Lomborg review: repost from 2005

The announcement that the Federal government will be (they say, only partly, but UWA appears to have a different view) funding a move of Bjorn Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus Center to the University of WA has attracted plenty of comment.

Rather than pile on, I thought I would repost my, decidedly mixed, review of Lomborg’s first CCC effort in 2005.

On my bookshelves, I have many works that make a substantial contribution to our understanding of important issues facing the world, and quite a few exercises in political propaganda. Much rarer are books that fall into both categories. The Copenhagen Consensus, a joint initative of The Economist and Bjorn Lomborg’s Environmental Assessment Institute, has produced just such a book.

Lomborg first came to worldwide attention with The Sceptical Environmentalist, a book that claimed to refute a ‘litany’ of environmental woes. In most cases, Lomborg argued that the severity of problems had been overstated or that progress in mitigation had been ignored.

When it came to global warming, however, neither of these claims seemed plausible, and Lomborg adopted a different tack. Rather than disputing the scientific evidence of global warming, he argued that the cost of addressing the problem through the Kyoto protocol would be better spent dealing with more urgent issues, such as the provision of clean drinking water in the Third World.

There are a variety of problems with this argument, one of the most notable being that the most cost-effective approach to mitigating global warming would be a global emissions trading scheme that would require rich countries to buy emissions rights from poor countries, providing funds that could be used for initiatives of the kind Lomborg proposes. Rather contradictorily, Lomborg went on to argue that, precisely because of the large transfers from rich to poor countries they would require, emissions trading schemes would not be politically feasible.

His criticism of the environment lobby led the right-wing Danish government of Anders Rasmussen to establish the Environmental Assessment Institute and instal Lomborg as its director. Ironically, the same government made repeated cuts in Denmark’s foreign aid program.

It was against this background that, in 2003, Lomborg announced the Copenhagen Consensus project. The idea was that a group of eminent economists would look at priorities for assisting poor countries and try to rank them in terms of costs and benefits. The planned procedure was that an advocate would present a case for each of a number of possible global projects. Two ‘opponents’ would then provide a critique. The panel of eminent economists would then distil the arguments and rank the possible projects.

There was an immediate reaction to this announcement. Three of the seven members of the board of Lomborg’s insitute resigned in protest at a project which seemed unrelated to the purposes for which the institute had been established.

At the same time critics (including this reviewer) voiced suspicions of a setup. Criticism began with the composition of the panel. With four Nobel prize winners, it was certainly an eminent body. But the members weren’t notable for a focus on the problems of Third World economic development. They included experimentalist Vernon Smith, econometrician James Heckman (who later withdrew), and economic historians Robert Fogel and Douglass North.

Fogel has done important research on population and nutrition, but the other Nobel prizewinners, and most other members of the panel, were not experts in the main fields under discussion. As Jeffrey Sachs (who headed of the Commission on Macroeconomics and Health) observed, the timeline was far too short for the panel to gain requisite expertise, lasting only a few months in total; the background papers circulated for a few weeks, and in the final discussions, the panel had 5 days to review 32 proposals.

The point can be sharpened by looking at some of the Nobel prizewinners who would have seemed like obvious choices for such a panel, including Kenneth Arrow, Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Solow and Amartya Sen, all of whom have made extensive contributions to the debate on economic growth and development.

Comparing the two lists, the omissions are, broadly speaking, towards the left of the economics profession and those who have commented on climate change have supported policy initiatives such as Kyoto. Conversely, the members of the Copenhagen panel were generally towards the right and, to the extent that they had stated views, to be opponents of Kyoto. Indeed, Lomborg’s argument that spending to mitigate climate change would be better directed to aid projects was first put forward by Thomas Schelling, one of the Copenhagen panellists.

The same lack of balance was evident in the selection of ‘opponents’. For Robert Cline’s paper on climate change, Lomborg picked vigorous opponents of Kyoto, Robert Mendelsohn and Alan Manne, and the result was an acrimonious debate. But for most of the other issues under consideration, the differences between the parties to the discussion were matters of emphasis and nuance, to the extent that the ‘opponents’ were eventually redescribed as providing ‘alternative perspectives’.

