. They're a bit like, "You're telling me people didn't do this before?" But as soon as you get people participating in the public debate about this and that issue, it's incredibly hard for them to disassociate themselves from where their problem and especially their solution came on the list. I think most of the arguments against the Copenhagen Consensus boil down to "my area should also have been high on the priorities list," or "we should do all things" and implicitly therefore also my area.
I gave a presentation to Congress last year, and a congressman-I'll not mention his name or his affiliation-told me, "Bjorn, I understand why you're focusing on prioritization, because Denmark is a small country and you can't do all things." But honestly, even though America is vastly larger and you have done incredible amounts of good, you are also constrained by a bunch of restrictions. You have not fixed all the problems in the world in the last 50 years, and it seems reasonable to assume that you won't in the next 10 years. So for all societies, we have to ask ourselves, "What do we want to spend our money on?" If we spend it on something that does only a little good, it could be to the detriment of things that could've done even more good.
reason: Have the experts put things low on the list that you would've liked to see ranked higher?
Lomborg: These are some of the smartest people on the planet. I think of myself more as an intellectual entrepreneur bringing them all together and making sure they hear all the good arguments for and against and then make their informed decisions. I can conceivably imagine that I would end up disagreeing with them at some point, but these are really smart people and I'll probably defer to their judgment.
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.
One more thing that actually surprised me this time was air pollution. One environmental problem in the Third World that I've been harping on for some time is indoor air pollution. More than a million people die-maybe two and a half million each year. If we improve stoves, it will do some good; it'll probably get $3 back from the dollar. That's respectable, but it's a lot less than what I thought.
The essential thing is that this is a process that doesn't just make it easier for you to confirm your preconceived notions, but it gives you an opportunity to see what some of the best experts on all these issues come up with.
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.
I did, just like pretty much everyone else, predict that raw materials would go down in price pretty much indefinitely. They're clearly not right now. I think our long-run expectation is still that they will go down. But it was much easier to make that argument in the '90s than it is in the 2000s. So clearly we all become more knowledgeable, but I think the main point of the book was to say, in general, things are moving in the right direction. That message obviously still stands.
reason: You experienced some heartburn about that book when you were formally accused of scientific dishonesty. How did you react to that charge?
Lomborg: At first I was a little stunned, but I also thought it was going to be a fair process. I thought, yeah, it's a little ridiculous, but we'll take that to the committee and show that they are wrong. The lead guy who brought this in front of the committee explicitly said in his first paragraph of his first letter to the committee that he did this for political reasons. So there was never any doubt of what the motive was. I imagined that this was going to be somewhat of a walk in the park: He would come up with arguments, and I would counter them. The committee would go through all this in a fair and impartial way and find that you could have reasoned differences of opinion, but clearly this was nothing to do with scientific dishonesty. I certainly made very clear where I got my references from and what I based my arguments on.
Instead, the committee came out with what can only be described as an incredibly poorly argued, very obviously tainted point. The committee essentially summarized a critique that was commissioned by Scientific American, by four people, three of whom I criticized in my book. Not surprisingly, they were not particularly favorable towards my book. The committee summarized my answer to those critiques in one and a half lines of the document, about 10 words, and then went on to talk about how unreasonable it was that I was unwilling to accept all of their charges. To them that only underscored the point that I was probably being scientifically dishonest because I was unable to admit to my errors.
Unfortunately, I could only appeal the legality of the decision. I did so to the ministry, and they took a year for their lawyers to go through it. Fortunately, one of the main points of the Danish administrative law is that a decision has to be well argued. That doesn't seem like an unreasonable requirement, but that was the main thing that the ministry struck it down on. They said that the committee actually had no argument whatsoever for making their judgment, and that was why the original decision was annulled.
I'm still surprised by the number of people who will reference the first part, that I was condemned for scientific dishonesty, and ignore the fact that it was later overturned on the fact that there was absolutely no evidence. If anything, it seems to indicate that there was a strong wish without any good arguments to indict me.
reason: When I interviewed you before The Skeptical Environmentalist came out, you were describing yourself as a man of the left.
