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Copenhagen Con ?

May 24th, 2004

I’ve written a couple of posts critical of the Copenhagen Consensus exercise being run by Bjorn Lomborg”s Environmental Assessment Institute and The Economist . The stated objective is to take a range of problems facing developing countries, and get an expert panel to form a consensus on which ones should be given the highest priority. This is a reasonable-sounding idea, and the process has produced some useful contributions in the form of papers by experts arguing the importance of particular problems.

There are however, two big difficulties.

The first is that the underlying idea is much trickier than it sounds at first sight. Suppose, for example, you come to the conclusion that malnutrition is a bigger problem than disease. That presumably doesn’t mean that you should cut health budgets to zero and spend all the money on food. Presumably, the implication is that, at the margin, it would be a good idea to redirect resources from general health to nutrition. But such a conclusion is inevitably going to be specific to particular countries, or even particular regions. How can a general conclusion be drawn?

The problem is even worse when you come to look at things like “conflicts” and “governance and corruption”. In what sense can you prioritise and rank improving governance and corruption or reducing conflict relative to malnutrition and disease. It ought to be obvious that these are not alternative expenditure items in a budget. Rather the effectiveness of anything you might want to do to reduce malnutrition and disease will be drastically undermined by the prevalence of conflict and corruption. Conversely, poverty and deprivation are natural sources of conflict and corruption. I don’t assert that this is an insoluble vicious circle, but I don’t think it’s amenable to being solved in a six-month, part-time exercise by ten people, no matter how brilliant.

The second big problem is the joker in the pack, climate change. Lomborg is well-known for making the argument that money spent on mitigating climate change would be better allocated to improving sanitation and providing clean drinking water, which just happens to be another of the ten challenges. (I’ve criticised Lomborg’s argument here). So there’s a natural suspicion that the whole exercise is designed to provide support for Lomborg’s position and that the idea of ranking development challenges in general is a cynical cover.

There are a couple of ways we could check on this. First, we could wait and see what the panel comes up with. If they reject the whole idea of ranking on the grounds I’ve set out above, I’ll be impressed and surprised. If climate change is ranked highly, or even if it ranks somewhere in the middle of the pack, and is not much discussed in the final analysis, I’ll admit that my concerns were baseless. To see the whole thing as a setup, two conditions would need to be met:

* climate change would need to be at or near the bottom of the rankings

* this finding would need to receive a lot of attention in the reporting of the results

It’s the second point that’s crucial in my view. Having seen a lot of top 10 lists in my time, the big interest is usually in the top two or three places and in arguments about whether the right winners were chosen. The also-rans rarely get much attention. So it would be surprising, in a legitimate exercise of this kind, if attention was focused on the bottom places.

For those who are too impatient to apply these checks, you could look at what Lomborg himself has to say. He certainly doesn’t seem to be in much doubt about the outcome.

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  1. Mark Upcher
    May 25th, 2004 at 01:27 | #1

    I would like to find out what the two big difficulties are, but don’t seem to be able to access the rest of this blog.

  2. kyan gadac
    May 25th, 2004 at 06:04 | #2

    more wank than rank

  3. May 25th, 2004 at 07:41 | #3

    John, you’ve forgotten objection #3, the most important of all.

  4. John Quiggin
    May 25th, 2004 at 09:57 | #4

    Mark, did you click on the “continue reading” link ?

    GG, I agree that there’s a problem with a panel full of Northerners playing God, but as I’d already hammered the panel once, and didn’t want to get into arguments about how someone like Bhagwati should be classified, I left it alone. Thanks for raising it.

    PS: I fixed your hyperlink

  5. PK
    May 25th, 2004 at 13:02 | #5

    I’m not that convinced by your GW arguments here John (again), although I may be misunderstanding you.

    Your argument on the value of the rankings has some merit, but the exercise is surely worthwhile, even if flawed.

    If global warming does come far down the ranks (which it may not), this may be because that’s its rightful place based on the criteria being assessed. Nothing wrong with that, unless you’ve made a pre-determined conclusion, which while you’re careful to pretend otherwise, you apparently have.

    As for the reporting of the results, I’m unsure whether you mean by the panel or by the media. If the former, then your argument has merit. If the latter, it doesn’t.

    The panel can’t control media reporting of the results and it would be incredible if the GW conclusion wasn’t focussed on because of Lomborg’s involvement.