It is clear from reading the papers and the discussion reports that the panellists approached the task in a serious and fairminded way. But, inevitably, the narrowness of the selection meant that many important issues were prejudged or not discussed. Undoubtedly the likemindedness of the panel members assisted in the stated objective of achieving consensus. It is not clear, however, that a consensus confined to a narrow ideological subset of the economics profession is going to be of much help in achieving broad agreement on solutions to global problems.

The real problems, though, were not with the choice of panel members but with the assessment procedure, which was clearly designed to fit Lomborg’s original example of a choice between spending on climate change and on clean drinking water.

The approach adopted was to assume a budget of $50 billion, and then seek to allocate it to those projects which would yield the largest benefit for a given cost. As Jeffrey Sachs points out, this approach is fine for evaluating discrete, project-based interventions, such as improvements in drinking water quality. But with a small budget and an insistence on easily quantified costs and benefits, it is naturally biased against bolder initiatives such as broad-based improvements in health and education.

The problems are even more severe in relation to issues like civil conflict. Stability and peace aren’t alternatives to development programs, they are preconditions. Trying to rank such disparate issues makes no sense. In this and some other instances, the Copenhagen panel wisely chose not to make a ranking.

The selection of projects is another fundamental problem. Even if, say, improvements in basic health services rank poorly when compared to action against AIDS, they might rank well by comparison with military spending, or advertising, or cosmetic surgery. Lomborg dismisses these from consideration as being ‘not motivated by doing good outside the country concerned’.

But much the same point applies to proposals to mitigate climate change. Adverse impacts species extinction and loss of biodiversity are mostly of concern to people developed countries, and other impacts such as loss of coastal land affect rich and poor countries alike. Similarly the costs of mitigation will be spread across the economy, not funded from a specific government budget item that could be reallocated to foreign aid. Treating climate change as a foreign aid project fits Lomborg’s own framing of the issues, but it is not an accurate representation of the actual problem.

Not surprisingly, the Copenhagen panel concluded that implementing the Kyoto protocol was not a good a use of scarce funds. All of the doubts raised about the Copenhagen Consensus project have been confirmed by the use Lomborg has made of the results. He has said almost nothing about the positive merits of the options favored by the panel. When it emerged, in December 2004, that none of the money promised by the Bush Administration for the fight against AIDS had actually been spent[1], he was silent.

By contrast, Lomborg has repeatedly stressed the panel’s negative findings about climate change. A typical example is an article in The Australian, reprinted from The Telegraph. More than half the article was devoted to the importance of not allocating significant resources to fighting climate change. None of the priority issues identified by the panel got more than a few sentences.

In summary, the Copenhagen Consensus project was created as a political stunt. It was designed, in every detail, to produce a predetermined outcome. Having got the desired outcome, the organiser has shown little or no interest in pursuing any of the other issues raised by the project.

With all of these criticisms, it would be easy to conclude that the entire exercise was a waste of time. In fact, however, the project has made a valuable contribution. If we disregard the ranking exercise, and set the debate over Kyoto and climate change to one side, what remains is a set of well-informed papers, and thoughtful comments, dealing with some of the most serious problems facing the world, and assessing some possible responses.

The participants were nearly all economists, and this is reflected in fairly tight adherence to a standardised cost-benefit framework. The lack of alternative perspectives from natural scientists and public health specialists is a major weakness of the Copenhagen Consensus considered as a policy initiative. On the other hand, it gives the resulting publication a degree of consistency that would otherwise be hard to achieve in a single volume.

The chapters on specific initiatives to prevent disease fit most neatly with the constraints imposed by the ranking procedures. Anne Mills and Sam Shilcutt give an excellent overview of the problems of communicable diseases, focusing on the big killers, HIV/AIDS and childhood diseases, and on malaria, which not only kills millions each year but is a huge source of chronic morbidity.

In comparing fatalities with chronic illness, the standard economists approach is to measure impacts in terms of disability adjusted life years (DALYs), which may then be converted into dollar terms in various ways. However a monetary valuation is done, the invariable answer is that a life in a poor country is worth less than a life in a rich one. Rich country governments, and the voters who elect them, implicitly make this judgement every time they point tax cuts or domestic health services ahead of foreign aid. Nevertheless, it is jarring to see the same judgement made explicitly. Mills and Shilcutt address some of the difficulties, and they are taken up further in the discussion by David Evans.