Lomborg: I still am.
reason: What does that mean?
Lomborg: Well, it means that I'll vote to the center-left, which probably in the U.S. would be extreme left. I support a strong welfare state. I support a strong redistribution from taxes. I think it's important that we have a somewhat egalitarian society.
I'm trying to recapture much of what the left stood for-when we believed in progress, when we believed that scientific understanding could lead us ahead and not just rely on tradition. I think that's the original sort of background for the left. Unfortunately, I find that a fair amount of the left has turned towards a romanticized view of the world.
reason: All of the economic evidence that is being presented here at the Copenhagen Consensus Conference suggests that trade liberalization, a policy that the left does not like, is a very good idea.
Lomborg: Yeah, that's certainly not a universally shared left-wing viewpoint. In the U.S. election, Barack Obama is less interested in free trade, or at least more vocally against it, than John McCain. In this case, it seems that the evidence is just simply against them.
A lot of left-wing parties, many social democratic parties or labor parties around Europe, would support free trade. They will have some caveats, and I understand why, though I think not all of those caveats are good. But the main point here is to say if you want to do a lot of good, you should realize that if the Doha Development Round trade negotiations were successfully concluded, you could probably imagine making the world about $3 trillion per year richer-about three times the size of the economy of India every year. And five-sixths of that $3 trillion would go to the developing world. Wouldn't that be worth following up on?
reason: You're strongly against proposals to cut greenhouse gases with carbon taxes or by capping carbon dioxide emissions and letting companies trade emissions permits, yes?
Lomborg: No. A $2 per ton carbon tax is probably a reasonable thing to do. Cap and trade that would be the equivalent of that would be virtually as good. I would say I'm against cap and trade, as I'm against carbon taxes, when they're excessive. But that's a little bit like saying I'm against speed limits. I'm against a speed limit of five miles an hour, but I'm not against a speed limit, for instance, of 100 miles an hour and possibly even lower. It's about finding the right speed limit.
reason: In Cool It, your main proposal to address climate change seems to be to spend $25 billion a year to develop new low-carbon energy sources. Recent economic research seems to show that government funding of research and development for this kind of applied research has not been very successful. For example, in the 1970s the U.S. government planned to spend $40 billion on developing synthetic fuels. Instead, we created the world's largest public works project, the Synfuels facility up in North Dakota. It was going to turn coal into natural gas and liquid fuels. The price of energy dropped, and the plant was sold eventually to a local utility for three cents on the dollar.
Every U.S. president since 1970 except Reagan has come up with a new car initiative of some sort, to give money to the Department of Energy to spend on research to create more fuel-efficient and alternatively fueled cars. There have been no real results after literally billions of dollars spent.
Lomborg: One important point I make is that if you're going to get technologies that are going to work 20 or 50 years from now, you can't expect private companies to do it. It's very hard to recoup most of the investment, because what you're going to be inventing is ideas that will later be used by others that'll then invent ideas that eventually will lead to something you can patent and actually recoup money from.
Most estimates show that you can only recoup about one-third of what is invested in basic science R&D. That is the standard argument for why you want public research and development. It's a little bit like in the medical sector where you have blue sky research; you have people figuring out what different things you can sell and then later on you have companies take that to market. It's incredibly important that governments do not go in and say, "We believe that you can have synfuels." I'm not even sure what synfuels is.
reason: Turning coal into natural gas or oil.
Lomborg: That's probably a very, very bad idea for so many different reasons, but primarily because, why on Earth would governments be good at making that sort of call? What governments should do is not focus on the production side but focus on getting lots and lots of people doing research.