  6. Jeff Harvey
    May 25th, 2004 at 21:59 | #6

    One wonders how a know-nothing like Lomborg has gotten so far which such a distorted view of the material economy and a complete ignorance of the natural economy (why I’ve been, and will continue to be, one of his most fervent critics). Lomborg’s understanding of many of the details of the issues he is invited to write for in the plutocratic press is at the level of a high school student. Yet he says exactly what the rich and powerful want to hear – that economic growth can continue linearly without much of an effect on natural systems (which he doesn’t think are very important anyway).

    In spite of his ability to suck up to the political right, it continues to amaze me that the media gives Lomborg any attention (clearly they still have use for him). One of his uncanny ablities is to stick to a story no matter how much garbage it is. Take climate change. Lomborg’s ploy is expunge all of the literature which estimates a high cost for the damage of climate change, and to accordingly cite only the narrow literature base that predicts the costs of mitigation to be exorbitantly high (Lomborg uses this selectivity trick in just about every part of his book, because most of his supporters couldn’t give a jot about ‘balance’ or ‘accuracy’). Of course, such selective bias in citing the appropriate literature is unacceptable in science, but heck, Lomborg doesn’t seem to care about accountability. He’s on a personal roll, is wined and dined by the corporate front groups and think tanks and is fussed over by the media they control.

    Lomborg’s estimation of the costs of climate change amount to between 5 and 8 trillion dollars (during our debate in 2002 he jumped from the lower figure to the higher figure in just about 2 minutes, a very rapid inflationary rate!). But as George Monbiot said yesterday, its virtually impossible to tally up the costs of climate change on the health ad functioning of ecosystems and the services they freely provide us. This is because these services do not carry prices, and because the relationship between cause and effect in complex ‘adaptive’ natural systems is decidely non-linear anyway, meaning that the change or loss of one seemingly insignificant variable can reverberate through the system and result in disporportionate effects on other parts of the system. For his part, simpletons like Lomborg believe that estimating the costs is like tallying the expenses for a week long vacation by the seaside. This illustrates his grasp – or lack of it – of the subject.

  7. John G
    May 26th, 2004 at 17:32 | #7

    It is almost a no-brainer to say that dealing with malnutrition, poor quality water, health problems and conflict in the very poor countries is more cost-effective than dealing with climate change issues. But that does not mean one ignores climate change issues. The cost-effectiveness/ cost-benefit ratios for dealing with the former problems are usually very favourable. The Health stuff was covered in the WHO Commission on the macroeconomics of health chaired by Jeffrey Sachs.
    They calculated for an extra $73 billion for health for low income countries by 2015, that 8 million lives per year (out of 56 million annual deaths currently) could be saved (330 million Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs).
    This is hugely cost-effective and it is only 4% of the growth in World GDP of $2000 billion in 2001. So we can and should have years ago dealt with the gross problems in the world of hunger, very poor health, poor water etc. If the rich countries gave away 1% of their GDP (about $200 billion), then most of these problems would be fixed, and the rich countries would not notice it. They would simply get richer a little bit more slowly. It is an absolute disgrace action has not been taken.
    Where does this leave climate change interventions? Its a bit harder to do the calculations because the uncertainties on both costs and benefits are so great. There are reasonably low probabilities of drastic changes, but these drastic changes would have astronomical costs, so it is only reasonable to put a large amount of effort into reducing greenhouse emissions, especially given that the costs of complying with Kyoto are trivial relative to world GDP. Of course we should put even more effort into trying to reduce the uncertainties in our modelling of the costs and benefits, and we should be creative in looking at lots of different options for dealing with the problems. If fertilising the southern ocean with iron works and has no serious ecological side-effects and is cheap, then we should go for it. The idea of putting aluminium spheres filled with hydrogen into the atmosphere so as to reflect away more of the sun’s rays, sounds wacky, and may well have negative side-effects, but it should be investigated as it would be real cheap if it worked. As well there are all the conventional solutions, most of which seem to be reasonably cost-effective.
    In conclusion, we should do both. ie meeting basic needs for the poor should be done urgently, and we also need to work on greenhouse. In my own personal giving I am concentrating on projects that meet basic needs as they are more cost-effective, but through my taxes I am contributing to interventions that meet less basic needs. Like in the latest budget I am partly paying for the treatment of Fabry’s disease where treatment costs per person are in some cases greater than $300,000 per year.
    John G

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