The chapters on water and sanitation and on malnutrition and hunger follow a similar pattern. They provide an excellent overview of the limited progress that has been made towards providing people with their basic needs for adequate food and clean water (as an aside, the tone is considerably more sombre than the upbeat treatment of the same issues in The Sceptical Environmentalist). As discussant Peter Swedberg observes, the main cause of malnutrition and hunger is poverty. Only reductions in global poverty are likely to produce large-scale reductions in hunger, though some specific micronutrient deficiencies may be addressed . The same is largely true in relation to water supply, though again there is some scope for local initiatives.

The discussion of education is rather disappointing. In both developed and developing countries there has been vigorous debate about the impacts of increased inputs to education, and particularly reductions in class sizes, on educational outcomes. Experimental and macroeconomic studies have generally produced favorable results, while microeconometric analyses using test scores as a proxy for performance have shown little or no impact. But the debate is not joined here, since both the challenge paper author, Lant Pritchett, and the discussants, are supporters of the microeconometric approach, which suggests that there is little that can be done in this field, beyond a nod to such free-market nostrums as charter schools and vouchers. Even these limited recommendations look fragile since more recent US research, using the test score approach, has found that charter schools don’t do much better than ordinary public schools and may even do worse. If progress is going to be made on this topic, it will probably be necessary to look beyond test scores as a measure of achievement.

The remaining chapters are on topics that don’t fit well into the project-based approach of the Copenhagen Consensus, but are essential to an understanding of the problems facing the world, particularly with respect to relationships between more and less developed countries. These issues include trade, migration, international financial flows, governance and corruption and civil conflict. They cannot be addressed simply by allocating a line item in a budget, and they raise important questions of sovereignty.

Understanding these issues, and the interactions between them, is crucial to any assessment of the way forward in resolving the global problems associated with poverty and deprivation. The contributors, notably including Kym Anderson, Barry Eichengreen and Susan Rose-Ackerman, make an importatn contribution to our understanding of these issues.

In summary, this is a book that belongs on the shelf of anyone concerned with the crises facing the world. But, because of the dubious process by which it was generated and the dishonest uses to which that process has been put, it ought to be sold with a warning label, something like “It Ain’t Necessarily So”.

fn1. There is an error here. As reported here it is funds promised for the Millennium Declaration Account that have not been spent. Money for AIDS was promised separately and some money has been spent, though there is a lot of smoke and mirrors

25 thoughts on “Lomborg review: repost from 2005

  1. I kind of hope this WA fiasco goes ahead. It could tell us who are the new generation of know little denialists. The trouble for the government is its probably too late for Lomberg and cronies to get anything up which could be used in Paris and the next year hopefully Abbot and such nonsense will be gone and Lomberg can look elsewhere (where do the Koch’s live?).

  2. The University has to come up with another $13m according to the latest news reports – that alone is going to cause some angst. UWA is not going to be a happy place for the next little while.

  3. If Doug is correct and UWA is expected to find $13m, then they really have been sucker-punched. Even when they thought they were winning, they were losing. Perhaps they could do a little internal economic project to see how they could have spent the $13m better.

    More to the point though, if Dr Lomborg were serious about risk assessment and allocation of resources accordingly, then he would update and shift his views in accordance with the accumulation of scientific discovery concerning humanity’s impact upon the climate. Do we see evidence of even a slight shift?

  4. Was it Lateline or 730 that covered this yesterday? Anyway, the interview with the UniWA Vice Chancellor Johnston didn’t come across as particularly convincing, either.

    Maybe it was unfortunate that the story followed the 4 Corners effort re faux marking of paying student assignments the other day.

  5. There was a meeting of the VC with students at UWA, and tomorrow at 1pm there is a meeting with staff. Apparently the venue is unlikely to be big enough for all the staff who want to be there. We’ll see what happens.

    You can be sure that one question that will be asked is how much (if anything) UWA will be paying Lomborg.

  6. Lomberg loves to focus on a need to carefully allocate resources based on the benefits and costs. Fair enough.

    But if you were the PM of a cash strapped Government and needed to find a solution of climate change by engaging some of the best minds on the planet to tackle the problem, would Lomberg make the cut?