The way I envision it is that you should have a lot of X Prizes: low-cost prizes that spur individual researchers to come up with slightly better technologies in a lot of different areas-for instance, solar cells. How can you improve this a little bit? How can you, for instance, make it water-tight? How you can make it wrap around so that it's more flexible? The Gates Foundation, I think, did a good job in actually asking researchers to sit down and say what are the 46 things we'd like to see proffers on, and then have people spend money on researchers, not on actual production but researchers to do these kinds of things. Ninety percent of these are going to be dead ends, but that doesn't matter, because they're very cheap and what matters is that we get the last 10 percent.
reason: Let me push you a little further on that. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development did a report in 2003 where economists looked at differential returns to research and development, specifically defense, private, and then public-sector research and development. To their surprise, they could not find that public-sector or defense R&D expenditures had any effect whatsoever on economic growth. In fact, government R&D spending seemed to produce a crowding-out phenomenon and may actually have slowed economic growth.
Lomborg: Your argument could be, well, if we know we almost always do it wrong, why do it time and again? I would say that depends a little bit on the way you think that it's possible to frame the debate. If no matter what you do you end up down the same track, yeah, maybe we shouldn't do it. But I was at the Copenhagen Consensus presentation by [McGill University economist] Christopher Green, who is saying that a big low-carbon energy R&D push is the only thing that will even enable us to be able to fix climate change in the medium and long term.
It takes some effort to get the politicians to understand that $25 billion of research and development doesn't mean that we should build one big factory to do something you like in a district where you need some votes. Instead it means getting a lot of researchers to do R&D.
We have good theoretical arguments why this might work. It might also be that it doesn't work. We'll have to see where the experts rank it.
reason: I listened to Green's presentation, and I read his perspective paper. To me he basically made a plea to economists to start thinking about how one can create ways to direct research without political interference. He was saying we don't know how to do that yet.
Lomborg: I would tend to disagree a little bit because we've done this for 50 years in the medical sector. We have lots and lots of people doing medical research, and I don't know whether there's good evidence whether that's paid off, but it seems to me that we've had quite a number of breakthroughs that came from public money that we wouldn't have had otherwise. These breakthroughs later on led to more or less obvious investments from private companies to make useful products. We would want something on a similar scale for low-carbon energy research.
It's very important to get people to realize that if we're going to fix climate change, we need to invest in a lot of cheap researchers having smart ideas rather than big projects that make the politicians feel comfortable when they cut the ribbon and say, "See, now we've done something about global warming."
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?"
reason: The Copenhagen Consensus process does not take into account institutional factors, as far as I can tell. Why is that? After all, most of the problems of the world are the result of flaws in institutions.
Lomborg: It's very clear that money is not the only thing that works or that changes things in the world.
reason: For example, the development economist William Easterly points out that the West has spent $2.3 trillion on development aid for the last 50 years with virtually nothing to show for it.
Lomborg: Yeah. I tend to disagree with the "virtually nothing" claim, but it's very clear that it has been nowhere near as spectacular as many people would have hoped.
The main point is that one thing shouldn't necessarily be the opponent of another thing. The Copenhagen Consensus is one idea. It's only one of many good ideas that are going to bring the world forward, but I think it's an important part of that discussion. Clearly, with regard to the money that we spend, we at least want to think about how we can spend well. This is also one of the reasons why, for instance, corruption is no longer on the Copenhagen Consensus list. Yes, it's incredibly important, but there are no good solutions that the West can come up with and make sure that they implement in the Third World.
I'm perfectly aware that you should also engage people in thinking about institutional change or the setup of the international system, but what we focus on is, given where we are right now, what can you do with a little extra money? What can you marginally do? It's not the only relevant question in the world, but I would argue it's not an unimportant one.
reason: What's the next project?
Lomborg: We have a lot of projects. I'm doing Copenhagen Consensus for individual countries: for Ghana, for Zambia, for Chile, possibly for Peru, possibly for Mali. And then we're thinking of doing something towards the next climate conference in 2009 in Copenhagen. Maybe we should just do a Copenhagen Consensus for climate, where we get some of the world's top climate economists together and say, "There's a bunch of different packages on the table, what do you think?" And perhaps have some of the negotiators play around with what works best, so that we spend our money well, or better.
We're also thinking of doing one for the world's total environment-air pollution, clean drinking water, all the other things. There is a tendency right now in which global warming has subsumed all other environmental issues. While global warming is definitely an important environmental issue, there's a problem if it takes all of the time to the exclusion of everything else.