Do you know how much it costs? Why not? Do you know what it will do? Why not?

An environmental heretic brings cost/benefit analysis to the global warming discussion

I don't agree with Bjorn Lumborg on several things, including if global warming is a "problem" and if government intervention is justified or desirable in most social problems. Or indeed, if government intervention is justified at all. But he did something unique, he got economists and politicos to prioritize problems based on costs and benefits. Kimberly A. Strassel at OpinionJournal has more.

Yet the experience left Mr. Lomborg with a taste for challenging conventional wisdom. In 2004, he invited eight of the world's top economists--including four Nobel Laureates--to Copenhagen, where they were asked to evaluate the world's problems, think of the costs and efficiencies attached to solving each, and then produce a prioritized list of those most deserving of money. The well-publicized results (and let it be said here that Mr. Lomborg is no slouch when it comes to promoting himself and his work) were stunning. While the economists were from varying political stripes, they largely agreed. The numbers were just so compelling: $1 spent preventing HIV/AIDS would result in about $40 of social benefits, so the economists put it at the top of the list (followed by malnutrition, free trade and malaria). In contrast, $1 spent to abate global warming would result in only about two cents to 25 cents worth of good; so that project dropped to the bottom.

Most people, average people, when faced with these clear choices, would pick the $40-of-good project over others--that's rational," says Mr. Lomborg. "The problem is that most people are simply presented with a menu of projects, with no prices and no quantities. What the Copenhagen Consensus was trying to do was put the slices and prices on a menu. And then require people to make choices."

Easier said than done. As Mr. Lomborg explains, "It's fine to ask economists to prioritize, but economists don't run the world." (This sounds unfortunate to me, although Mr. Lomborg, the "slight lefty," quickly adds "Thank God.") "We now need to get the policy makers on board, the ones who are dealing with the world's problems." And therein lies the rub. Political figures don't like to make choices; they don't like to reward some groups and not others; they don't like to admit that they can't do it all. They are political. Not rational.

So all the more credit to Mr. Lomborg, who several weeks ago got his first big shot at reprogramming world leaders. His organization, the Copenhagen Consensus Center, held a new version of the exercise in Georgetown. In attendance were eight U.N. ambassadors, including John Bolton. (China and India signed on, though no Europeans.) They were presented with global projects, the merits of each of which were passionately argued by experts in those fields. Then they were asked: If you had an extra $50 billion, how would you prioritize your spending?

Mr. Lomborg grins and says that before the event he briefed the ambassadors: "Several of them looked down the list and said 'Wait, I want to put a No. 1 by each of these projects, they are all so important.' And I had to say, 'Yeah, uh, that's exactly the point of this exercise--to make you not do that.'" So rank they did. And perhaps no surprise, their final list looked very similar to that of the wise economists. At the top were better health care, cleaner water, more schools and improved nutrition. At the bottom was . . . global warming.

Wondering how all this might go over with Al Gore, I ask Mr. Lomborg if he'd seen the former vice president's new film that warns of a climate-change disaster. He's planning to, but notes he wasn't impressed by the trailers: "It appears to be so overblown that it isn't helpful to the discussion." Not that Mr. Lomborg doesn't think global warming is a problem--he does. But he lays out the facts. "The proposed way of fixing this--to drastically reduce carbon emissions now and to solve a 100-year problem in a 10-year time frame, is just a bad idea. You do fairly little good at a fairly high price. It makes more sense to solve the 100-year problem in a 50-year time frame, and solve the 10-year problems, like HIV-AIDS, in a five-year time frame. That makes sense, and is the smart way to spend money."

I may disagree with his figures, and I do disagree with the notion that government should interfere. But I can not fault him for the basic idea.

Give people a choice.

This is the list of problems. Here is what fixing each problem will cost. Here are the potential benefits from each solution. Given that we have a limited amount of money, how can that money best be spent?

This is exactly the kind of debate that is missing from the global warming discussions. The more radical in the global warming crowd insist that it is an all or nothing proposition.

In all fairness, it is not just the global warming advocates. The public education crowd wants the same thing. The save New Orleans crowd wants it too. So do the drug warriors. So do the Democrats. And so do the Republicans, According to them, it's very simple, black or white, fulfill their demands for power or face the ultimate evil.

Except it's not just black or white.

I don't think I am always right. I just don't think that anyone is absolutely right. And that is why there is more to life than black and white.

Give people a choice, show what it costs, and show what the benefit could be, and people are perfectly capable of making up their own minds. Over time and after facing the consequences, they will tend to make better choices.

Freedom in a nutshell.

— NeoWayland

Posted: Sat - July 8, 2006 at 06:35 PM  Tag

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