    Clearly this is another “Captains’s pick”, where the consequences are borne by someone else (in this case the reputation and (probably) the finances of UWA).

  7. @Jim

    When your car is speeding towards a brick wall do you do a full cost-benefit analysis or simply slam on the brakes? There is a very simple heuristic assessment involved; “Brake or die”. The same applies to limits to growth, climate change and “everything change” as Maragaret Atwood calls it.

  8. @Ikonoclast

    There is always ‘the third way’, kick the can down the road in the hope it will disappear or next year there will be something else to distract the masses from the Great Game.

    Abbott’s approach to climate change, the environment and much else really is a bit like the great parody of the Great Game in President Murkin Mufley’s reaction to Armageddon being unleashed – listening to/being distracted by Dr Strangelove’s option of going down into the mines for 100 years, forgetting how the latter’s logic got things so wrong in the first place.

    Reflecting this analogy Lomberg seems to be modelling himself of Peter Seller’s character in his alliances with the dark side, taking funds from the Koch Bros having having about a 99% correlation with this track.

    I had wondered before reading John’s piece if Lomberg was merely a naive free market idealist stuck in the universe of Panglossian equilibrium. But it appears from the above elaboration that Lomberg is either insane after the fashion of Strangelove, or the nastiest deepest cynic/opportunist/psychopath imaginable, someone who gets his rocks off by doing his best to screw children unborn – because there is money to be made from vested interest and little competition arising from the fact most people who know what is at stake have ethical principles. He is just loathsome.

    Where he seems even worse than so many amateur denialist clowns is that his approach allows his to feign academic credibilty by promoting a ‘balanced approach’ which journalists in the ABC (Tony Jones?) and I believe the BBC, who reportedly have their contingent of denialists, lap up.

    In economics/finance we similarly see this short termist ‘third way’ approach with Greece …. the Troika demanding they pay back their debts while ensuring they havent the means to do so allowing short term crisis avoidance while making the effects of the crunch when it happens greater still. Whatever Greece’s sins this is just dumb.

    From the outside the support for such behaviour by many groups like the coal mining unions and former progressivesly like Martin Ferguson is puzzling. I can only think our species is inherently vulnerable to defending ideology memes, once adopted, so strongly that not even brickwall reality can shake their belief’s. And for some reason the economics profession seems particularly badly infected to judge by some recent discussions with some in the profession who believe paradigms such as exponential economic growth are still viable with tweaks like ‘Green Growth’ and ‘Adaption’ in the face of the existential challenge that climate change poses to the validity of their world view.

  9. @Newtownian

    I think that’s unfair to Tony Jones. I remember him demolishing a denialist “documentary” back in the day. On the other hand, you’re too charitable to Martin Ferguson: as Jack’s son he must have been a progressive by default at some point, but never within my (long) memory.

  10. @John Quiggin

    I took Newtonian’s criticism to be not of Jones personally (I think you are probably referring to the screening of ‘The Great Climate Change Swindle’ on the ABC presented by Jones and followed by a panel ‘discussion’ – screened July 12th 2007).

    I took it to be criticism of Jones’ and the ABC’s central role in presenting a false ‘balance’ as if it was as simple as having a preference for one thing or another.

    To many people it obviously looked like Jones demolished the film, but many others (and I would argue that this is the whole point of pretending the need for “balance”) obviously took a different view.

    The panel discussion Jones hosted included: Bob Carter, Michael Duffy, Ray Evans (Lavoisier) and Nikki Williams (Minerals Council).

    After the show the ABC took an online poll: “Do you think human activity is a significant contributor to global warming?” with the following results:

    Yes 52.23%
    No 45.14%

    If that was the criticism of Jones and the ABC, I agree with it and think it is warranted.

  11. I like your review of the copenhagen consensus book John. You recognise Lomborg’s twisting of the facts with regard to options to controlling climate change but recognise also that there is much of value in the copenhagen consensus process. That is a more rational approach than many other comments about Lomborg which remind me of the stoning of the heretics. The Abbott government should rightly be criticised for a poor allocation of scarce research resources, but the criticism of Lomborg’s work is frequently so jaundiced that one feels the criticisers are motivated by ideology rather than a search for truth. Rather paradoxical really, given that Lomborg’s fault is his ideological bias on climate change.

  12. If the character is so transparently a crank, why is the University allowing itself to be pushed into accepting him?

    Surely, for the sake of self respect, some things just can’t be countenanced?

    If you beleive in education, can you be worse off if you oppose some thing anti educational?

  13. The climate change issue has certainly shown us, once again, that as well as market failure there is also political failure and moral failure. Our culture and our political economy have failed on all three of these levels to deal with the issue of climate change. This is what one might term systemic failure on a grand scale. This should lead us to question our entire system and arrive at the inesacapable conclusion that the system itself must be transformed before it can effectively deal with challenges like climate change and limits to growth. This system cannot deal with these problems. It has a proven track record of complete and abject failure in these matters.

  14. @John Quiggin


    John I take your questioning of my opinion of Tony Jones, on the chin quite happily. You are correct in noting I single him out which I agree I did deliberately, in part to see what crowd wisdom might emerge. But was I being unfair? I’m not convinced.

    The basic question for me is whether or not he is biased toward denialism and his ‘balance’ is a bit of a smoke screen primarily for infotainment more than a sincere look at contentious issues. Put more crudely and in context of the article, where on the spectrum between Lomberg, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and an old fashioned without fear or favour public servant does he lie? I feel its more toward the former at least on matters related to science that I have first hand knowledge of.

    In forming this opinion I’ve also reflected on the following.
    – The older versions of Lateline with Kerry O’Brien were notable for polite but incisive delving as only a good interrogator can do. Asking the hard questions in a civilized way that showed the substance or otherwise of the interviewee. Since Tony Jones has controlled the program the interview approach seems to be to let the interviewee run their speel without serious questioning at best.
    – Immediately prior to Q&A you have Mediawatch which by contrast repeatedly critiques the manipulation of truth by the media generally in this old tradition, particularly its mangling of language and context. Some might view Mediawatch as too gladiatorial but in it defence I would note it is impressive first of all how far they go with reality checks and secondly the extent to which the media has degenerated that their plethora of case studies show.
    – Tony Jones is certainly not the only of info-facilitators and there are certainly plenty of good traditional polite interogators on the ABC. But his role in opinion is so pivotal I think it deserves a lot more critiquing.

  15. @Megan

    Regarding Tony Jones and false “balance” I think your suggestion is closer to my comment’s intent. But as indicated above I do also have a problem with Jones, or at least his species of journalist.

    Ideally I should have separated the man from the ball and played the latter. The trouble is the two are now so entangled due to the way the popular media has been reduced to transmiting by in large 8 second sound bit style messages, as though life was a soap opera. It even makes one sympathetic to deconstructionists.

    There was a nice discussion this morning of the problem that arises on ABC’s Life Matters using two more extreme cases in a different field. The show’s second section discussed a US infotainment medico named Dr Oz and a local, phoney as it turned out, cancer sufferer who had supposedly cured herself.

    The medico being interviewed explained how in good faith she had initially consented to interviewing the latter but then discovered to her horror that she was in effect being dragooned by the producer into in effect giving the latter credibility. Dr Oz was still more problematic. He defended his peddling of scientifically unsubstantiated medical advice by some very surreal and shifty rhetoric that would sound good to non experts. I’m not sure even sure what his position was but it sounded something like he was peddling placebos on the basis that this would help some people by empowering them more…..a fascinating weird and interesting piece of logic but which felt flawed …. of the kind you that I guess likely originated in the dark corridors of a public relations company than from medical research.

  16. @Newtownian

    I take the point about the man being indistinguishable from the ball (and therefore deserving of critique) in this context.

    I’ll never be able to forgive Jones for his pivotal role in creating “the intervention” – based as it was on lies put out by a Mal Brough staffer to whom Jones/ABC granted (unjustified in my opinion) anonymity.

    Recently the ABC was spruiking the ‘New Improved’ Lateline and used as one of the key ‘selling’ points its role in the ‘story’ that launched the intervention.

    This isn’t sloppy or negligent, it is deliberate.

  17. Jones is better than quite a fewof them, but, I too have been unable to reconcile myself with that repulsive ABC Intervention antic..

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